Nihonshu, better known as simply sake to most of us, is a term in Japan that encompasses a wide range of Japanese rice wine. As you would expect, the quality of the rice and water used in the fermentation process matters a whole lot, and the Tohoku region, one of Japan's best-known rice-producing regions is home to a host of sake breweries behind popular brands that have won prestigious awards.
The largest city in the region is Sendai City, and needless to mention, restaurants there are proud to serve authentic and locally-brewed sake.
Interested to explore the world of nihonshu but don't know where to start? Join us in this article as we embark on a journey to get to know this widely-acclaimed Japanese alcoholic beverage better with the help of Mr. Tsukasa Aoya, the owner of Hatago restaurant and an accredited Kikisake-shi (sake specialist), who will be sharing with us the basics of nihonshu, his top recommendations, and how we can learn more through a comprehensive nihonshu workshop.
Hatago, where the best-tasting nihonshu Japan has to offer come together
Hatago can be found on the third floor of a building that is a quick 2-minute straight walk from the left of South Exit 1 of Kotodaikoen Station, which in turn is a quick 3-minute transfer from Sendai Station on the JR Lines via the Sendai Subway Namboku Line.
From the shop's counter seat, you're treated to the calming view of a Japanese zelkova-lined tree avenue along one of Sendai's top sightseeing spots, Jōzeni-dōri, which will surely enhance your dining experience.
Hatago regularly stocks about 50 to 60 types of scrupulously picked nihonshu brands from all over Japan and serves them alongside lovely Japanese-style meals.
From visitors of the Tohoku region looking for authentic local brews to newcomers to the wine-drinking scene in their early 20s, everyone - even and especially beginners! - can feel welcome to Hatago's carefully crafted world of nihonshu.
Mr. Aoya, the owner, wants everyone to feel welcome at Hatago and hopes that his restaurant can serve as a gateway to this tasty Japanese alcoholic beverage for as many as possible.
To that end, he has prepared questionnaires with English and Chinese labels to help non-Japanese patrons be able to express their food and drink preferences clearly as well.
How is nihonshu made?
The basic ingredients of nihonshu are rice and water, but the actual process from raw materials to refined wine is still enshrouded in much mystery for most beginners to the beverage. We asked Mr. Aoya to tell us a little more about the background of nihonshu and its brewing process, and here's what he had to share.
Mr. Aoya: "The general process is like this: Rice grains are milled into refined rice to remove any impurities.
The rice is then washed (senmai) and immersed in water to absorb moisture (shinshi).
After that, the rice is steamed (mushi|i@>) and kōji mold is used to ferment it (seikiku).
There are other things as well, such as the making of the yeast starter (shubo-zukuri) that is the foundation of all nihonshu, the making of the fermenting mash (moromi-zukuri) by putting the yeast starter in a preparation tank, filtering the mash and alcohol (shibori) into sake lees, and then finally storing the end product.
That said, it really depends on the brewery. Some employ more technologically advanced techniques or have their own special methods. Naturally, each brewery has its own signature flavors as a result."
That was certainly enlightening. Looks like breweries have to really do their research if they want to come up with a taste or fragrance that really stands out.
What do the Daiginjō or Ginjō labels on the bottles mean?
As you leaf through the restaurant's menu, you'll come across labels such as Daiginjō or Ginjō. What do these names mean? You may also be curious about pertinent details about this traditional drink, such as - how strong is the alcoholic content in nihonshu?
Mr. Aoya: "Nihonshu is usually divided into different grades, such as Daiginjō or Ginjō, depending on the ratio of polished rice (seimai-buai) gained from the milling process.
Personally, though, I think there's no need to be too hung up about the grades, because fermentation techniques have been improving progressively. The more important thing is whether you enjoy the taste!
After all, while nihonshu don't necessarily look too different from each other, their flavor can differ dramatically depending on the ingredients used during the brewing process.
In terms of alcoholic content, most nihonshu average 16%. For those who think it's a bit on the high side, feel absolutely free to add a drink chaser in between sips like you would when enjoying wine!"
All this extra knowledge about nihonshu will certainly add to the flavor of the drink when we do try it!
Highlights of Tohoku sake and a must-try recommendation
Most breweries use local rice and water to produce their sake, which is why it can be said each bottle of nihonshu has its own regional characteristics. This taste is also influenced by how the brewery director, known as the tōji, runs the brewery's production lines.
In that case, what are the hallmarks of nihonshu made in Tohoku, the northernmost tip of Japan's main island? What would be Mr. Aoya's recommendation from the region?
Mr. Aoya: "It's generally agreed that the nihonshu in Tohoku look clear and are easy on the throat. I think that could be due to the fact that Tohoku has a cold climate, so much care is taken to not over-ferment the mash during the fermentation process.
That said, kōji mold research is very advanced these days, so you'll find that there is a wide range of flavors among nihonshu under the same Tohoku umbrella.
There are about 240 sake breweries in Tohoku, and although Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture has the third-least amount of breweries in Tohoku's six prefectures, the city has a reputation for being home to a large number of excellent breweries with award-winning brands.
"The nihonshu I personally recommend is Senshō Masamune from Katsuyama Shuzō, a sake brewery located in that very same Sendai City.
The brewery is a Sendai icon with more than 320 years of history behind it, and it has links to the very first feudal lord of Sendai, Masamune Date himself.
Only the best Japanese-produced rice and soft water measuring just 35 mg/l from a local mountain, Izumigatake are used in the process. The nihonshu that results is rich in aroma and goes smoothly down the throat."
Visitors to Sendai would surely be excited to try a local product made from a brewery with such a prestigious history. Since the bottle is beautifully adorned with a bright gold label, it's also the perfect souvenir to buy back for keepsake or gift-giving as well.
Exploring the world of Tohoku sake with a taste-testing workshop
As fun as it would be to simply wander around the streets hoping to meet the nihonshu of your dreams, there's also the option of taking part in a workshop hosted by Mr. Aoya himself.
In case you've forgotten, Mr. Aoya is an accredited sake specialist known as a Kikisake-shi, and he can use his knowledge to help you find your ideal nihonshu.
Participants of the workshop will also be able to taste-test six types of local Tohoku nihonshu alongside an appetizer plate containing four types of snacks that go particularly well with sake, all while listening to Mr. Aoya's insights on this delightful Japanese drink.
On the day we participated in the workshop, we were served: Mutsu Hassen (Tokubetsu Junmai / Shinshu Nigori) from Aomori, Yuki no Bosha (Junmai Ginjō) from Akita, Jōkigen (Tokubetsu Junmai) from Yamagata, Senshō Masamune (Junmai Ginjō) from Miyagi, Ichinokura (Honjōzō) from Miyagi, and Denrin (Yamahai Shikomi / Tokubetsu Junmai) from Miyagi. That's right! These are all nihonshu from the Tohoku region.
Mr. Aoya: "While it's a good idea to look for the nihonshu you think you would like only after learning more about the drink, it's also important to find the taste you would actually prefer by going in completely blind at first.
Many non-Japanese participants often tell me that the nihonshu they had in their own countries didn't taste good at all, but considering how many different types of nihonshu there are, it's possible that the one they tried just didn't suit their palate, not that it was defective in any way.
Find the nihonshu that makes you go, 'This is awesome!' first, then expand your interest in the drink by looking deeper, if you like.
This workshop allows participants to taste-test different types of nihonshu individually. There's a high chance you'll encounter the flavor you've always been looking for!"
Picking out a nihonshu based on what tastes good to you personally rather than based on head knowledge is certainly an intriguing idea that adds mystique and appeal to the already charming drink!
The four appetizers (called fukidashi) served during our workshop were cooked vegetables, seasonal sashimi, cheese pickled with Sendai miso, and boiled greens in soy sauce.
Mr. Aoya: "Cooked food goes very well with the refreshingly spicy Ichinokura. Since Senshō Masamune is richly flavored, the sashimi will enhance its taste very well!
The miso-pickled cheese goes well with almost any nihonshu due to its makeup. Maybe pair it with the light-tasting Yuki no Bosha. The slightly zesty boiled greens will complement Jōkigen quite nicely.
There's frankly a lot of snacks and side dishes that go well with nihonshu, so you can feel free to mix and match the fukidashi with any of the six nihonshu being served at the workshop, according to your preferences."
Mr. Aoya especially recommends trying out the Sendai miso-pickled cheese. Although cheese is more commonly associated with wine, nihonshu is, at its core, a fermented food product as well, so it goes without saying that cheese would be a good complement for it too.
The way they bring out the best of each other is the reason why many venture to call the cheese-alcohol pairing a match made in culinary heaven.
Try out some authentic and locally brewed nihonshu to make your trip to Japan even more meaningful, and get to know the Tohoku region's local alcohol better by participating in Hatago's informative workshop program!
Measures against Covid-19
Shop premises and equipment disinfected, sterilized, and sanitized regularly / Antiseptic solutions available for use / Surfaces disinfected in between customers / Ventilation measures / Coin tray / Partition boards / Staff wear masks, wash hands, disinfect, gargle, and have temperatures taken regularly / Number of customers limited, social distancing required / Restrictions on entry and reservations / Customers feeling unwell are not allowed to enter / Customers to wear masks
- Address 4-10-11 FRK3F, Ichibancho, Sendai Shi Aoba Ku, Miyagi Ken, 980-0811, Japan
- Phone Number 022-797-4490
Hours: 5:00p.m. – midnight（1:00a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays）
Text by: Shoepress
Translated by: Huimin Pan
* The information in this article is as of December 2020. Please check the official website for the latest information.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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