Forget Asahi, Kirin or Strong Zero, there can be no doubt that the national drink of Japan is sake. ‘Nihonshu’, to give it its proper title (with ‘sake’ being a term to cover all alcoholic drinks), has been the main tipple of choice in these parts since the Nara period (710 to 794), after which it became used for religious ceremonies, court festivals and drinking games.
Obviously, not much has changed, and today it is enjoyed all over the country with many breweries, or ‘kura’, around the country involved in its production (in 2007 there were approximately 1700 kura making around 10,000 different types of sake).
The problem that many foreigners find is that, much like with wine, if you don’t know what you are looking for, you can make some bad choices and end up picking up a jar of One Cup Sake from a convenience store. (Tip: never, ever pick up One Cup Sake. It is less a drink and more a punishment.)
If you want to learn how to tell your Asahi from your Ginjo, the best thing to do is head somewhere at which you can sample various stuff, with informative folks who can help you out. Which is where the Nayabashi Sake Festival comes in.
On the fourth Friday of every month the riverside promenade between Nayabashi and Nishikibashi bridges (a couple of minutes from the Hilton and near that inexplicably large mural of a dolphin) is the Nayabashi Night Market. Most months there is a different theme, and this month it is, of course, sake.
March 23 and 24 will see the return of the Nayabashi Sake Festival, at which you can wander along the canal, sampling many different types of nihonshu from around the country (although at time of us going to press there isn’t a whole lot of information on what types will be available). At a cost of 1,300 JPY – or 1,200 JPY if you purchase with your Manaca card – you can pick up five tickets, which are exchangeable for cups of sake at the various different stalls.
An additional cost is the 300 JPY that you may need to spend to purchase an ‘ochoko’ sake cup, although some sources claim that you can bring your own. Personally, I think the 300 yen is worth it for a cool little keepsake of the festival. However, if you want to save money, it is perhaps advisable to turn up on Saturday for ‘happy hour’ between 13:00 and 15:00 when you get six tickets for the same price as five.
*JIS recommends responsible consumption of alcohol. Know your limits.
If the festival has ignited a passion for tasting sake, why not try out one of these interesting sake bars around Nagoya.
The below postings are all recommendations from sake lovers that I know and trust, so are about personal taste. As such everything is for information only and Japan Info Swap does not endorse any of them.
Specializing in nihonshu made from Junmai rice, Yata in Kitte Building is an extremely casual sake bar that sells sake by the wine glass, rather than an ochokko, so first timers may feel a little more comfortable. This is the ideal place for those of you who want to expand your knowledge. If you have sixty minutes and 2,000 JPY to spare, you can sample up to 40 different types of sake and learn exactly what your tastes and preferences are. Seeing as trying the lot would mean a different sake every one minute and thirty seconds, unless you are a particularly hardened drinker, you may want to go more than once. There used to be one in Fushimi, but I think it may now be used as an event space, so I’d head to the location in the Kitte Building to be sure.
Sake Bar Marutani is exactly what you might think of when the words ‘sake bar’ come to mind. Once a rice granary during the Edo period and set on the Horikawa river, it is all hard wood and old world charm. They have a large range of sake and meals perfectly balanced to match what you drink. It is the ideal ambiance in which to sip nihonshu in a classical atmosphere. I have had many recommendations for this place – from both expats and Japanese – and it is of such a high quality that I plan on taking my brother-in-law – a sommelier by trade – to sample his first sake experience when he comes to visit.
Everyone needs a friend who is a sake expert and Torikko in Imaike is the recommendation of mine. Although he said that the best sake bar around is in his own home, unless you get an invite from him, he says that this is the next best thing. This is a bar in the traditional style, but the sake choices are top notch and the ‘master’ (the Japanese term for what we would probably call a landlord or bar owner back home) is as friendly and helpful as he is knowledgable about all things nihonshu.
This place should be on the list for its name alone – it translates to The God of Sake – but it is much more than a clever name. Osake No Kami Sama is a standing bar in the covered arcade of Endoji, and is my own recommendation, and somewhere you can find me most Friday evenings post-work. A majorly relaxed atmosphere, a knowledgeable master and a foreigner-friendly mixed clientele of salarymen, local folks and nihonshu aficionados makes it a must visit bar, just as long as you have the legs to stand while you are drinking. They also have a great menu of Nagoya foods at unbeatable prices.
This is a restaurant that focuses primarily on Kyoto cuisine. Some may consider Kyoto ‘meshi’ a little bland, but it does work perfectly with nihonshu. Because of that they have over 30 different brands to choose from. Ranging from 490-880 JPY per glass, it’s a pretty reasonable price to get sampling.
If you want to go further afield to sample nihonshu where it’s made, you can do worse than head to Takayama. The Gifu city has plenty of local breweries, and you can easily spend the day getting lost (and perhaps a little tipsy) trying out the brews. Some of them have been going for around 200 hundred years, so you can probably equate that longevity with consistent quality.
There are also many breweries in the Nagoya and Aichi areas. Some of these offer sampling tours, but only on specific days. Check out the ever excellent kikuko-nagoya.com website for up-to-date details.
By Mark Guthrie