The Ichishima Sake Brewery http://www.ichishima.jp/eng/ in Niigata, Japan is the perfect destination for English-only speakers who want to enjoy the unique experience of seeing where sake is made first hand. For tourists familiar with winery visits, perhaps from trips to northern California or Long Island’s North Fork, a very different experience awaits.
First of all, unlike the picturesque Napa winery with faux-Spanish stucco enveloped in ivy and surrounded by vines, in Japan many sake breweries are in the middle of thickly populated cities or large towns. The rice fields are many miles away and definitely not part of the tour.
The equipment you’ll view in a sake brewery is also unique to this beverage, which has been a traditional favorite in Japan for more than 1000 years.
At Ichishima Brewery, you can view well-preserved displays of old sake-making devices and sample their various styles of sake.
I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to share the day with seventh generation owner, Kenji Ichishima. Kenji speaks perfect English and he was a wonderful guide for me as well as Ravi Mahabeer, a sommelier from Doha who just happened to be in town. Our multi-course lunch with a variety of fresh fish, shell fish, noodle dishes, soups, and more was a stunning example of kaiseki, or gourmet style Japanese cuisine. He poured us sake from huge saucers, which stack from largest to smallest - largest being reserved for most honored guests. This is an old custom that was fun to experience, although drinking from a dinner-plate sized saucer is something of a challenge. As we ate the wonderful lunch, we could see the snowy garden, where stone statues were softly rounded by the white cover.
Our full day had included a full tour of the contemporary sake making facility, where I was most interested to see the koji room - this is a warm, sterile room of wood walls, where rice is sprinkled with the fungus that needs to grow as an important part of the sake making process. We also got to try sake at various stages in the fermentation process.
Sake is only brewed during the winter - so if you want to visit a brewery, it needs to be during the cold months.
I am at the begininning of what I hope will be a lifetime journey of learning about this ancient Japanese beverage. If you are in Japan, I encourage you to try sake, and if you want to plan a fun day trip from Tokyo, hop on the bullet train to Niigata to visit the Ichishima Sake Brewery.