Saijo in Higashi-hiroshima city is, along with the Nada district in Hyogo and Fushimi district in Kyoto, is known as one of Japan’s top brewing areas. Thanks to a concentration of many high quality, natural water sources (essential for making great sake), its seven breweries are all found in a compact area along what is now called Sakagura-dori (Sake Brewery Street).
With its distinctive white and black latticed walls and red brick chimneys (and, of course, opportunities to sample the local product), Saijo’s brewery district is worth visiting at any time of the year. However, if you can make it, the Sake Matsuri, the town’s two-day celebration of sake and community, is not to be missed. 2023 is particularly significant as, after the event was moved online or much scaled back during the pandemic, the Saijo Sake Matsuri returns in full effect this year on October 7th and 8th.
For the first weekend of October, the town’s breweries throw open their doors to all-comers, the streets are lined with stalls, and the parks are filled with people enjoying stage shows and, of course, sampling sake.
Although the local sake breweries can more than hold their own, the Sake Matsuri aims to showcase the diversity of the nation’s sake by bringing around 800 sake varieties from all around the country to share the product of months of hard work over the last brewing season in the Sake Matsuri’s “Sake Hiroba”.
Giving thanks for the gift of sake
The title of this article notwithstanding, Shuichiro Motonaga of Sanyo Tsuru Shuzo, one of Saijo’s seven breweries since 1912, wants to make it clear that, although the event is a lot of fun, at its heart it is a matsuri, in the sense of a shrine festival, to show appreciation and give thanks for the gift of sake. It’s for this reason, he explains, that those involved are always careful to refer to the event as a sake matsuri rather than festival.
On the morning of the first day of Sake Matsuri, a ceremonial ritual is carried out at the Matsuo Shrine which stands in the grounds of Mitate Shrine, just north of Saijo railway station. Matsuo Shrine enshrines Oyamakui, one of the three major sake gods in Japan. Oyamakui is transferred to a portable shrine (mikoshi) adorned with a large sakabayashi (the cedar balls that are more commonly known as sugidama which can be seen hung in front of breweries and sake shops) through the streets by local men. The portable shrine remains in the center of the festival area for the duration of the event, and we are sure that Oyamakui is gratified to see so many people enthusiastically appreciating his bounty.
How to enjoy the Sake Matsuri
Once the rites are concluded, the fun really begins. An opening ceremony on the main Kizuna Stage, preceded by a taiko drum performance, at 10am on Saturday, October 7, kicks off two full days of drinking, eating and stage shows.
Travel the length and breadth of Japan through sake!
The Sake Hiroba is one the main attractions are Sake Matsuri with breweries from all over the country in attendance and with around 800 kinds of sake on offer, you are spoilt for choice. It can be a little overwhelming, so you could start by comparing sake from the nation’s three top brewing districts, Nada in Hyogo, Fushimi in Kyoto, and the home team of Saijo. As Higashi-hiroshima, where Saijo is located, is famous for developing brewing methods and technology to utilize its softer water, you might like to compare the local sake with that from areas with harder water. Another, less scientific, method is to choose an area of Japan that you like and check out what they have to offer.
Whatever selection method you opt for, be sure to partake of yawaragi-mizu, water sipped between sakes that not only clears the palate, but also staves off the hangover.
Admission to the Sake Hiroba is by ticket and is limited to one of five 2.5-hour sessions over the two days of the Sake Matsuri.
|Saturday, Oct 7||Sunday, Oct 8|
Advance tickets are ¥3,000 and are available from 7-11 ticket machines Ticketopia [P-code：651-316]
- 8 drink tickets
- 2 snack tickets
- 1 bottle of yawaragi-mizu water (see above)
- Ceramic o-chokko sake cup
- Sake list (Japanese)
Additional sake tickets can be bought on site for ¥1,000 (10 tickets)
Sakagura-dori (Sake Brewery Street)
During the Sake Matsuri the usually quiet Sakagura-dori is filled with energy as the breweries open their doors to the public and other local businesses set up street stalls. Many of the breweries host special events and offer paid sake tastings. Sake aficionados be sure to look out for opportunities to sample some limited varieties.
Keep an eye on the Sake Matsuri website for updates (in Japanese) about what will be going on at the different breweries or just dive in on the day and see for yourself.
The guys get to carry the Omikoshi portable shrine from Matsuo Shrine on Saturday morning, but the ladies also get their chance at 2pm when the Hime (princess) Mikoshi parade sets out from the Mitate Shrine and makes its way through the, by now, crowded streets. The energy of the women, dressed in colorful festive garb, brings smiles and shouts of encouragement from onlookers as they pass.
If you would like to take part in the hime-mikoshi parade, you can sign up here [Japanese] until September 19 (or until the 60 available places are filled).
Bishu-nabe Hot Pot
Bishu Nabe hot pot is a dish that is often eaten by workers during the long, hard brewing season. It is a hot pot dish with lots of vegetables, chicken and pork that is perfect for the cold winter work and packed with nutrients to keep the workers healthy and energetic. Bishu nabe is lightly seasoned to avoid any impact stronger flavors might have on the sake brewing process, but is interesting for the fact that it is cooked in sake rather than water. This unique taste of sake culture can be enjoyed by all as the alcohol evaporates during the cooking process.
If you get a few friends together, you can try Bishu Nabe at the sake matsuri by purchasing a ticket in advance.
There are seven time slots available over the two days of the festival for ¥13,000 per 4-person serving. Your hot pot also comes with two bottles of local sake. Tickets can be purchased from 7-11 ticket machines using Ticketopia P-Code 651-323.
|Saturday, Oct 7||Sunday, Oct 8|
At 2:30 pm on Saturday, a large group of people, including lots of children and members of the town’s considerable international population, start to make their way from the east end of Sakagura-dori to the heart of the matsuri, dancing the modern folk dance sake-midare-bayashi as they go.
What if I don’t drink sake?
In recent years the Saijo Sake Matsuri has grown in scale and aims to appeal to a wide range of people and ages. While sake is understandably the star of the show, you will also find many other drinks on sale at the street stalls, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. Sake Matsuri is also a great place to find food and beauty products such as “sake sweets” which are made from sake-kasu, the sake lees that are a byproduct of the brewing process.
Getting to Sake Matsuri
It is highly recommended that you take public transport to the Sake Matsuri. Saijo Station is approximately 40 minutes from Hiroshima by train on the Sanyo Honsen Line. It is advised that you buy your return ticket from the ticket machine when you arrive to avoid long lines.
Saijo Sake Brewing District (a short walk from Saijo JR Station)
October 7-8, 2023
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