Today I meet with Naoto, the English speaking organiser of a saké tour. I am the only person to sign up. Not wanting to waste his whole day, I ask whether we should still go on the tour. It turns out Naoto is still quite eager to visit the brewery. Naoto is passionate about saké and wants to spread the word about this traditional Japanese drink, which dates back two thousand years. So off we go.
We head to Tokyo Station, before taking the Tokaido Line to Kōzu Station. The journey takes about ninety minutes. We have to wait at Kōzu for a while; the trains here appear just twice an hour. Eventually, a train comes, and we take the Gotemba Line to our destination, Kami-Ōi Station. From the train, I can see the sea.
Kami-Ōi Station is deserted, it is so quiet that there is no ticket gate. “What, so we just walk out without paying?” I ask.
“This is the countryside,” is the explanation Naoto gives. The area is definitely the countryside. Mountains and the sea, rice growing everywhere, and the air is clean. We leave the station without paying, and head to the Inoue Saké Brewery.
A globe of cedar leaves hangs outside. I am told this it to represent this year’s saké. At the end of October, this will be replaced with a new cedar globe, when the new batch of saké is made. The idea is that the leaves start off the green, and as the saké matures, the leaves turn brown. A representation of sorts.
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About SAKÉ But Were Afraid to Ask
Inoue Sake Brewery was established in 1789, during the Edo period. The owner, Mister Inoue, is incredibly humble, passionate, and speaks reasonably good English. We take a seat, he talks us through the process, the history, and the various types of saké; then the tour of the brewery promptly begins. He explains that the cold Hakone air is perfect for the production of saké. The brewery uses locally grown rice, and water from 150 meters underground. I drink some of the water; just as I expected, it is clean, fresh and clear.
Saké production is somewhat similar to wine, except an extra process is added before fermentation. Starch from the rice is added to Koji, a diastatic enzyme. The enzyme helps to break down the rice and convert the starch into sugar. The process is known as Saccharification. Next, sugar and yeast are added and fermentation begins. With wine, grapes naturally contain sugars, so only yeast is added, but after that, the process is very much the same.
From Masher With Love
We visit the room where the Koji is added to the rice, see the large tanks where the rice is steamed, where it is stored, where it is mashed. I am surprised to discover that all of the processes are done by hand. The mashing process, for example, takes place in huge 8,000-litre tanks. The masher stands above the tank on a dangerous looking wooden platform, and smashes a huge stick into the rice, for four days.
The result is a liquid made from starch. Next multiple parallel fermentation takes place. The mixture is rested for up to 32 days, during which, Saccharification and fermentation take place at the same time. Following this, the saké is pressed through a cloth, filtered, before a pasteurisation process begins. Finally, the saké is aged for up to six months, bottled, and eventually sold to the consumer.
SakÉ, Bottle, and Roll
The saké is sold in 1.8-litre bottles or 720 ml bottles. A much smaller bottle is also sold, however, the larger sizes are the most common. After the tour, we sit down and try a few varieties of saké. My favourite is the gold-medal winning Hakone-yama Junmai. Junmaishu is a traditional style of saké and often has a mellow bouquet with a rich, smooth flavour.
Hakone-yama Junmai can be enjoyed in three different ways. Room temperature, cold, or hot. We try it at room temperature first, and it tastes good, with just a subtle amount of flavour. We then drink it cold, and it tastes a lot nicer, with a much smoother texture. Finally, we try the hot variety, which also tastes great, the flavour really opens up, and the scent is a lot stronger.
After the tasting, I am given a Masu as a souvenir, a small wooden box which was originally used to measure rice, but these days it is used as a container for drinking saké. Impressed with what I have seen and tasted today, I decide to buy a bottle of saké for ¥1200. After that, we say goodbye to the owner and return to Kami-Ōi Station.
As I wander idly through where a ticket barrier should stand, I can see, in the distance, the base of Mount Fuji.