In early October of every year, Hiroshima Prefecture’s Saijo town (part of Higashi-Hiroshima) lets its hair down for a massive, two-day block party.
One of Japan’s three premier sake-brewing locales, Saijo is proud of its history. About thirty kilometers east of Hiroshima City, the town’s brewing industry claims roots reaching back over three centuries. Today eight of the breweries are within walking distance of JR Saijo Station, in a picturesque district of black and white walls, where spindly brick chimneys stretch for the sky. Clustered along a remnant of the ancient Sanyo Highway, the area is also home to the National Research Institute of Brewing; giving Saijo some serious sake cred.
The sakes of Saijo are prized for their full, round taste, a soft, sweet profile that brings sake drinkers from around the world. Many of the breweries have become justly famous across Japan and, especially in recent years, more and more aficionados abroad are taking notice as well. In addition to its breweries, Saijo is also home to Hiroshima University, with a sizeable international student presence. Many of these students return home with both a degree and an appreciation of Japan’s national drink, which they’re only too eager to share.
Saijo’s Sake Festival is held on the Saturday and Sunday in October falling before the Health and Sports national holiday. In 2018, that will be October 6 and 7, the first weekend of the month. Around the main festival area, you’ll find parades, artisans displaying a variety of wares from their stalls set up along the main thoroughfares, and a variety of events happening at the breweries themselves. Of course, the main draw is the festival’s namesake itself, and people here aren’t shy about diving in head first. After you’ve toured the breweries and wandered the streets, head for the Sake Hiroba.
As you enter the main drinking area, the first thing you’ll see is throngs of imbibers lounging about eating and drinking. When you present your ticket (see additional info below), you’ll receive a souvenir cup and an invitation to drink all you like. There’s no chance whatsoever that you’ll be able to try everything; recent years have seen the number of sakes on offer here swell to around 1000 different varieties from all over Japan.
The main drinking area is an excellent chance to meet not only local Japanese but also overseas students and visitors who crowd into the Hiroba. Many people linger for hours, sipping leisurely and making new friends as, inevitably, the boundaries between groups are dissolved by the wonderful and heady rice wine. Kids are welcome too, of course, and they’ll form their own bonds as the adults around them get progressively sillier.
In 2018, because of the flooding the area experienced in July, some of the venues are in different locations than in previous years, but the festival planners have worked round the clock to make sure that the festival comes off. If you’re ever going to go, this is the year when they could most use the support.
All in all, an enjoyable day out. Just don’t expect to get very much done the following day, especially if you’re not used to sake. It’s sweet and eminently drinkable, and it will sneak up on you fast if you’re not careful. Enjoy.
Location: In the streets around JR Saijo Station, in Saijo, Higashihiroshima.
Time: Saturday, October 6 and Sunday, October 7. All day.
Access: Public transportation is the best. Easiest access is by JR Sanyo Honsen line. Approximately 40 minutes from Hiroshima Station. Basic Fare: 580 yen.
Admission: Many events are free. Admission to the Sake Hiroba is 2100 yen if purchased on the day of attendance, or 1600 yen if purchased in advance. Advance tickets can be purchased until October 5 at Lawson Convenience Stores (L code: 62807) and 7-11.
Website: (Japanese) https://sakematsuri.com/