Pulling into Sawai station, you instantly notice how quiet and serene this place really is. The Ozawa Sake Brewery is a short 5-minute walk from the station and we are over an hour early. So we start to walk around the area to see if there is anything interesting to check out.
The most interesting area we found was actually down by the brewery. Running by the brewery is the Tama River, which was historically the source of their water. On the opposite side of the brewery is a small Kanzan-Ji Temple. There are also cherry blossom trees towering over either side of the river, which would no doubt make a beautiful sight in the sakura season.
As the time of booking comes around, we decide to head to the meetup spot. Here we register our names off the list and we are greeted by one of the staff conducting the tour in English. Being a weekday, I was surprised by the number of Japanese that seemed to be apart of the tour. However, I soon realised they were part of the staff ensemble. Sure enough, a larger group of foreigners joined the group. So this was definitely the English tour we registered for.
Time to Tour
The tour seems to get off to a slightly nervous start, especially as the staff looked tried to confirm everyone’s registration. However, once complete, things started to move along a lot smoother. Finally, after being greeted outside the meeting point, we start heading towards the brewery main factory. We are led by another member of staff who demonstrates a high level of English in his opening remarks. So we felt we were in safe hands.
He leads us to the entry of the brewery building and shows us a small shrine before the entrance. Here all employees pray for a safe and quality year of sake production. Before entering the building, we are introduced to the traditional prayer ritual.
How to Pray in Japan
二礼、二拍手、一礼 (にれい、にはくしゅ、いちれい or nirei, nihakushu, ichirei) is literally 2, 2, 1. However, it translates into 2 bows, 2 claps and 1 bow, which is quite simple to remember. Everyone is given a chance to practice their prayer ritual before entering the factory, and then we proceed into the building.
Inside the Cellar
As we first wander inside, we are confronted with a large array of huge blue casks used for the fermentation of sake (nihonshu). This first room of the cellar is called the ‘Genroku-Gora’, which houses all the large casks. This room has thick walls insulated with mud to keep the light out and maintain a constant temperature. What’s more, the insulation is so good no additional heating or cooling is required. A consistent temperature is necessary to produce good quality sake. Otherwise, any variations in temperature or exposure to light can have adverse effects on the sake brewing process.
We stop by one of the casks, as our guide proceeds to continue his explanation. He explains that there are over 200 of these 8,000-litre casks in the factory. All the casks are made from stainless steel and lined with enamel to keep the sake as pure as possible.
He then poses a question to the audience. Along the lines of how long would it take for one person to drink a whole 8,000-litre tank, assuming they drank only one cup (180ml) of sake per day. He exclaims it would take a whole 123 years, so why don’t we buy the whole cask he jokes. Seemingly, very good value in the long-term if you could even reach that age.
Numbers and Numbers
You may notice the numbers on the blue containers too. The top number indicates its key identifier (number # of 200+), while the lower number indicates the total capacity of the cask (in litres).
Next to the blue casks, you can also find examples of the wooden vats historically used for the fermentation process. They are now mostly replaced by stainless steel or enamel-lined casks. However, it is said that the wooden canisters were ideal for fermentation due to the porous surface of the wood. This provided the perfect environment for various types of yeast development. Thus providing a variety of different, yet smoother flavours.
Next, we move on down a dark hallway to an area showing off some cylindrical machines. Here they have some of the rice polishing machines on display. He also hands us some transparent containers which demonstrate the differences between polished rice and unpolished rice. There is also a difference between edible rice and sake race.
The rice used to make sake is very different from the rice you eat. In fact, the rice used to make sake needs to be polished first to remove excess weight. The more refined the rice, the better the quality of starch that can be extracted from the grains. Moreover, it has a clearer flavour and fragrance. At a minimum, the rice is polished down to 30% of the original weight, but the highest quality sake could be polished down to as much as 65%.
We return to another section of the cellar, with lines of shelves filled with bottles of sake. Some dating back to as old as the year 2000 (Sydney Olympics yay!). The guide continues to tell us that sake has no expiry date, and the aging process can only helping with the integration of flavours. As you could guess, the aged bottles are a lot more expensive than those which are not.
Well, Well, Well …
Afterwards, we are led outside to a small cave inlet, a well that was dug over 170 years ago. As mentioned before, we were in the area of Sawai, part of Ome city. Sawai means stream or well, in reference to the Tama river which runs parallel to the train line. Originally, they use to draw water from the nearby river to make their sake, more than 300 years ago. This continued for over 130 years. However, after that, a well was dug over 170 years ago, and this continues to provides most of the water for the sake they make today.
The well was actually dug horizontally, facing north towards the large hill behind to the cellar. The well was dug around 140 metres northward under the hill and still continues to be used due to the quality of the spring water. The water here is considerably rich in minerals, yet very low in iron, manganese and organic matter. This kind of quality makes it ideal for sake brewing. The surrounding natural environment also helps to maintain the quality of the water. Hence, why they continue to source water from this well.
The Final Tasting
After inspecting the well, we are finally let into the tasting room. This is our last stop to finally try the finished product. Surprisingly, we are lucky enough to receive our own ‘Choco’ or sake tasting cup. We get to finally try the sake they have available. Pouring ourselves, of course, we try to be as generous as possible. The aroma is quite powerful, but the taste is extremely refined and almost pleasantly refreshing. Definitely, nothing like I have ever tried before. Ultimately, that concludes the free part of the tour, we fill out a quick survey and then led into the second tasting room. This is the part of the tour which actually costs money. Yet, by using the same cup, you can save yourself 100 yen off each sake you wish to try.
How to Taste Sake
The brochure provides suggests the following 3 steps to trying sake:
- Check the quality and colour of the sake – using the inner and outer dark blue circles in our ‘Choco’ as a reference, you can contrast the colour and gloss.
- Smell the aroma – swirl the sake around gently in the cup to help release the aroma.
- Taste the flavour – take a small sip, and spread the sake over the surface of your tongue.
There a whole range of sake to try and taste, the availability of different bottles also changes with the season too. So, we try a few different blends and are stunned at the broad range of flavours, fragrances and appearance.
They also suggest sake has been health benefits, particularly as it contains over 100 nutrients. They claim that it is softer on the liver than other alcohols, they also think it helps to prevent diseases like cancer and dementia. Additionally, it helps to delay the onset of osteoporosis or arteriosclerosis. Either way, we are happy to enjoy the taste and refreshing flavours it has to offer.
Ultimately, the tour is a great day trip outside the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. It is a bit of a hike, around an hour and a half or more from Shinjuku by train, but the rewards are worth it. The tour is super informative and provides you with your own free ‘choco’ to take home. Plus you receive a free fridge magnet to boot. On top of that, they have a cafe downstairs, plus you can enjoy their wide variety of sakes, and even take a few home with you.
You can find out more information about Ozawa Sake Brewery and even book English tours via their website.
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