Hiroshima, or more precisely, Saijo, is known as one of the best sake brewing areas in the whole of Japan. Located in the eastern part of Hiroshima Prefecture, approximately 40 minutes from Hiroshima Station, Saijo is not only the administrative center of the city of Higashi Hiroshima, but THE place to go if you are looking to sample some sake.
The town is also home to Hirodai, or Hiroshima University, and although there are a number of interesting sightseeing places around including the keyhole-shaped, Mitsujo Burial Mound, the most popular reason for visiting is to learn about and to try some of the sake on offer.
The normally sleepy town is fairly quiet for most of the year, but the population swells during October when the annual Saijo Sake Festival is held. University students, older locals and foreigners alike rub shoulders as they consume copious amounts of sake, all in the name of festive cheer. Tickets are 1300 yen if you pre-purchase them or 1600 yen on the day. With over 900 types of sake from around Japan, as well as the ones on offer from Saijo, my advice is to work out which ones you want before you begin drinking, as you will no doubt be unable to do so after a few cups. Also, don’t try to drink all 900 types; it will not end well. You have been warned!
If you miss the festival and still want to try a tipple or two, never fear. Free, guided tours are available on the 10th of each month and run for approximately one hour, between 10 and 11am. You can of course ask if it’s possible to make this at a more convenient time on the same day or if you want a tour on another day, reservations are possible. These do come at a cost, however, and you will need to contact the tourist information center located within Saijo Station.
The monthly sake tours focus on Sakagura-dori or, ‘sake storehouse road.’ This is the main street where the breweries are concentrated and is the paved road to the left of Saijo Station exit. The street is characterized by the red chimneys and white walls of the breweries and on a beautiful autumn day with clear blue skies, it truly is picture-postcard perfect. Eight of the breweries are open to the public, including the famous Komotsuru Sake Brewing Company, which has been awarded the top honours a number of times at the National Research Institute of Brewing’s Nationwide New Sake Awards.
If you’d prefer to skip the tour and are quite happy to do your own thing, you are welcome to pick up free maps of the local area from the information center and do your own walking tour. The staff speak English and are more than happy to assist you or recommend some alternative things to do in the area.
Sake is made from rice and water and both should be pure for high quality alcohol. Although any sake in Japan is good, the sake from Saijo has been recognized as some of the best. The town has been fortunate to have been blessed with some of the most pure water in the area and thus, it is a prized ingredient in producing the local types. At the breweries you will not only be able to taste-test the sake, but you will also be encouraged to try the water on its own. Saijo is also lucky enough to have a number of wells scattered throughout the area around the station and it is a common sight early in the morning to see locals bringing their containers to the well to fill with water to take home and drink.
If you enjoy sake, or you have yet to try it, I would highly recommend a trip to Saijo to familiarize yourself with a quintessential part of Japanese culture and indeed, part of Japanese life itself. Kanpai!