Exploring Sake in Glorious Gifu
I recently visited Gifu Prefecture for the first time. I was lucky enough to be invited to tag along on Sake Discoveries’ tour of Gifu guided by JETRO this past October. Over just a few days, we crisscrossed the Prefecture, visiting many sake breweries and experiencing some truly unique parts of Gifu’s culture. It was like discovering a new side of Japan’s sake scene that I didn’t know existed. Below is a brief outline of what I experienced and the highlights of this unforgettable trip exploring sake in glorious Gifu!
Moments after arriving in Gifu City’s Shinkansen Station, I was already walking into my first Gifu Sake Brewery. This is because Nihon Izumi Shuzo is just steps away from the station. It’s an extremely unique brewery run by the Takeyama brothers. What makes this small Brewery special is that all their production takes place in an office building basement! The production scale is small, but the sake they produce is top notch and really delicious. Given its compact size, touring the Brewery took just minutes, but I wanted to linger much longer over the tasting. This first stop in Gifu really surprised me. Sake can be made anywhere and Nihon Izumi proves it deliciously.
Our next stop was a short drive from Gifu City, taking us to the town of Kakamigahara. This is the home of Hayashi Honten, makers of Eiichi brand of sake. The Toji gave us a personal tour. The first thing that struck me was the size and vast scale of this Brewery. They are currently making a lot less then their capacity, but now their focus is on quality over quantity. Specialty items include a oak barrel aged sake and a fun pop art influenced “sakedelic” brew. They certainly get points for creativity! I really enjoyed visiting Eiichi.
Cormorant fishing, known as Ukai in Japanese, is synonymous with Gifu’s Nagaragawa River. It’s an ancient form of fishing practiced at night, under a bright burning wood fire, where captive cormorant birds are used to retrieve river fish using their natural hunting instincts. We met Cormorant Fishing Master Masahiko Sugiyama who gave us the low down on how this all works. The title of Cormorant Fishing Master, as designated by the Emperor, is strictly hereditary and handed down from father to son only. Ukai watching parties are popular and you can go out on a boat and watch the birds up close. it’s an amazing experience, and we got so close, that I could feel the heat from the fire on my face. Incredible to see up close. Our boat even had a Gifu Maiko who entertained us non stop until the birds were ready to do their thing. truly and unforgettable night!
Sake culture extends beyond just what you can drink. A perfect example of this was our visit to the Ohashi Ryoki Masu Factory. Now a masu is a square wooden box traditionally used for drinking sake. Mr. Ohashi’s family has been making these masu for over 60 years.
In the sake business, you see these masu everywhere, but I had never stopped to think how they were made. A visit to Mr. Ohashi’s factory cleared up all that. I learned about the elegant Japanese Cypress, better known as “Hinoki” that is used to craft these beautiful boxes. Hinoki is the wood chosen to make the oldest wooden temples in Japan and is also often used to build Japanese baths as well.
The wonderful morning spent at Ohashi Ryoki Masu Factory really opened my eyes to the work that craftsmen like Mr. Ohashi are doing not only to preserve the ancient craft of making a Masu, but also to advance the art. A case in point is the fun new shapes that they are using – not just four corners any more! and also laser etching designs on the boxes allows for fun and exciting design! Kanpai for masu! the best is yet to come.
Located in Ogaki city, Gifu, Takeuchi Shuzo is a brewery with a little something extra – namely, a wonderful tribute to the history of sake brewing. Up the stairs and to the left, behind the door is the old Koji room, which brewery president Mr. Takeuchi has converted into a makeshift museum. Here you can see many of the implements used to make sake in the past centuries – most interesting of which is the husk fill in the koji table itself… a 19th century solution on how to retain heat and keep the koji warm.
Mr. and Mrs. Takeuchi welcomed us with a wonderful tasting and a spirited discussion of all things sake… from bottle shape and size to taste and preferences of the foreign market. A beautiful time and a wonderful brewery.
Located in Gifu’s Gero City, Tenryo is arguably the most famous sake from Gifu.
Gero is famous around the world for it’s hot springs and osen culture. what better place to look than Gero city for some of the best water there is. Tenryo does not disappoint with a rich but clean taste. I learned from the Brewer’s family that their taste matches particularly well with the local cuisine and I had a great chance to try that out for myself.
One of the most famous treats was the local Aiyu (sweet fish) that was caught locally and is absolutely delicious. Since Tenryo is widely available in the U.S., I hope you get a chance to try this great sake soon! And there is no law against drinking this sake in the onsen, that’s for sure!
Next we visited two sake breweries in Hida Furukawa, Gifu. This charming town is laced with wide canals filled with bulky koi fish swimming against a strong current. First we visted Kaba sake Brewery with a tour guided by their toji. After the tour, the Managing Director Atsuko Kaba gave us a delicious tasting of their sakes.
Next we walked down the street to Watanabe Sake Brewery, makers of Horai brand Sake. Brewery President Mr. Watanabe toured us around his beautiful brewery and we also met Cody-san, their American Kurabito. We sat down for a wonderful tasting and discussion about promoting sake in both Japan and the States. Furukawa is a beautiful town with beautiful sakes!
Last but not least was our wonderful visit to Takayama, Gifu. This town is very well known within Japan as a major tourist destination, and once I arrived there, I understood why. The old city of Takayama is beautifully preserved in the Edo style, and feels quite a bit like stepping back in time. Another beautiful thing is the number of sake breweries that are concentrated in this quaint little town. We visited at least five in one day. They are all visitor friendly and within easy walking distance of each other.
The breweries we visted included Hirase Shuzo, makers of Kusudama brand sake, Harada Sake Brewery, Makers of Sansha brand sake, Niki Shuzo, Funasaka Sake Brewery and Kawashiri sake brewery, Makers of Hidamasamune koshu sake. In short, Takayama was magical… for now it feels like my hidden little secret, but won’t be for long!