In March of this year, I had the opportunity to go to Kobe and tour around the Nada district which is famous for its sake breweries. Doing this tour with my brother and friend really made me love sake even more than before, and I really couldn’t imagine that I would ever love it more. I did a little research into the different sake areas of Japan and discovered that the Fujimi area of Kyoto and the Saijo area of Hiroshima were famous for being sake towns. Saijo has a special place in my heart as it is where my favourite sake is located. In 2007, still being a bit green having lived in Japan for about 2 years at that point, I ventured to Hiroshima for the second time in my life to see Miyajima. As I was preparing to return to Tokyo on the Shinkansen, I wanted to buy a little sake to enjoy on the return trip. I was looking at the different types of sake available and really couldn’t decide. As I was trying to decide, an old man came up behind me and said, “This one is good” and I decided to take his advice. I bought it and tried it on the train and loved it. I don’t know how I remembered the name but somehow I managed to remember it enough. I would try it again in Tokyo but they only had one type that was more of a novelty and it wasn’t really my favourite version from that brand. My second encounter to try this sake was on my third trip to Hiroshima where I stopped in a small shop in Miyajima and chatted up a friendly old lady into giving me a little advice about the sake and ended up buying two bottles to try. Needless to say, I enjoyed the sake and the hospitality of the old lady. The Nada trip then inspired me, along with the lack of friends to travel with, to go to Saijo and visit this fabled sake brewery that I loved so much, yet hadn’t visited in my life.
There are several differences between Nada and Saijo that must be highlighted. The first is the amount of information available. When I researched the different areas, I found that Nada had less information in English but I had a better understanding of where the different breweries were and there was a lot more information about when the breweries were open. Saijo is an important sake town in Japan but they don’t seem to care too much about tourism relative to Nada when I visited. The other difference between Nada and Saijo is the size. Nada is a huge area with many large scale factories for pumping out millions of litres of sake. The factories were just that, modern factories with nice shops attached to them. Saijo was the complete opposite. It was like stepping back in time to how they used to brew sake. When you step out of Saijo Station on the Sanyo Main Line, you really get the small town feel of the area with almost nothing special around the station. It could also be the fact that they were rebuilding a significant portion of the station itself. The area south-east of the station is where most of the breweries are located and it is a nice compact area making it a very easy tour to do compared to the Nada tour. The Nada tour was great but it was a tough tour as you had to walk long distances between breweries. The Saijo tour was much easier as most of the breweries were located in a small area, but this was also the worst part of the tour as many of the streets connecting the breweries were like a maze and if you didn’t know exactly where you were going it would be easy to go the wrong way or even skip an important street. The main website for Saijo has a good map but the problem is that it isn’t detailed enough and a lot of the streets that they put onto the map are just so small that you don’t even realize that it is a street at all! That was also the fun part as I did get to see a lot of the actual town near the station and had fun doing it.
My tour of Saijo was fairly simple. I followed the map provided by the Saijo Sake: Taste Japan website. It has the best route but be aware that some of the breweries don’t open at the same times. I started with my favourite sake, Kamotsuru. This is the fabled sake that the old man had told me to try. Kamotsuru is the largest brewery in Saijo from what I can tell. None of the breweries would list how big they are, at least in English, but from the number of buildings they have and from looking at it on maps, it is the largest. The entrance to the public area was marked by a small sandwich board that looked inviting enough. I went into the shop hesitantly and enjoyed the vast number of chimney stacks that Kamotsuru has. Throughout the south-east area from the station you will find dozens of red brick chimney stacks. These are the tell-tale signs that you are at a brewery. These chimneys also have the names of the associated brewery which meant that if you can read the kanji, or in some cases the katakana you can easily find a brewery. Kamotsuru has several chimneys with its name on it and the public brewery area had a few as well. Walking around the brewery grounds was not that special but it was nice to see all of the white walled buildings that looked really old. The shop itself was fairly boring to be very frank. They had some rice and polished rice on display as well as a video, in Japanese only, that talked about the process of making sake. They also had a table full of sake ready for tasting. It was great as no one was there to watch you taste all the delicious sake and I had to be a good boy and not try too much all at once. I left a little disappointed because the only person there that could help was not very helpful. He was inviting at first telling visitors to enter but not really helpful with the tasting table or even selling the sake. I guess if I went during the sake matsuri that happens in October, it would be a lot better. I doubt I’ll ever go to it but who knows, never say never.
I then proceeded to Fukubijin. The only sake in Hiroshima that I tried before was from Kamotsuru, so Fukubijin was the first new Saijo sake for me. I like the name as “bijin” means beauty, and “fuku” doesn’t have much of a name on its own but it can mean lucky. Perhaps someone can help with the translation. The shop itself was not very inviting as the entrance was also used for trucks to enter and exit. Things were very functional. I decided to enter the shop even though no one was inside and looked around. There were several bottles for tasting and I helped myself when someone finally entered. I asked if I could taste some the sake but she was a little hesitant to help at first but once we started talking she was really nice. I tried a few and narrowed it down to just the Junmai but even that proved a bit of a challenge as there were two types of the Junmai. There were two types of polish, 60% and 70% and it was not easy to tell the difference as it was subtle but there was a noticeable difference to me. I may not have bought the most “refined” sake but like any wine, it isn’t always about price but about what you like. I liked the less refined one more at the time and I don’t regret making the purchase. One of the most interesting things about the shop was the fact that they had boards inside that had kanji written on it. I couldn’t figure out what was written on it but it was written by many of the past Prime Ministers of Japan. Several of them lasted about a year recently with every Prime Minister from Junichiro Koizumi to Yoshihiko Noda. It was interesting to see but nothing too special as many of the Prime Ministers have changed over the years and the fact that you were a Prime Minister of Japan doesn’t mean that much if they forget who you are in 5 years or less or the fact that you have an average term of 1 year.
After visiting Fukubijin, I started to get lost in the small area near the sake breweries. I wandered around and stumbled upon the former Hiroshima Prefectural Saijo Sake Brewery. It was an old historical building that is literally hard to find. I probably wouldn’t have found it if I wasn’t wandering, lost, around the area. I continued to be lost in that area until I returned to the main strip and went to Kirei. The shop itself is similar to Fukubijin but more inviting. Inside the main shop there were two people and a few items for sale. They had a very cute picture on the front of the shirt that had one turtle drinking sake on a shirt and I wanted to buy the shirt but on the back it had the name of the brewery. Like most breweries in Japan, shirts often have the name of the brewery with large characters on the back of the shirt. Not my style but the turtle was really cute. The people in the shop were really friendly, probably because I already had a bottle of sake with me. There was a nice old man who helped me decide which sake to buy and gave me a lot of information about the sake and the tastes of the sake that Kirei had to offer. It was fun but the only down side was that he gave me a nice map of the area but the map was in German!
Moving on, I found my next target, Saijotsuru. It is a smaller shop with just one person inside. In fact, no one was actually in the shop itself but as I entered and approached the tasting bottles, a lady came out of an adjacent room to help me. I felt a little pressure as there was a couple behind me waiting for me to finish up so that they could also taste the sake. Since I was a paying customer, I didn’t feel too bad but at the same time there was some pressure. It was a nice place to visit and I really hope to go back and sample more in the future if the opportunity arises. From there, all of the other sake breweries were unfortunately closed. The front door to Hakubotan was closed so I ventured to the south west side of the station where there were two more breweries to check out. Unfortunately both of those were closed, however I did enter Kamoki, a quaint little brewery with a nice courtyard. I peeked into the shop as the door was cracked open but no one was inside and the lights were off. I decided to not try my luck and headed back to the station. I was a little sad that half of the breweries were closed when I visited but I was also expecting it because I was visiting during the obon holidays.
Personally, Saijo is a holy place for sake. It is where my favourite sake is from and it is a beautiful place steeped in history. It was one of the first places, if not the first place to create all rice sake without an added alcohol after WWII and the breweries have been around since around 1650. The water in the area is pristine and the rice is mostly grown locally. Several of the breweries have won awards over the years for the quality of their sake. It is a wonderful place to visit and for anyone who loves sake or old heritage style buildings, Saijo is a great place to visit. It isn’t difficult to access and the train ride is very beautiful. I had the wonderful opportunity to take the Sanyo Main Line from Mihara all the way to Saijo and then on to Hiroshima. The views as the train made its way through the valley along the river was the best I had seen in a long time. Travelling alone gave me the opportunity to be left to my own thoughts and just enjoy the view. Perhaps someday in the future I will be able to head back to Saijo but it may not be for at least another two years or so.
- Saijo Sake: Taste Japan
- How to enjoy sake
- Kamotsuru (Japanese Only)
- Fukubijin (Japanese Only)
- Higashi Hiroshima Website (Japanese Only)