Having gained most of our knowledge about wines by touring around local wineries in South Australia, we thought that we might do something similar here in Japan, by exploring some of the many sake breweries centered around the local Kansai area. We had previously visited Nada near Kobe, famed for its 40 active breweries busily producing some 30% of Japans total sake production. However, this time we set out to explore the Gekkeikan Okura brewery in the town of Fushimi near Kyoto. This is one of the oldest sake breweries in the region, having established itself in this location way back in 1637. The brewers were originally attracted to this spot because it was a key point for transportation between Kyoto and Osaka, but even more important to them was the quality of the local ground water. As we entered the traditional wooden building, we were offered a chance to sample the natural water bubbling from a spring and it was indeed deliciously cold and clear. It may sound strange to refer to water as ‘delicious’ when it is has absolutely no taste at all, but having sampled a cup, it makes you realize that most of the water we normally drink clearly lacks this level of purity. With pristine water and quality rice providing the foundation for a great sake, it’s no wonder that the brewers were so attracted to this area.
As with most of the sake breweries that are open to the public, we were provided with an insight into the long and prestigious history of sake production in Japan, which largely consists of viewing old fermenting barrels, ceramic bottles and a range of implements that were traditionally used throughout the process. While from overhead speakers, age-old sake brewing songs could be heard, capturing the atmosphere of a bygone era. Here we also learnt a little about the gentle art of drinking sake ... sometimes chilled, at room temperature or occasionally heated. The vessel in which sake is served can also vary from small ceramic cups (shoko), saucer-like plates (sakazuki) and even small wooden boxes (masu) traditionally used for measuring rice. As with most Japanese rituals, the partaking of a simple alcoholic beverage is by no means a straight forward act and has been long steeped with formalities that need to be observed.
Inevitably the tour directs you to the place where most of the visitors want to end up … the tasting room! Here, kindly old gentlemen take you through the range of the more popular products produced today, even if it is on a much more commercial scale than in the past. There are of course the more traditional styles with their vodka-like qualities and an alcoholic rating to match … quite strong and very dry! Then there are the milder varieties that are more like dry vermouth and then there are slightly fruiter versions that make the potent drink even more palatable. With an alcoholic range of between 15-17%, they all carry quite a kick, but the old gentlemen were particularly keen for us to sample them all. Sensing that Jules was finding the stronger variety a little too dry, we were introduced to a ‘surprise’ additional ingredient … plum wine! Quite sweet by itself, but as an added ingredient to the sake it certainly hits the mark. It seemed that these days it’s quite acceptable for sake to be served with various mixers or even as a cocktail ingredient … times have indeed changed.