Kochi, a Hidden Gem of Sake Culture
Kochi is not yet a well-known sake region among foreigners familiar with the drink, but it’s beloved in Japan for its “light and dry” brews and its friendly and enthusiastic drinking culture. Kochi Prefecture is located on the southern half of Shikoku island Its rugged mountain landscape, its dozens of clear, winding rivers, and its expansive vistas of the Pacific Ocean make it a location that is both beautiful, and full of delicious food and sake.
Kochi sake is known for “going down easy, just like water.” Not every brand makes bone-dry sake, but many do. This flavor profile makes it a good fit for Kochi’s abundant seafood, fresh vegetables, and wide variety of citrus fruit.
Almost every restaurant, sushi bar, and izakaya in Kochi City and many locales along the coast will serve fresh skipjack tuna. You can try katsuo as sashimi, in sushi, or lightly seared in the famous dish katsuo no tataki, usually served with a light dipping sauce or coarse salt, and slices of raw garlic. All of these tasty dishes go down great with a cup of local Kochi sake.
Once you get a taste of Kochi sake and the culture surrounding it, you’ll want to learn more and get a look (and maybe a taste!) right at the source.
Sake Breweries in Peak Brewing Season
Sake is traditionally brewed in winter, and Kochi is no exception. While many companies do brew year-round, your best bet for seeing the intensive, hands-on process of making premium sake is to visit in winter. The finest sake with the most delicate flavors are brewed slowly, in cold weather. The brewing team first washes and soaks the rice. The next day, the rice is steamed and cooled to the exact right temperature and texture, and separated into two purposes: rice to be used as is, and rice to be made into koji.
To make koji, the rice is brought to a heated room, and propagated with a special type of mold. This mold converts rice’s starch to sugar, so that the yeast can later convert that sugar into alcohol. Koji is absolutely central to sake-making, and one of the main things that makes sake so unique. The process involves a complex balance of moisture and heat, and takes a few days of careful work to complete.
Finally, koji, rice, and water are mixed together into a starter batch, and the yeast is added. After the fermentation is good and strong, more koji, rice, and water are added in three batches over the course of four days. From there, the sake will ferment in large tanks for a few weeks or up to more than a month.
When it is ready, it is pressed through a fine mesh to remove solids, and this is when we first see “namazake”: clear but unpasteurized, it tends to look like you might expect sake to look, but it tastes and smells much fresher and livelier, and is still bubbling with carbonation as a byproduct of fermentation.
Visiting a Brewery
Many breweries were once closed to the public, and many still only allow a few visitors at a time, so as not to disrupt the delicate brewing process. Getting an insider’s look at a sake brewery is a truly special experience to savor. Every year, more and more breweries have English-speaking staff, tasting rooms, and pamphlets and other information in English and other languages. A visit to a sake brewery would be a great way to see, learn about, and taste sake right where it is made.
Several Kochi breweries have tasting rooms, and depending on the season, you may also get to see part of the brewing process.
One brewery to stop by is Nishioka Shuzoten, located in the town of Kure. Their main brewing kura (storehouse) is over 200 years old, the oldest existent sake brewery building in Kochi. They have a small tasting room with several types of sake and liqueur stocked, and whole bottles for sale, as well as brewery-related goods.
[Address] 6154 Kure Nakatosa-cho, Takaoka-gun, Kochi
[Getting there] About 1 hour 40 minutes from JR Kochi Station to Tosa-Kure Station on the JR Dosan Line bound for Kubokawa
5-minute walk from Tosa-Kure Station
[Email here for tour reservation] firstname.lastname@example.org
Nishioka Shuzoten is located in a fishing village called Kure, famous for its good hauls of skipjack tuna. Stroll through the surrounding town, stop by Kure Taisho Town Market for popular “Kuredon, a bowl of rice topped with fresh sashimi (sliced raw fish) of your choice. Pay a fee to get a seat and plenty of fresh sake, and crowd around grills with your friends to cook up a picnic of fresh seafood purchased at the market on your way to the brewery.
Another popular and accessible brewery is Takagi Shuzo in the town of Akaoka, now a part of Konan City. Akaoka is a unique little town, and Takagi Shuzo is a unique little brewery that likes to experiment with new product ideas and take an active role in promoting the town.
Consider yourself lucky if you’re there in time for one of Akaoka’s locally famous festivals. In April there’s the Dorome Festival, which ostensibly is for dorome fish (whitebait), but the main event is a drinking contest featuring Takagi Shuzo sake.
[Address] 443 Akaoka-cho Konan-shi, Kochi
[Getting there] 3-minute walk from Akaoka Station on the Tosa Kuroshio train line
Getting the Most of Your Brewery Visit
I recommend joining a small tour group with a capable interpreter, or hiring a guide who can interpret for you. There is so much to see, taste, and learn about here, and a knowledgeable guide can help make everything accessible while tailoring the experience to your needs.
I work with a company called Sake Tours, and we are offering our first sake brewery tour of Kochi in February 2018. With this tour, you can see four breweries up close, as well as learn about and experience various aspects of Kochi agriculture, fishing, culture, and religion.
Another program you might like is The Premium Sake Brewery Tour which is based in Tokyo. They offer affordable and tailor-made days tours of sake breweries for individuals or small groups across Japan. Both Sake Tours and The Premium Sake Brewery Tour offers exclusive tours across Japan.
With more information available every day, don’t miss out on visiting a sake brewery if you come to Japan in winter! Come see where it’s made, and try the freshest brews right at the source.