In 2016, former U.S. president Barack Obama dined with, then Prime Minister, the late Abe Shinzo at the almost legendary sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro of (Jiro Dreams of Sushi fame). Observers noticed that the sake Jiro Ono chose to complement the meal was not one, as might have been expected, from the Japanese Prime Minister’s native Yamaguchi Prefecture, but was brewed here in Hiroshima.
The choice of kamotsuru’s “Gold” premium sake (named for the sakura petal-shaped flecks of gold leaf contained in every bottle) was big news here in Hiroshima and continues to be a source of pride for the “Sake Town” town of Saijo in Higashi-hiroshima city where Kamotsuri has been making sake for over 100 years.
Sake Town Saijo in Higashi-hiroshima
With the 2023 G7 Summit being held in Hiroshima this May, it is almost certain that visiting leaders will be offered sake made by one of the prefecture’s 48 sake brewers, and there is a good chance that it will be from Saijo.
Here, concentrated along what is now known as Sakagura-dori (Sake Brewery Street), are no less than seven sake breweries. Get off the train at Saijo Station (about 30 minutes from Hiroshima) and a short walk takes you into the brewery district, a maze of narrow streets lined by the distinctive black and white lattice walls of the breweries, from behind which their red brick chimneys stand tall against the sky.
Sake culture fueled by technical innovation
Kamotsuru may be Saijo’s largest and possibly most well-known brewery, but it is not actually its oldest. That accolade goes to Hakubotan which started producing sake to be served to Hiroshima’s samurai lords who would stay at their villa in Saijo when journeying along the old road towards the capital of Edo almost 350 years ago.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century and early 20th century, however, that Saijo started to develop into a center of sake brewing. Although blessed with an excellent water source supplied by subterranean water from nearby Mt. Ryuoh – Saijo’s breweries are clustered around the source of this water which they draw from wells to brew their sake – Saijo lacked rivers suitable for water wheels to power the rice mills needed to polish rice for large-scale sake production.
In 1896, however, a sake brewer and a local engineer developed Japan’s first motor-driven rice polishing machine. After years of incremental improvement, the vertical grinding rice polishing machine proved to be revolutionary and the technology, which remains mostly unchanged to this day, provided Saijo with the tool it needed to make the most out of its geographical and climatic blessings and tradition of brewing, to become one of Japan’s top three sake brewing regions.
Get the inside track from a local expert
With so many breweries in a small area, Saijo is an excellent place for both the novice looking for an introduction into the wonderful world of sake and the aficionado to deepen their knowledge.
Many of the breweries have areas open to the public and provide tastings (free of charge and paid), with some offering explanations and behind the scenes tours in addition to gift shops and exhibition spaces.
Understandably, however, it is the business of producing sake that is their main priority and opening hours and availability of staff at different breweries varies considerably depending on the season and even day to day.
With this in mind, the benefit of some local knowledge can make a huge difference to how much you get out of your time in Saijo. The Higashi Hiroshima Local Guide Association offers 90 minute walking tours of the sake brewing district that provide an excellent orientation to the town and sake production.
In this relatively short time, a friendly English-speaking guide will give an easy to understand explanation of sake in Saijo, as well as sharing some interesting stories (such as the stir caused when an elephant came to town in the 18th century), while visiting the Kamotsuru Brewery Museum and several other breweries.
Your guide will know which breweries are open and when and can even arrange for guests to meet with sake experts, who will patiently guide you through tastings. The tour will provide you with background knowledge should you choose to revisit some of the places on the tour or explore more of the town. At only ¥1000 for a group of up to 5 people, this is an amazing bargain that will help make your day in Saijo a memorable one. Call Higashi-hiroshima City Tourism Association on (+81) 082-420-0329 to arrange a guide.
Get a look behind the curtain at a 120 year old brewery
An exciting opportunity for those keen to see where the magic happens, is currently being developed by Saijotsuru, an award-winning brewery that has been making sake on Sakagura Dori since the turn of the 20th century.
Keen to share the culture of sake with people from around the world, chief brewer and brewery manager Mitsuyoshi Miyaji and his English-speaking wife, who serves as company president, are putting the finishing touches to an in-depth, behind the scenes tour of their restored brewery.
Sake brewing is a delicate business and it is rare for members of the public to be allowed into sensitive areas of the brewery. At Saijotsuru, however, visitors are granted full access, even to the Koji Room.
It is here where, under carefully controlled conditions, grains of polished rice are seeded with the Koji bacteria which is both essential to the fermentation process and has an important component in the flavor profile of the sake it helps produce.
The tour is followed by a tasting session during which there is ample time to quiz this friendly and welcoming couple who have committed to devoting their lives to the production of this most Japanese of beverages.
Should you find yourself in need of a break from exploring Saijo’s sake brewing district, Kugurimon Coffee is a lovely cafe that is housed in a renovated building that used to serve as the gateway to a popular theater.
As well as excellent coffee, Kugurimon serves light meals that include lunch plates made with local-sourced ingredients (try the Higashi-hiroshima Lunch which comes with deep fried locally-raised chicken and croquettes coated with rice flour) and pizza and toast topped with liberal helpings of sake lees. Amazake fruit drinks and other beverages are available, and you can, of course, order some Saijo sake, made literally just meters away, and local craft beer. The ground floor gift shop is a great place to pick up souvenirs too.
Open 10:00-17:00 (L.O. 16:30)
Closed 2nd & 4th Tuesday of each month