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

June 4, 2017

Sake from Hyogo Prefecture (Sake by Region)

The largest sake producing area in the whole of Japan can be found in Hyogo Prefecture, at the seaside of Nishinomiya and in the eastern part of Kobe. This area is called "Nada" and as there are five sake producing districts, one speaks about the "Five Nada Districts" (Nada Gogo). From east to west these are: Imazu, Nishinomiya, Uozaki, Mikage and Nishi.

[Miyamizu wells in Nishinomiya]

There are about 26 breweries in Nada. The first brewer, Zakoya Bunzaemon, moved from Itami to Nishinomiya in the Kanei-period (1624-43). Gradually more followed and the Nada Five Districts came to prominence about 200 years ago in the Edo-period (1600-1867), thanks to the following factors:
  • Technical: the use of water mills to polish the rice used for making sake (other breweries in Japan at that time still milled by human effort, by men stepping on levers) - this in turn was possible thanks to the water power offered by small rivers as the Shukugawa, Ashiyagawa and Sumiyoshigawa, flowing down from the steep Rokko mountains to the sea. Moreover, while milling by human power could only remove up to 8% of the husk and bran, the water mills could take off 20%, reaching a rice-polishing ratio of 80%, which resulted in a better and clearer taste.
  • Nature: the cold wind blowing down from Mt Rokko in winter called "Rokko-Oroshi" created excellent brewing conditions (cold weather helps slow the fermentation process and keeps unwanted micro-organisms away). The breweries therefore built elongated structures stretching east to west with windows in the north wall to allow as much of this freezing air as possible into the brewery.
  • Logistics: from the coast with its many ports, the sake could easily be shipped to Edo (now Tokyo); the sake was shipped on Taru Kaisen, boat services exclusively for sake casks. Vessels could carry 3,000 casks and took 20 days to reach Edo. The main port for Nada was Imazu, where the Ozeki Brewery built a lighthouse.
  • Water: in 1840 "miyamizu" was discovered by Yamamura Tazaemon, the water from certain wells in Nishinomiya that thanks to its high mineral composition (and lack of iron!) proved eminently suitable for sake brewing (it contains phosporic acid, but also potassium and magnesium - three elements that help the yeast and make the brewing process quicker). The story about Tazaemon goes as follows: he was active in breweries in both Nishinomiya and Uozaki and one day noticed that the taste of the sake made in these two locations was markedly different - the one from Nishinomiya being much more tasty. Tazaemon closely monitored the brewing process and ingredients on both locations and came to the conclusion that the difference had to be ascribed to the water. In other words: the Nishinomiya water was particularly suitable for sake brewing. Later the name "Nishinomiya water" was shortened to "Miya water," - our miyamizu (Nishinomiya is named after its Shinto shrine, the "Western Shrine" dedicated to the deity Ebisu; miya means shine or palace and is therefore auspicious in meaning). The water is transported by tank lorries to the various breweries - the largest ones have their own wells. 
  • Rice: the availability of excellent sake rice in the area north of the Rokko mountains and the early introduction of the system of contracting farmers and fields, ensuring a stable production. In 1936, the famous Yamada Nishiki strain of sake rice with its large-sized grains full of starch was cultivated by crossing various other strains. 
  • Skills:The toji or brewmasters from Tanba (from the area around Tsuchiyama) are nationally famous for their brewing skills; they are known for their dry and strong sake. In the north of the prefecture one also finds the Tajima brewmasters.
Although eight of the fourteen largest brewers in Japan are located in Nada (these are the companies whose mainstay is regular sake, sold in paper packs or glass cups), you will also find plenty of small brewers specialized in high-quality products.

The sake from Hyogo usually tastes strong and dry - it has been called "masculine," otokozake, especially when consumed in spring before storage, when it has a strong bite and deep flavor. During the summer storage, it mellows and is therefore called akibare or "Clear Autumn Sky" when drunk in autumn. Anyway, it is a full and solid rather than fruity sake - quite a contrast with the sake from nearby Kyoto.

The most famous sake rice (shuzo kotekimai) of Hyogo is of course the expensive top-brand "Yamada Nishiki" developed in the prefecture by crossbreeding in the thirties of the last century (in fact, first in 1923, by crossing Yamadaho and Tankanwataribune; the present name was given the rice in 1936). It is now used nationwide for brewing premium sake. It has a large, lustrous white kernel and absorbs water extremely well. It is superbly fit for making koji rice. Although now also cultivated in other prefectures, the best Yamada Nishiki comes from Hyogo, which is good for 80% of total production. In Hyogo, the very best Yamada Nishiki ("special A grade") is cultivated in Miki and Kato, in the mountains north of Kobe. Other sake rice brands from the prefecture are "Hyogo Kita Nishiki" and "Hyogo Yume Nishiki."

Number of active breweries (Hyogo Sake Brewers Association website): about 74 (based on membership of local Sake Brewers Association; there are also a few non-members)

Taste: Dry, strong, with a certain amount of acidity.

Production: 126,747kl in 2015 (28.5% of nationwide production)

[Hama Fukutsuru Meijo]

Examples of Breweries (some of the major ones with websites; first the name of the brewery is given, then between brackets the year of founding and the name of the major brand - which is often different from the name of the brewery!):

The foremost sake region in Hyogo one consists of the "Five Nada districts:"

Nada: Uozaki district:
  • Hama Fukutsuru Meijo (1950; Hama Fukutsuru、”Crane of Good Fortune on the Beach") - Specializes in high-quality ginjo and daiginjo sake, concentrating on fresh and fruity (unpasteurized) namazake. The modern brewery is always open to visitors (through glass). Close to Uozaki Station (Hanshin and Rokko Liner).

  • Sakura Masamune (1717; Sakura Masamune, "Cherryblossom Masamune") - Concentrates on junmai and ginjo type quality sake. Brewery restaurant and shop "Sakura-en." Yamamura Tazaemon of this brewery discovered the famous "miyamizu" in 1840. Company developed the first Association Yeast in 1905. In 2009 Sakura Masamune acquired the fine Taki no Koi brand when Taki no Koi (Kimura Shuzo, originally est. in 1758) had to close down. By the way, the Yamamura family also built the wonderful Yamamura Residence in Ashiyagawa, the only private residence in Japan designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
[Kikumasamune Shuzo]

Nada: Mikage district:
  • Hakutsuru Shuzo (1743; Hakutsuru, "White Crane") - the largest brewery in Japan. Set up in 1734 by lumber dealer Kano Jihei. English website, brewery museum and (elsewhere in Mikage) a great art museum, with especially Chinese antiquities, set up in 1934 by the 7th owner of the brewery. Set up U.S. factory in 2005. Rather light taste compared to other Nada breweries.

  • Kenbishi Shuzo (1505 or earlier; Kenbishi, "Sword and Diamond") is the oldest sake brand name in Japan. The logo combines the tip of a sword and a diamond shape. The company was originally located in Itami, and moved to its present Kobe location well into the 20th c. Produces a deep-flavored (but dry) sake by cultivating an excellent "sohaze" koji in small trays, using the Yamahai method for the yeast starter, and brewing the main mash at low temperatures during 30 days. Also uses its own strain of koji, proprietary yeast and its own brewing rice called Aiyama. Kenbishi has been called "the real Nada taste." The company is rather secretive about its production methods and allows no brewery visits. Ranks no. 14 in size nationwide.

  • Kikumasamune Shuzo (1659; Kikumasamune, "Chrysanthemum Masamune") - the 9th largest brewery in Japan. Set up 1659 by the Kano family. Already exported sake to the U.K. in 1877. Was one the first of the Big Breweries to stop adding sugar in 1981; upgraded all products to the Honjozo grade in 1988. Large and informative English website; interesting museum with traditional tools (Kikumasamune Shuzo Kinenkan, arguably the best brewery museum in Kobe). Dry-tasting sake, representative of Nada.

  • Kobe Shushinkan (1751; Fukuju, abbreviation for Fukurokuju, one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune) Small brewery making exclusively handcrafted quality sake, sold under the brandname Fukuju. Toji from Tajima. English website. Brewery visit possible (on appointment, see website). The brewery, which was completely rebuilt after the 1995 earthquake, also operates an excellent restaurant, Sakabayashi, where home-made tofu is served. There is also a large shop.


Nada: Nishi district:
  • Sawanotsuru (1717; Sawanotsuru, "Crane of the Marsh") - ranks no 13 in size. Operates a small but nice brewery museum "Mukashi no Shuzo" (a replica of the original kura building that was destroyed in the 1995 earthquake). Was one of the first Nada brewers to start producing ginjo sakes. Also has developed some deep-tasting products as a Kimoto Junmai sake and an Koshu "aged" sake. Other products are dry according to the Nada taste.
[Cart to transport Miyamizu water
in Hakushika Brewery Museum]

Nada: Nishinomiya
  • Hakutaka (1862; Hakutaka, "White Hawk" - a sacred bird which only appears once every thousand years) - Has always put quality above quantity. Washes the vats for its Taruzake (sake kept in vats for the typical wood taste) with sake instead of water. Strives after a powerful taste by using the Kimoto method. Also uses the finest Yamada Nishiki rice. Brewery tours possible upon reservation. Hakutaka Rokusuien is a copy of the Edo-period merchant house of the brewery's founder, Tatsuuma Etsuzo, and includes a souvenir shop, Japanese restaurant, bar, multi-purpose hall and tea ceremony room. In addition, there are exhibition rooms for traditional brewing tools (7 min south on foot from Nishinomiya St on the Hanshin line). Also operates the small Tatsuuma Art Museum dedicated to archaeology (near Koroen Station on the Hanshin Line). 

  • Nihonsakari (1889; Nihonsakari, "Prime of Japan"). Set up by a group of twelve young entrepreneurs. No 6 in size. one of its products is a "green pack" sake with a reduced sugar content. Has also developed a new koji with a large amount of inositol, a vitamin good for the liver fucntion ("Kenjo").

  • Tatsuuma Honke Shuzo (1662; Hakushika, White Deer") - English website. One of Japan's largest brands (No 12 in size), made its foreign appearance already in 1889 at the Paris Exposition. The name ”White Deer” goes back to an old Chinese legend; also Jurojin, one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, is always depicted as accompanied by a white deer. A smooth and lively sake. Art museum (with many Jurojin and deer images!) as well brewery museum (rebuilt after the 1995 earthquake), both in Nishinomiya, 10 min walk south of the Hanshin Station. The Tatsuuma founding family has played the role of maecenas in Nishinomiya as well.
[The Nishinomiya Shrine, dedicated to Ebisu,
is popular among the sake brewers of the region]

Nada: Imazu (plus non-Nada Itami):
  • Ozeki (1711; Ozeki, - Ozeki is a top sumo-rank). No 4 in size in Japan. In the Edo-period, their sake was called Manryo and very popular in Edo. Name change in 1889 to what then was the highest rank in sumo (unfortunately, later an even higher rank, Yokozuna, was added!). In 1924, Ozeki opened the first bottling plant in Japan. Introduced sake sold in glasses from vending machines in 1964, for the Tokyo Olympic Games, under the brandname "One Cup Ozeki." Already in 1979 set up factory in the U.S. Known for its marketing power. Has its own sake research center.

  • Konishi Shuzo (1550; Shirayuki, "White Snow" - referring to snow on Mt Fuji, as seen by the brewery owner in 1635 as his ship transporting sake to Edo passed the Fuji) - English website; also importer of Belgian beer and Californian wine; producer of local beer. Brewery restaurant and shop. Ranks as no. 10 in size. Only sake brewery left in Itami (in the Edo-period most breweries moved from Itami to Nada because of the better logistical conditions). Sake is softer and less dry than Nada sakes.
As regards sake producing areas in Hyogo apart from Nada, west from Kobe, in Akashi and Himeji (Inland Sea Coast west of Kobe), you will find some excellent breweries:
  • Akashi Hakko Kogyo (1919; Akashi Tai, "Bream of Akashi") - In the port town of Akashi, west of Kobe. English website. Also makes shochu, mirin and umeshu. Named after the tai (sea bream) caught off the coast of Akashi, where the company is located. Robust and full-bodied.

  • Eigashima Shuzo (1679; Kamitaka, "Divine Hawk") - Also in Akashi. Brewery and museum can be visited on weekdays, on appointment. There are seven traditional kura, the oldest dating from 1889. This company also makes whiskey ("White Oak"), and owns a winery in Yamanashi Prefecture ("Charman Wine"). Sake is very dry, master brewer from Tamba. 

  • Honda Shoten (1921; Tatsuriki, "Dragon Power" and also the Japanese designation for Nagarjuna, one of the Indian founders of Esoteric Buddhism) - In the famous castle town of Himeji, west of Kobe. Established by the then master brewer of Hakutsuru. Junmaishu and junmai ginjos made from the highest grade Yamada Nishiki rice (from the Akitsu region around the town of Tojo, where the company has contracted many farmers). The brewery draws pure underflow water more than 100 meters beneath the Ibo River. Full-flavored, rich sake. Daiginjos make up one third of Tatsuriki's production.

  • Yaegaki Shuzo (1666; Mu, "Nothingness", Yaegaki, "Eightfold Fence") - Also from Himeji. The brewery takes its name "Eightfold Fence" from a famous poem in the Kojiki, Japan's oldest extant chronicle. Uses underflow water from the Hayashidagawa River in Himeji, fed upstream by the Shikagatsubo waterfall. Uses Yamahai method, makes very good junmai sakes. Hand production, also of koji (with small boxes). Factory in the U.S. since 1987.
[Miyamizu monument in Nishinomiya]

Inland sake producing areas as Tanba and Tajima:
  • Homei Shuzo (1797; Homei, "The Call of the fenix" ). In the historical town of Tanba Sasayama. Their brewery, the 200-year old Horoyoi Jokagura, can be visited.

  • Kasumitsuru (1725; Kasumitsuru, "Crane from Kasumi") - English website. Located in the town of Kami, on the scenic Japan Sea Coast, one of the leading fishing ports for snow crab; also close to famous Kinosaki Onsen. Full-tasting sake made according to the Kimoto or Yamahai methods, very different in taste from the dry Nada sakes. Makes well-balanced ginjo's, but also keeps making regular sake for the local population.

  • Nishiyama Shuzojo (1849; Kotsuzumi, "Small Hand-drum") - Located in Tanba City, near Tanba Takeda Station on the JR Fukuchiyama Line. Brewery visit on appointment, Feb and March. Uses soft water from a well in the brewery. Delicate sake, different from the usual Hyogo sake. Company uses interesting and fun labels and bottles, well-coordinated. Artistic is also the family of the owner - for three generations they are haiku poets in the tradition of Takahama Kyoshi (who also devised the brandname "Kotsuzumi"). Uses Association Yeast No. 10 for all its products, resulting in soft taste with little sourness. All koji made by hand. Sake rice is Hyogo Kita Nishiki.
Hyogo Brewing Association Alliance Society
Nada Gogo Brewers Association
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.