Exploring Sake Culture in Japan’s Rice Capital – Post 2/3
During a long stay in Niigata Prefecture over New Year’s 2018 – 19, I decided to make the most of my time by visiting one or two sake breweries. Sake is Japanese rice wine, and one of Niigata’s local specialties. The cold climate and pure water of this prefecture make great rice, which in turn makes delicious and varied sake.
Sake is a relatively new interest for me, as I generally don’t drink much. However, I was interested in the culture and history surrounding sake production, as it is a big part of what makes Niigata Prefecture distinct from its neighbors. For my second outing (read about my first, here), I decided to visit Imayo Sake Brewery, as it offered a free tour and was only a 15 minute walk from Niigata Station.
The squat, white brewery itself had a classic appearance, with a now disused chimney rising high above its neatly tiled roof. A sugidama or ‘cedar ball’ hung above the entrance, as is common practice at sake shops. I had a little time until the tour was to begin, so I stepped into the warm and inviting Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery shop to take a look at the items on offer.
One thing I was surprised at is that sake is a very stylish industry! The bottles on offer were all well designed, with different shapes, styles and colours giving a hint at the flavour of the sake they contained. One of them, the Imayo Tsukasa Koi, had actually won multiple design awards for its colouring and artfully shaped box, reminiscent of a koi carp. I have the impression that sake is growing in popularity among younger generations, and I wonder if this sophisticated packaging has perhaps played a role in the perception of sake as ‘fashionable’.
Some items, like colourful boxes of sweets, picked up on Niigata’s appeal as a sightseeing location. The sweets in one packet were shaped like famous landmarks, including Bandai-bashi Bridge. Other well-known Niigata motifs, like the Toki bird or crested ibis, were included on packaging designs.
The history of Niigata was also remembered through some of Imayo Tsukasa’s products. For example, two bottles were wrapped in Kameda-jima woven textiles. This thick fabric originally developed as farmers’ clothing when the Kameda area was a marshland cultivated for rice.
I was lucky to be able to join the last tour of 2018. I and about fifteen other people stepped through an ornate doorway connected to the shop and into the chilly brewery. The tour took around twenty minutes, and we were able to see the large containers where the sake is normally kept. We could also take a look at some of the old tools used for making sake, and get a sense of Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery through the ages since its establishment in 1767. The guide was very friendly and funny, doing his best to make everyone enjoy their time ‘behind the scenes’.
After the tour concluded, I was very happy to get back into the warmth of the shop. There, we were able to try several varieties of sake. Two are included for free, but with a payment of ￥500, we were able to sample fifteen varieties of sake. This was good value, and far more than I honestly needed. I took this option, because I thought it would be a nice opportunity to try and distinguish between the different varieties.
I particularly enjoyed the sweeter types of sake, and also some non-alcoholic amazake or ‘sweet sake’, which was thick and akin to yoghurt. Amazake and the lees of sake production, known as sake kasu, are considered to be nutritious, and have become a bit of a health trend. Sake kasu cakes can be found in some cafes, while sake kasu skin creams are available for the health-concious. As I’m perhaps more interested in non-alcoholic ways to engage in Japan’s sake culture, I think I will look out for these from now on.
Part of the fun was also picking up and handling the bottles – their designs are different one to the other, and each has its own distinctive characteristics.
I left the shop as Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery was closing for the New Year’s holiday. Outside, it had grown dark and snow was falling. Perhaps because of the enchanting lights from the neighboring Nuttari Hakusan-jinja Shrine, or perhaps because I was in fact a little tipsy, I was feeling very happy and humbled that I am able to experience such simple joys in the world as visiting new places, and experiencing new things.
Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery
1-1 Kagamigaoka Chuo-ku,