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July 3, 2017

Sake from Nara Prefecture (Sake by Region)

In comparison to the giant sake centers of Nada and Fushimi, the other areas in the Kansai are mere dwarfs. That does not mean you won't find excellent sake there - especially Nara Prefecture boasts some great local makers.

There is one more important factor in Nara: it is after all where sake originated, the historical heartland of sake so to speak, and the ancient Omiwa Shrine is intimately linked to sake. The brew was handed down to mankind by the deity of the shrine and continues to be offered to him as a way of thanksgiving.

[Monument to Bodaimoto in Shoryakuji Temple, Nara]

"Umazake," "delicious sake" is employed as an epithet for the Omiwa Shrine in the Manyoshu. The term "miwa" was used to designate sake in the past, just as "miki." The Omiwa Shrine holds an annual Sake Matsuri on November 14, when brewers come to pray for a successful brewing season. One of its sub-shrines is dedicated to the mythical "First Master Brewer," Takahashi Ikuhi.

The cedar trees in the shrine grounds provide materials for making sakabayashi (also called sugidama), the globes of green cedar twigs and needles hung under the eaves of breweries in autumn when the new brewing season starts - when the first sake of the year is ready for drinking in spring, the globe has changed to brown.

It was in the 7th c. in the palace in Nara that a brewing department was first established. Later, in the Muromachi period, monasteries started brewing sake and a very famous one was Bodaisen Shoryakuji in Nara. The priests of this temple even went to China for study. Their sake was known as soboshu or "monk's sake."

[Omiwa Jinja]

One of the technical developments the temple became known for was the use of a starter mash (yeast starter), which at that time was called "bodaimoto" - a term that still is occasionally used for what now is called shubo. In the medieval period, the sake from Nara was justly famous for its high quality. There are again about twelve breweries in Nara who are making the yeast starter of one of their sakes with this ancient method.
Bodaimoto is also called mizumoto, "water starter." A bag of a few kilo's of steamed rice that has been infected by yeast from the air is buried in a large vat of unsteamed polished rice, after which a lot of water is added. After a few days, the yeast starts being very active, causing all kinds of bubbles. and the water develops a sour taste. Now the water is filtered off (but kept) and the rice is steamed. The real starter batch now is made with the yeasty water, the steamed rice, plus an additional amount of koji. After fermenting for five days this starter is ready for use. As this starter contains a high concentration of lactic acid bacteria (which in the modern process are gradually eliminated by the yeast as it grows), the sake is rather sour, but it also has a very deep taste. (Explanation based on H. Kondo, Sake, A Drinker's Guide, Kodansha International, 1984)
Other terms indicating the importance of Nara, are Yamato-shu and Nara Shohaku as terms for sake.

The local sake rice (shuzo kotekimai) of the prefecture is called "Tsuyuhakaze."

There are 29 active breweries in the prefecture. All breweries in Nara are relatively small.

Nara sake is well-balanced between sweetness and dryness, has some softness, but also lots of flavor.

[Harushika Brewery in the Nara old town]

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
  • Harushika (Imanishi Seibei Shoten), Nara City. "Spring Deer." The sake from this brewery in central Nara goes back to the brewer priests of the Kasuga Shrine in the Middle Ages, who started brewing as a modern company in 1884. The name is also related to the shrine, where deer are the deity's messengers. The sake is mellow yet flowery and is brewed with the slogan: "Polish the rice, polish the water, polish the technique and polish the mind." Famous for its Super Dry Sake (Cho Karakuchi), which is also exported (in contrast, its other sakes are a bit sweet). 70% of all its sake is pure rice sake. There is a nice brewery shop with sake tasting possibility for a small fee. Next door is the Imanishike Shoin, the historical residence of the Imanishi family, who were abbots of Kofukuji Temple. Location is in the old Nara town, north of Jurinin Temple, two blocks south of the Nara Hotel, 15 min on foot from Kintetsu Nara Station.
  • Hoshuku (Toyosawa Brewery), Nara (Imaicho). Founded in 1868. Continues to brew by hand. 80% of sake produced is Tokuteimeishoshu (premium sake). 
  • Kinko / Okura (Okura Honke), Kashiba. Founded in 1896. In the vicinity of the old Taima temple, at the foot of Mt Nijo. Employs the yamahai method of making the yeast starter and grows its own rice called "Hinohikari." Also makes sake with the ancient bodaimoto method from Shoryakuji Temple (the sake is called Dakushu).
  • Mimurosugi (Imanishi Shuzo), Miwa (Sakurai-shi). Est. 1660. "Mimuro" is an epithet for Mt Miwa, and "Sugi" refers to the sacred cedar trees on the mountain where the deity dwelt when coming down to earth. The only sake brewery left in Miwa, near the Omiwa Shrine with its deep links to sake. The brewing water used is the underground water of Mt Miwa. Also makes sake with the bodaimoto method. 
  • Ume no Yado (Ume no Yado Shuzo), Katsuragi. "Dwelling in the Plum Tree." Founded in 1893. Located north of the Katsuragi range, near Shinjo St. The name has been derived from a 300-year old plum tree in the garden of the brewery owner, where a bushwarbler used to make his nest ("inn"). A complex and very tasty sake. Philip Harper, the only foreign brewer in Japan and author of The Book of Sake, used to work here.
  • Yatagarasu (Kitaoka Honten), Yoshino. Situated at the Yoshino River in Kami-ichi, at the entrance to the Yoshino-Kumano National Park, in an area of historical interest that was already praised in the Manyoshu poetry collection for its natural beauty. The name has been taken from a three-legged crow in Japanese mythology, who guided the mythical Emperor Jimmu to Nara, passing through Yoshino. The brewery is known for its elegant daiginjo sakes. 
[Imanishi Shuzo in Miwa, Sakurai]

Nara 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: Hyogo - Kyoto - Nara - Osaka - Shiga - 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.