Heart and soul of sake in the breweries of Nara
By JOHN GAUNTNER
Nara Prefecture can easily be considered the historical heartland of sake. Far more than any other prefecture, historically and culturally, Nara is an extremely significant sake-brewing locale.
During the eighth century, the city of Nara was still the capital of Japan. In 689, the Imperial Palace established a brewing department within its walls called sake no kami. It is technically difficult to pinpoint just when sake became sake. But, by this time, it was certainly close to what we know today.
Eventually sake brewing moved from the palace to temples and shrines, and then again to the common folk. So technically advanced was the sake of Nara that even into the Muromachi Period (1392-1573) the term Nara-zake signified great sake.
Nara is also the location of Omiwa Shrine, said to be the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan. Enshrined here is the god of sake brewing. The sugi (Japanese cedar) trees on the grounds of this shrine are used to make saka-bayashi, the green or brown globes seen hung at sake-related establishments all over Japan.
Also, each year on Nov. 14, brewery owners and toji (chief brewers) from the region gather for the Sake Matsuri, to pray for a safe and successful brewing season. As Nara is close to both the brewing centers of Fushimi (Kyoto) and Nada (Kobe), this has historically been a very important event.
There are currently just over 50 breweries in Nara. Almost all are very small brewers. Overall, the sake from Nara is slightly soft and light, neither too sweet nor too dry, yet with plenty of flavor and character. Although not always easy to find outside of Nara, some names to look for include Yamatsuru, wonderful Tama no Tsuyu, the excellent Hanatomoe, Yatagarasu and Hyakurakumon.
Because Nara is so close to the two brewing centers mentioned above, until recently many of the small makers engaged in oke-uri, or “tank selling,” i.e. brewing sake for other large breweries. This practice has died down recently, both for economic reasons (not as much nihonshu is being consumed) and for reasons of pride.
Ume no Yado is another Nara sake that boasts the country’s only non-Japanese sake brewer, Philip Harper. The author of a great guide to sake called “The Insider’s Guide to Sake” (Kodansha), this insider has been brewing there for the better part of a decade, and is indeed a bona fide craftsman. Their sake has long been one of my favorites.
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Check out the current issue of the magazine Dancyu, on newsstands now. A gourmet magazine with great glossy photos, Dancyu has put out an issue focusing on nihonshu each March for the past three years. In this year’s edition, there are several articles on a myriad of sake-related topics. What sake to look for, new taste profiles, and places to drink it and buy it all over Japan are covered.
There are also articles on several interesting sake breweries and what makes them unique, plus coverage of peripheral topics such as the work of a photographer whose work focuses on the sake world. The most useful part is that every sake mentioned is followed by an indication of where you can buy it. At 860 yen, it is a bit more expensive than most monthlies, but you’ll want to hang on to it.
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Harushika (Nara Prefecture)
“Cho Karakuchi” junmai-shu
Seimai-buai: 58 percent
Harushika means “spring deer,” and the sake takes its name from the countless tame deer that roam the park in the capital city. “Cho Karakuchi” means super dry, and dry it is. But more than simply being bone-dry, there is a pervading softness and clean background to the flavor, with a very light fragrance of nuts and fruit.
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