Sake, of course, is famous around the world for being Japan’s national drink. Though the drinking of Chinese alcohol is thought to predate recorded history, it is believed that sake as it is currently known – made up of rice, water and ‘kōji’ mold – dates from around the Nara period (710 to 794), and then later used for religious ceremonies court festivals as well as drinking games.
Originally the production of sake (actually called ‘nihonshu’ in Japan, with ‘sake’ being a term to cover all alcoholic drinks) was the preserve of the government, but later it was made by temples and shrines. Nowadays there are many breweries, or ‘kura’ around the country (in 2007 there were approximately 1700 kura making around 10,000 different types of sake), so getting acquainted with it can be tough for the uninitiated. Thankfully, while the Tokyo area isn’t particularly famed for its sake production, you there are many places at which you can give it a taste.
The Meishu Center is probably one of the best known nihonshu tasting spots in the city. Although it has the appearance of a busy standing bar, it is in fact a sake promotional center that offers tastings. A tasting glass starts at 200 JPY, choosen from around 100 types of sake from about 40 breweries. The menus for tasting sets come in both English and Japanese, and you can even tell staff your preferences and let them compose a menu just for you.
If you want to drink sake in a bar with real ‘wow’ factor, then it has to be Kozue. Located on the 40th floor of the Park Hyatt hotel, it is probably head and shoulders – and then some – above the rest. Of course you are going to pay for this view, as well as the ambiance of the sleek hardwood interiors (think 10-20 times what you might pay in Meishu Center), but the list is pretty extensive, and always changing, with different kura being showcased each month.
If you are looking for ease of access, the famous sake exporter Hasegawa Saketen is pretty handy, with seven locations around Tokyo. Predominantly set up as sake shops as opposed to bars, there are plenty of different types of nihonshu to try (if not quite so many as in Meishu Center). Each place has a slightly differing atmosphere – the location in Tokyo Skytree certainly feels like a store, while the outlet in Kameido has got a definite bar vibe.
Perhaps the complete antithesis to the Park Hyatt’s Kozue, Kuri sake bar in Ginza is just about the drink. There is a simple food menu to accompany your brew, but this simple and highly unpretentious bar takes its sake seriously. At any one time you can find up to 150 bottles with helpful sommeliers to assist you in composing your tasting flight.
Also in Ginza is Sasahana, one of the more fashionable, yet stylish places to sample sake in Tokyo. The restaurant is mix of classic Japanese design with a flash of contemporary ostentation, and this is mirrored in the sake menu with dozens of mainstream labels nestling in amongst more interesting, artisan brands.
While it is all well and good popping out to a bar to sample the nihionshu delights, it is quite another thing to check it out at its source. The Sawanoi brewery in Oume has been making nihonshu for more than 200 years, so you can be assured that they know what they are doing. Okay, at a 90 minute train journey from central Tokyo, it isn’t the most convenient of places at which to wet your whistle. However the tour is pretty interesting (though an English pamphlet aside, entirely in Japanese) and after it is finished you can sit in their riverside garden bar and sample – at retail price – their products.