Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

November 13, 2015

Sake from Nagano Prefecture (Sake by Region)

Nagano Prefecture is landlocked and mountainous - nine of the twelve highest mountains of Japan can be found here. On the south side of the prefecture lie the Southern Alps, and on the north side the Northern Alps. One-fifth of Nagano consists of national parks. The prefecture is a popular destination for mountain climbers and skiers.

The capital Nagano is known for its famous pilgrimage temple, Zenkoji. In Suwa stands one of the oldest shrines of Japan, Suwa Taisha, with its boisterous Onbashira festival, and Matsumoto boasts one of the few original castles of the country.

The prefecture has many electric and optical industries. Agricultural products consist of fruits and vegetables and - beside sake - also miso and wine.

There are 81 sake breweries in Nagano Prefecture (2015), quite a high number. They vary in size from large to small and are mainly distributed in the Saku, Nagano, Suwa and Matsumoto areas. Due to the natural environment, the local market is rather fragmented.

Although small in number (about 50 persons in total), Nagano has its own brewers guilds: the Suwa, Otari and Iiyama toji.

The prefecture has developed its own sake rice called Miyama Nishiki. On the market since 1978, this has become the third popular sake rice in Japan, after Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku. It is suitable for mountainous areas.

The prefecture has also developed its own yeast for fragrant ginjo sake, called "Alps Yeast."

Usually, sake from Nagano has a full taste, with a plump sweetness to match the relatively salty local food. But recent ginjo sake from the prefecture has a lighter and dryer taste. All the same, sake from Nagano forms a great contrast to that from the neighboring prefecture, Niigata.

Some major breweries:
  • Chikumanishiki (Chikumanishiki Co., Ltd., Saku). "Brocade of Chikuma (name of the largest river in Nagano Prefecture)." Est. 1681. Uses four wells fed by subsoil water of the Chikuma River, soft with no iron content. Their Kizan sake (all junmai, since 1997) is full-bodied with a high acidity, even for the ginjo types. Uses Miyama Nishiki sake rice. Also makes a low alcohol (7%-8%) sake called Riz Vin 7. Brewery tours upon advance reservation. 15 min walk from Asama-guchi exit of Sakudaira St. on the Hokuriku Shinkansen. 
  • Hokko (Kadoguchi Sake Brewery, Iiyama). "Northern Light." Est. 1869, in the cold northern part of the prefecture where the Iiyama Toji hail from. Makes a dry Junmai sake and a sturdy genshu, to give two examples. English website.
  • Kikuhide (Kitsukura Shuzo, Saku). Est. 1675. Uses Alps yeast to produce highly fruity sake, which also has a rich flavor. Uses the local rice for its Junmai products and strives to bring out the umami of the rice. Also makes shochu under the brand name Mine, with Nagano grown buckwheat. Brewery tours possible upon advance reservation. Operates antenna shop for tasting etc. next to the brewery.
  • Kikusui (Kikusui Shuzo Co., Ltd., Iida). "Joy-Long-Water." One of the largest producers in Nagano, set up in 1946 through the mergers of 37 (!) smaller breweries. Uses famous water called "Sarugura no Izumi, "Spring of the Monkey Warehouse." Uses Alps Yeast to make smart ginjo sake. Large line-up, including a seven-year old Daiginjo Koshu. Also makes shochu and cider.  Operates showroom Suishokan (closed June-Sept.) where tasting is possible.
  • Masuichi (Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery, Obuse). "Square One." Set up in 1755 by the Ichimura family, owners of the confectionery shop Obusedo. Iiyama toji. Brewery features a "teppa" counter where sake is sold by the measure (now for tasting). Also store and restaurant. Obuse is a magical town with several interesting museums. The company has revived the Edo-period custom of "Oke-brewing" in wooden vats, which leads to sake with a deeper and more complex taste. English website.
  • Masumi (Miyasaka Brewing Co., Ltd., Suwa). "Truth." Est. 1662. The company that developed the popular Association Yeast No. 7 ("Nanago") in 1946, at that time led by master brewer Kubota Chisato. One of the largest breweries in Nagano. Brews graceful sake and uses special sake rice even for regular sake. Its Daiginjo is called Sanka, "Mountain Flower." Active in exports. Extensive English and French website. Has opened a shop, Cella Masumi, next door to the brewery. Operates two breweries, the traditional one in Suwa, and a new facility at the foot of Mt Yatsugatake (Fushimi kura). 
  • Nanawarai (Nanawarai Shuzo, Kiso-Fukushima). "Seven Laughs." Est. 1892. Makes deep tasting sake, fit for its mountain location in the Kiso-Komagatake Highland, with much umami. Also well-known for its ginjo sakes (made with Alps Yeast), which are neither dry nor sweet and which have a pleasing acidity. Became well-known during the early Jizake boom.
  • Reijin (Reijin Shuzo, Suwa). "Beauty." Est. 1789. Offers a wide and unique range of koshu. Rather dry taste for Nagano sake. Daiginjo is called Nozomi, "Hope," made with Alps Yeast. Started selling daiginjo at early date of 1976. Pioneer also in junmai, which it started brewing in 1957. Individualistic brewery.
  • Shinanonishiki (Miyajima Brewery Co., Ina). "Brocade of Shinano (old name for Nagano Pref.)." Est 1911. Specializes in junmai sake and other premium products, pays special attention to the rice, much of which is organic (65%). All Miyama Nishiki variety. Soft subterranean water leads to mellow sake. 
  • Shuho Kikuzakari (Shinshu Meijo, Ueda). "Eminent Peak." Set up in late Edo period, after WWII joined with three more breweries to form new company. Makes excellent ginjo sake. Has interesting junmai made with extremely soft water called Kokuyo, "Obsidian." Employs toji from the small Otari guild.
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.