If You Know This, You Too Will Be a Connoisseur: The History of Sake and Regional Characteristics
Japanese sake, made from water and rice, has different characteristics depending on the region. Here is a simple history of sake and the details that distinguish them by area.
Sake (called "Nihonshu" in Japan) is a Japanese fermented liquor made from water and rice. Sake is made using an advanced and complex process, in which the sugar content in the rice is changed using the enzymes in a type of microorganism called koujikin. Yeast is then added and the mix is fermented. The quality of sake changes depending on the water, type of rice, and the degree the rice is polished from brown rice to white. The interesting part about sake is that because of that, the flavor changes based on the area it's made in and the brewery itself. Sake made with just water and rice is called "junmai," and there is no extra added alcohol. Sake is split into categories like "ginjoushu," sake made with 60% polished rice and water and "daiginjou," sake made with 50% or less polished rice and water, and this means the flavor and aroma changes. For people who are trying sake for the first time, it's recommended that you try junmaishu, junmai ginjoushu, or junmai daiginjou, as it has no extra alcohol and you can enjoy sake as-is. There are other varieties too, such as kizake, which is non-pasteurized, and nigori sake, which is roughly filtered so sake lees remain. There are various ways to enjoy it as well: chilled sake is called "reishu," slightly warm sake is called "nurukan," and hot sake is "atsukan."
Japan has had liquor passed down through tradition since ancient times. Around 250 AD, Japanese sake began being made thanks to techniques adopted from China. It's known that around 900, various sake from around the country began being made using the process that continues to be used without much change today. In the Edo period (1603-1868), thanks to the development of commerce and transportation, sake spreading as a product to the masses. In Japan, since ancient times sake isn't just enjoyed on a regular basis or for special occasions, there's also a custom of enjoying sake at the turn of the seasons. For example, there's "hanamizake," which is enjoyed while looking at the cherry blossoms in spring, "tsukimizake," which is drunk under the full harvest moon in autumn, and "yukimizake," which is imbibed while watching the snow fall. It's fun to have sake while you're experiencing the changing seasons.
Since sake is made from water and rice, the differences in the water and rice used based on region becomes distinguishing characteristics in the drink's flavor. Also, each region's traditional techniques passed down by brewery craftsmen called "touji" change the flavor. Here are some of the characteristics of sake based on region. When you visit, please use this as a reference. Let's use the map below to learn about the differences!
Since Hokkaido has cool summers and very cold winters, it's a great place to make sake. The sake from here is known for being slightly "tanrei," a word meaning refreshing and smooth, as well as dry.
*Photo is from a famous Hokkaido brewery named Otokoyama.
This area is a lush grain-producing region, and blessed with pure underground springs made from cold, clear snowmelt. In Akita, Miyagi, Yamagata, and Fukushima, sake is commonly tanrei and dry. Aomori is refreshingly tanrei and sweet, and you can enjoy the sake made by the famous Nanbu Touji, a group of chief sake brewers in Iwate. Their sake is known to be sweet and "noujun," rich and with depth.
*The photo is of Yamagata's local sake "Juuyondai" and "Kudoki Jouzu."
While there are few breweries in Kanto, they produce high-quality sake. Ibaraki, Chiba, Kanagawa, and Saitama are known for tanrei and dry sake, while Tochigi and Tokyo produce noujun and sweet sake. Gunma, an area ripe with water sources, is full of soft water, leading to sake that's tanrei and sweet.
*Photo is of Tokyo's famous local sake, Sawanoi.
Chubu is known for crisp, tanrei, dry sake. On the side of the Sea of Japan, the production rates of high-class types of sake like ginjoushu and junmaishu is high, and it's a famous production area that is well-received even by the Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyoukai, a group of critics. In Ishikawa, Nagano, and Aichi, their sake is noujun and sweet. Toyama and Niigata, areas known for being full of sake lovers, produces dry sake. You can find both tanrei and dry sake as well as noujun and dry sake there.
*Nagano's Okazaki Brewery.
Kinki is home to two of the most famous production regions. One of them is the Nada region of Hyogo, where the top high-class sake rice called Yamadanishiki is grown. It is the area where the most sake is shipped out from within Japan. The other one is Fushimi, in Kyoto. It's known for having many brands of sake that are smooth and mild.
*Photo is of the famous brewery that brews the local sake called Fukunishiki, in Hyogo.
Shimane is said to be the area that developed the sake that appears in mythology, and their sake is noujun and sweet. In general, the side by the Sea of Japan offers refreshing sake while the side by the Seto Inland Sea has a rich, deep flavor.
*Photo is of Yamaguchi's local sake, Dassai.
Kouchi is known to be full of as many sake-lovers as Niigata and Toyama, and they produce dry sake. On the side of the Seto Inland Sea, Kagawa, Tokushima, and Ehime all make gentle, sweet sake.
*Photo is of Kouchi's Suigei sake.
Kyushu and Okinawa are famous for shochu, a type of distilled liquor. Fukuoka is known for high-class, smooth ginjoushu. Also, Saga prefers noujun and sweet sake but since the prefecture is home to both soft and hard water, they're known for having both sweet and dry sake.
*Kumamoto's famous sake, Bishounen.
Even though they're all called "sake," there are truly many different varieties and flavors. There are plenty of local sake that you can only have when you visit the region. Please look for your favorite brand and way of drinking during your visit.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.