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

June 17, 2017

Sake from Kyoto Prefecture (Sake by Region)

Kyoto Prefecture is in volume the second sake producing prefecture in Japan (71,286kl or 16.0% - figures 2015) - after Hyogo (28.5%) and before Niigata (8.4%). That is thanks to the breweries in the southern part of Kyoto city, in Fushimi, which are good for 90% of the total output. There are 43 active breweries in the whole of Kyoto Prefecture, of which 23 in Fushimi (numbers based on membership of local Sake Brewers Association). Except for the huge, nationally operating Gekkeikan and Shochikubai (Takara Shuzo), these are mostly smaller breweries that have dedicated themselves to brewing premium sake.

Fushimi is in the first place famous for its excellent water: until the early Meiji-period, it was called "Fushimizu," alluding to the underground water (fusui) that flows down from nearby Mt. Momoyama and fills the wells of the district with delicate and mild water. That water is honored in the Gokonomiya Shrine ("Shrine of the Honorable Fragrance"), which according to legend was so named when in 861 fragrant water gushed up from a well that appeared in this area - the water even healed the sick.

[Old sake breweries in Fushimi along the Horikawa canal]

The sake brewed in Kyoto has always been of high quality - after all, it was destined to be consumed by such demanding customers as the imperial court and its nobles. Important technological innovations, such as the isolation of koji spores and use of a starter mash can also be written on the account of the brewers of the Old Capital. In the Middle Ages (Kamakura and Muromachi periods) there were hundreds and hundreds of small breweries in Kyoto - at that time, not in Fushimi, but in the city itself.

But in the Edo-period, Kyoto was superseded by Nada (as well as Itami and Ikeda) as a sake center. Conditions for large scale production were not good in the crowded inner city. That changed when in the Meiji-period (1867-1912) more and more sake producers started moving to the suburb of Fushimi where they found space, good water and better transport possibilities. Many of those breweries had a history going back to the 17th century.

From Fushimi, sake could be transported directly by rail to Tokyo, and this greatly boosted the industry. Another modern development was that Fushimi's breweries as Gekkeikan started to ship their sake in hygienic glass bottles instead of wooden vats (also making it impossible for shops to dilute the sake!) - you will find these early bottles on display in Gekkeikan's museum.

Thanks to the softness of the water, Fushimi's sake has been called "feminine," in contrast to Nada's hard water sake, which is more "masculine." Kyoto's sake has a soft, full and sweet taste (the sweetness comes from the soft water). It is delicate and graceful, as befits the Old Capital.

Besides Fushimi, there are three breweries located elsewhere in Kyoto City itself and one in Joyo.

A second large sake area is the northern part of Kyoto prefecture, such as Miyazu on the Japan sea coast, where you will find many small and relatively unknown breweries. Kyotango counts six breweries; Miyazu five; Fukuchiyama two; Kyotamba (incl. Kameoka) three. Not accidentally, there are also many good ports here - some of them were important as naval bases from the Meiji to early Showa periods. This is also the area where the Tango Toji came from, a small group of Kyoto-based brew masters.

As sake rice goes, the brand "Iwai" has been developed in the prefecture (already in 1933; cultivation stopped in 1974, but was revived in 1991) - it is low in proteins and helps make light sake, while the shinpaku is very large; also popular are Miyama-Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku.

[Sake vats in the Gokonomiya Shrine, Fushimi, Kyoto]

Some of the main breweries are (by region and in alphabetical order):

Kyoto City, Fushimi area:
  • Eikun (Saitoh Shuzo Co., Ltd., Kyoto). "Heroic decoration," the company selected this brand name at the ascension to the throne of the Taisho Emperor. Est. 1895. Has developed its own fragrant yeast. Uses underground spring water "Shiragikusui."  Iwai sake rice for ginjo sakes. Smooth texture. Other brand names: Koto Sennen, Izutsuya Ihei, Igin. 
  • Gekkeikan (Gekkeikan Sake Company, Ltd., Kyoto). "Laurel Wreath." Est. 1637. The company took its present, Western-sounding name in the Meiji-period. Its original brand name was Tama no Izumi, "Well of the Jewel." Gekkeikan is not only the second largest sake producer nationwide, but is also known for its technological innovations, such as being the first to use glass bottles in the Meiji-period. Was also the first, in the early sixties, to start brewing year round instead of only in winter. Besides six breweries in Japan, it also has facilities in California and Taiwan, plus exports to 60 countries. Gekkeikan started at an early time selling sake at railway stations. It also won prizes in the first national sake competitions (and still continues to do so, for besides ordinary sake it also makes good Daiginjo). Master brewers working in its factories come from such regions as Nanbu, Tajima and Hiroshima. In Fushimi, it has a beautiful museum, a mini-brewery "Gekkeikan Shukobo," and other impressive traditional buildings. These include an office now used as a shop/restaurant and the (closed) former residence of the Okura's. The old wooden buildings look particularly beautiful seen from over the Horikawa Canal which flows through Fushimi. Gekkeikan is still experimenting, such as with the bubbling "champagne-sake" called Zipang. Their top brand is Horin Junmai Daiginjo.
  • Kizakura (Kizakura Co., Ltd., Kyoto).  "Yellow Cherry Blossom." Est. 1925. Originally known for mass market sake, advertised with the help of images of naked, imbibing "kappa" imps, Kizakura started to brew Ginjo sakes in the mid-seventies and has since won the gold medal at the annual competition for new sakes. It is also putting effort into the Yamahai style. Kizakura operates three factories. Kizakura has set up "Kappa Country" in its old warehouses in Fushimi, featuring a gallery, a garden, a restaurant (with kikizake possibilities) and a well-stocked shop.
  • Momo no Shizuku (Matsumoto Sake Brewing Co., Ltd., Kyoto).  "Droplets from the Peach." Est. 1791 in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto, moved in 1923 to Fushimi. Other brand (for regular sake): Hinode Sakari, "Prime of Sunrise." Momo no Shizuku is a smooth, light pure-rice sake, of which the name is based on a haiku by Basho (and the fact that Momoyama in Fushimi in the Edo-period was indeed known for its peach forest). The traditional red brick warehouses of Matsumoto Shuzo, standing along the Takasegawa River, have been declared a special industrial heritage (especially beautiful in spring when the yellow rape flowers are blooming). One of the founders of the Pure Sake Association, a society that at an early time propagated the abolishment of adding alcohol to sake.
  • Shochikubai (Takara Shuzo Co., Ltd., Kyoto). "Pine, Bamboo and Plum," a traditional auspicious symbol in Japan (these "Three Friends of Winter" do not wither as the cold days deepen into winter, so they represent steadfastness and perseverance). Est. 1842. The third largest brewery in Japan. Known for brewing all manner of alcoholic products, including mirinshochu and chuhai. In 2001 established Shirakabegura in Kobe, a more traditional brewery for premium sake, where also kimoto sake is made, utilizing miyamizu water. Also known for its sparkling sake Mio. Opened a brewery in the U.S. (California) in 1982. 
  • Shoutoku (Shoutoku Brewery Co., Ltd., Kyoto). "Inviting Virtue." Postwar merger of four old companies, one, Kimuraya, going back to 1645. Started selling junmaishu (pure rice sake) in 1974 and founded the Pure Sake Association with Matsumoto Shuzo and Tama no Hikari. Has a large repertory of Junmai Ginjo's. All sakes make a quiet and elegant impression, which befits the Old Capital. Uses Kyoto's recently revived sake rice Iwai in its sake called "Kyo Iwai Mai."
  • Tama no Hikari (Tamanohikari Sake Brewing Co., Ltd., Kyoto). "Light of the Spirits" (the "spirits" are those of the deities Izanagi and Izanami of the historical Kumano Hayatama Shrine in Shingu, Wakayama) Est. 1673 in Wakayama. Relocated to Kyoto after WWII. One of the first companies to start making only pure-rice sake, already in 1959. Charming and sweet, this has been called a "quintessentially Kyoto sake." Specializes in full-flavored junmai ginjo's, using various types of sake rice, such as Omachi from Okayama (the brewery played an important role in reviving this strain of sake rice), Yamada Nishiki from Hyogo and Okuhomare from Fukui. Founding member of the Pure Sake Association. Exports to the U.S. and SE Asia. 
  • Tomio (Kitagawa Honke, Kyoto). "The Rich Sage" (from a Chinese saying that people with a rich mind will lead a happy life when they grow old). Other limited production brand: Anaze. Est 1657. Originally in the 17th c. an inn "Funaya" at the canals and rivers here; shipped its sake later by flat-bottomed boats over the Yodo River to Osaka and from there to Edo. Echizen toji. Mellow and sweetish taste, which goes well with Kyoto cuisine. 
  • Tsuki no Katsura (Masuda Tokubei Shoten Co., Ltd., Kyoto), "The Judas Tree in the Moon" (a Chinese legend). Est. 1675. This company specializes in nigori sake ("clouded" due to a sediment of rice and koji). Was also the first company to develop a sparkling nigori sake (through a second fermentation in the bottle) with the help of the famous Tokyo University Fermentation Professor Sakaguchi Kinichiro. Further makes an aged sake "Kohaku Hikari." Its (non-nigori) junmai ginjo "Heiankyo" is a long seller. Uses Iwai sake rice. A very individualistic company, located near the Toba Kaido in Fushimi. Exports to USA, Europe and SE Asia.
[Traditional red brick facade of Matsumoto Shuzo in Fushimi]

Kyoto (elsewhere):
  • Kagura (Matsui Shuzo, Kyoto) "Kura of the Gods." Est 1726. The only brewery left in the center of Kyoto, on the first floor of an apartment building near Demachiyanagi. Other brand names: Kyo-Chitose, Fuji-Chitose. Operates a shop in nice old premises.
  • Okina-Tsuru (Oishi Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., Kameoka) "Crane of the Old Sage." Going back to "Tarobei Sake Store" in the Genroku period in Edo times. Located in a rich rice-growing area, Tanba. Kameoka is an old castle town, linked to Kyoto via the scenic Hozu River. Toji from Tanba. Operates shop, tasting corner and exhibition space in Main Building of brewery. Also operates a sake store in front of Kameoka St. 
  • Shutendoji (Hakurei Brewing Co., Ltd., Miyazu)  "The Boy Drinking Sake," taken from a famous legend about a red ogre living on Mt. Oe. Est. 1832. Other brand names: Hakurei, "White Peak," after Yuragatake, a peak in the nearby Oe mountain range; and Kouden, "Fragrant Paddies." Established by Niiya Rokuemon of the Nakanishi clan, after obtaining a permit from the local daimyo. Uses fresh water from the Fudo no Taki waterfall, which flows down from the Oe mountain range. Brews with locally grown Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku rice, as well as Iwai rice. 
  • Tamagawa (Kinoshita Brewery, Kyotango) "Jewel River" Est. 1842. Full-flavored sake. Also makes Yamahai and Kimoto sakes (which it calls "spontaneous fermentation sakes"). Operates shop for visitors. This is the brewery where Philip Harper, author of The Book of Sake, is working.
  • Tanzan (Tanzan Shuzo, Kameoka) "Mt. Cinnaber" Est. 1882. Uses the same water source as Kameoka Castle. Cultivates its own sake rice.
[Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, Fushimi]

Sake Museums in Kyoto:
  • Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, old tools and Meiji-period advertisement materials, shown in a wooden sake warehouse built in 1909; if you make a reservation in advance, you can also see the 1906 Uchigura Sake Brewery, a mini-brewery.
  • The Horino Memorial Museum was the town house and brewery of the makers of Kinshi Masamune; the brewery moved to Fushimi, but the Machiya from 1781 remains as a museum. There are also a brewery making local beer and a restaurant.
  • Kizakura has a gallery showing drawings of the Kappa (river imps) used by the company in its advertising, plus some tools and information on sake brewing.
[Kizukara Kappaland in Fushimi]

Restaurants of Sake Breweries:
  • Torisei, the restaurant of the Shinsei brewery in Fushimi (est. 1677), with a menu mainly consisting of yakitori.
  • Kizakura Kappaland, also in Fushimi, offers various dishes in a large and spacious restaurant, with sets for sake tasting and also beer tasting (Kizakura also brews local beer). There is also an open courtyard where you can sit outside.
  • There are seven liquor shops in Fushimi selling local sake and one of them, Aburacho in the Otemon shopping arcade, also features a small bar (right in the shop!) where you can get sake tasting sets.
  • Fushimi Yume Hyakushu, the former head office of Gekkeikan built in 1919, is now a cafĂ©. Tasting sets available of each brewery located in Fushimi. 
[Matsui Shuzo near Demachiyanagi, Kyoto]

Other Things To Do in Fushimi:
  • A boating tour on the Horikawa canal. Jukkokubune were boats to transport rice and sake, Sanjukkokubune served as passenger ferries on the canals between Fushimi and the Yodo River (all the way to Osaka). Between April and November, you can make a small ride on a modern copy of these boats through the Horikawa canal, along the beautiful wooden sake breweries, to where it enters the Yodo River, where the boats stop for a while so that passengers can visit a small museum.
  • The Gokonomiya Shrine is famous for the quality of its water.
  • The Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine has no connection with sake, but is famous for the tunnels of red torii gates leading up the mountain behind the shrine.
  • Last but not least (though not in Fushimi but in Arashiyama), note that Kyoto is also home to the foremost shrine associated with sake brewing, Matsuo Taisha. In many sake breweries you will find a small altar dedicated to Matsuo-san. Read my article about Matsuo Taisha
[Matsuo taisha]

Association of Sake Breweries in Fushimi
Association of Sake Breweries in Kyoto City (except Fushimi)
Kyoto Prefecture Sake 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.