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May 7, 2012

Sake from Gunma Prefecture (Sake by region)

Gunma is the north-western-most, landlocked prefecture of the Kanto region. Except for the south-east area and some central parts, it mostly consists of mountains. Famous mountains are Mr Akagi, Mt Haruno and Mt Myogi, as well as Mr Asama at the border with Nagano. The Tone is the major river. The prefecture is rich in onsen, such as Kusatsu、 and an important nature area is the Oze marsh at the border with Fukushima.

Major cities are Takasaki (where the Shinkansen stops), and the capital Maebashi. Kiryu is an old silk center. The city of Ota is famous for its car industry (Subaru). Agricultural products include cabbages and konnyaku. Winters are cold in Gunma with relatively little precipitation. In winter, a dry, cold wind blows from the Japan Sea coast ("karakaze") - snow falls on the other side of the mountain range between Gunma and Niigata, so Gunma stays dry. In contrast, summers are among the hottest in the whole country.

There are 23 sake breweries in Gunma (2015), all small or middle-sized. They can be found in the populated areas of the prefecture. The prefecture has developed its own sake rice "Wakamizu" as well as a yeast suitable for ginjo sake called "Gunma KAZE yeast."

Sake from Gunma used to be rather sweet to fit the fermented foods of an inland  prefecture (as in neighboring Tochigi) but this has changed now and especially quality sakes are now medium dry. Brewmasters are mostly Echigo toji from neighboring Niigata. Originally sake breweries were set up in Gunma by toji who started out on their own, and also by the enterprising merchants from Omi (Shiga Prefecture). All production in the past was for the local market.

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
  • Gunma Izumi (Shimaoka Shuzo, Ota) "Springwell of Gunma." Situated in historical area between the Watarase and Tone rivers. Uses hard water with many minerals, and employs the Yamahai method for the yeast starter. Makes characteristic sake with body and usually ages it between 10 months and 3 years. First to use local Wakamizu sake rice. Second brand name is "Usumidori." No brewery tours.
  • Mizubasho (Nagai Sake Inc., Kawaba) The name of a plant growing in the Oze marsh. Set up in 1886 when the founder, Nagai Shoji, discovered a well with clean, mineral and faintly sweet water (springing from the Oze valley). Specializes in fruity ginjo sake, using Association yeast No. 14. Rice is Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku. Set up a modern factory in 1994, but continues to employ craft methods. English website. Brewery tours restricted to fixed days and times, advance appointment necessary.
  • Ozu no Yukidoke (Ryujin Shuzo Co., Ltd., Tatebayashi) "Snow melting in Oze." Small brewery that specializes in junmai ginjo. Average rice polishing ratio of all its sake together is below 49%. All handcrafted. The only brewery in Tatebayashi City. 
When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation.
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
Reference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).
The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.