5 Places in Hokkaido to Appreciate the Art of Sake

5 Places in Hokkaido to Appreciate the Art of Sake

Experience the culture of making and tasting sake in Hokkaido!

The mention of Hokkaido characteristically conjures up stunning images of unspoilt wintery landscapes, luxurious ski resorts, and relaxing onsen hot springs. All these are just some features that attest to the popularity of Japan’s northernmost island as a top holiday destination for tourists all year round.

Hokkaido is also one of the best places in the country to partake in the art of sake, Japan’s national beverage. Similar to Japanese foods like sushi and ramen, sake has also been steadily gaining popularity across the globe. For travellers curious about Japanese culture, it’s an eye-opening experience to learn about the local traditions through discovering how sake is made and participating in tastings to gain an insight on your own preferences.

It’s difficult to overstate how widely sake is consumed all throughout Japan. Often served at izakayas to go along with local food, the practice is enhanced as there are numerous breweries and brands of sake to select from in search for the ideal pairing.

Hokkaido’s unique conditions, such as the cool temperatures and spring water, have proven to be ideal for brewing not just sake, but whisky and wine as well. Some of the most popular beverages enjoyed around the entire country can be traced back to Hokkaido.

Here, we introduce five places in Hokkaido for you to appreciate this delicious alcoholic drink:

1. Kikkogura by Tanaka Brewery – all-year production, rare in Japanese breweries

Image credit: tanakashuzo_official

Nestled in the heart of Otaru – a short day trip from Sapporo and a five-minute walk from JR Minami Otaru Station – Kikkogura by Tanaka Brewery offers some of the finest sake, conveniently located right in the tourist district where the beautiful Otaru Canal runs through the town.

The collection of stone storage units that laid the foundation for Kikkogura were built in 1905 and has since been recognised as an official historical structure, adding to the rustic atmosphere of the town of Otaru.

Established in 1899, the brewery produces their beverage using time-honoured methods, selecting only rice that is locally cultivated in Hokkaido and water sourced directly from Mt. Tengu in Otaru to ensure utmost freshness and quality of the sake.

Image credit: tanakashuzo_official

While the majority of breweries produce sake only during the winter, production in Tanaka Brewery runs all year round, making use of the optimal conditions in Hokkaido’s natural cold weather for each stage of the brewing process.

One of the brewery’s specialities is its Namazake, or ‘raw sake’ – a type of sake that is served without the typical final step of pasteurisation. It should thus be kept chilled and drank as soon as possible. Often paired with light food, desserts and fruits, this drink is fruitier and fresher – definitely a treat, especially for visitors in the summer!

Image credit: tanakashuzo_official

The brewery also conducts highly engaging tasting sessions, no matter what time of the year visitors choose to come.

What better way to appreciate the art of sake than at Kikkogura? The brewery will help you understand the different types of sake and the various rice grains unique to each selection, and even the traditional tools used for making sake. You can even taste their limited edition “treasure river” Takaragawa!

For the non-drinkers, Tanaka Brewery is also famous for their sake manju rice cakes, sake rice crackers, as well as their kuromame-cha (black soybean tea), so be sure to stop by the brewery when you’re touring the Otaru area!

Address: 2-2 Nobukacho, Otaru 047-0016, Hokkaido

Opening hours: 9am–6pm daily

Website (in Japanese only)

2. Kobayashi Brewery – wide range of tastes that vary with the source region

Image credit: Kobayashi Brewery

Another well-established brewery to visit is Kobayashi Brewery, home to the grand winner of the 2014 edition of the Hokkaido Sake Contest.

A 45-minute drive away from New Chitose Airport, Kobayashi Brewery is situated in the quaint countryside of Kuriyama, where the small-town vibes make the town feel homely and warm.

Image credit: Kobayashi Brewery

But before you get into the sake tasting here, take a moment to admire the brewery grounds – itself an attraction for even non-drinkers to visit.

With 18 warehouses over a 30,000-square metre space, Kobayashi Brewery’s historic buildings are some of the largest brickwork structures in the region, beautifully designed with both local and western influences – certainly a sight to behold, especially in the autumn!

What makes Kobayashi Brewery’s sake unique is that they are differentiated according to their source regions in Hokkaido, fermented with rice grown in different parts of Hokkaido.

The resulting sakes have slightly varied flavours, making the tasting sessions even more interesting! For the first-time taster, a safe bet would be a brew with a relatively mild flavour profile, which will help bring out the fragrance and fruitiness of the sake.

Image credit: Kobayashi Brewery

Next, what better way to enjoy the freshly brewed sake than with another Japanese delicacy? The brewery serves sumptuous soba made using the same source of water as its sake. The light and crisp flavours of the sake complements well with the delicate flavours of the soba – a pairing that’s simply a match made in heaven!

Besides conducting workshops where guests can try their hands at making their own soba in a vernacular old-style minka house, Kobayashi Brewery owns the Kita no Nishiki (northern silk) Museum, named after the brewery’s iconic drink.

The museum houses exhibits of over 5,000 different tools, cups and other sake-related products used since the brewery’s early beginnings, among them the tokkuri (pouring glass) and ochoko (small, shot glass-like cups) in rare designs not found anywhere else.

Kobayashi Brewery also hosts an annual 2-day sake festival over the second weekend of April!

Address: 3-109 Nishiki, Kuriyama-cho, Yubari-gun 069-1521, Hokkaido

Opening hours: 10am–5pm in the summer, 10am–4pm in the winter

Website (in Japanese only)

3. Chitosetsuru Sake Museum – go back in time with the first brewery in Hokkaido

Lastly, for those interested in walking through the history of sake in the region, you definitely have to make a trip to the Chitosetsuru Sake Museum, which is owned by Chitosetsuru – the first brewery in Hokkaido, established over a century ago.

Located in the city centre of Sapporo, Chitosetsuru taps directly on the underground sources of pristine clear water found here, quintessential to producing the freshest sake available. The purity of the water creates a drier-tasting sake which balances nicely with its sweetness. The museum is also right next to the Nijo Market, where delicious seafood can be bought to go with the sake for a pairing that’ll leave you wanting more.

In line with the brewery’s own heritage, the adjacent museum traces the origins of sake production in Hokkaido, allowing visitors to learn the necessary steps in preparing the beverage and how the processes have changed over the years. The importance of using and selecting high-quality ingredients is covered as well. What better way to appreciate sake than to understand how the art developed and what happens behind the scenes!

Image credit: Chitose Tsuru Museum

Chitosetsuru Sake Museum also offers other delights that range from having little to no alcohol, including its wildly popular sake lees soft-serve ice cream – making it a great place for the entire family to enjoy!

Address: Minami 3, Higashi 5-1, Chuo-ku, Sapporo

Opening hours: 10am–6pm

Website (in Japanese only)

4. Hokkaido Sake Bar Kamata – everything made in Hokkaido, only except the olive oil!

Image credit: dosankosyocyu

To experience a truly local flavour, visit Hokkaido Sake Bar Kamata – the perfect place for people who want to learn about and enjoy drinking sake made in Hokkaido. This premium pub located in the bustling capital of Sapporo was founded by Takashi Kamata-san, a sake and shochu master who specialises as a Hokkaido sommelier.

He has won awards in both the Shochu and Japanese Sake divisions in the World Kikisake-shi Competition, a contest that pits sommeliers against one another, assessing their knowledge of different sakes and alcoholic beverages.

Image credit: dosankosyocyu

Serving over 300 types of sake, shochu, wine, and beer, Hokkaido Sake Bar Kamata specialises in Hokkaido-made sake and carries some exquisite rare drinks that are a must-try for connoisseurs. Besides the selection of alcohol, the bar also prides itself on its carefully curated food menu, wherein all ingredients, except its olive oil, are grown or produced in Hokkaido!

A 3-minute walk away from the Susukino subway station, the bar also offers a stunning view of the illuminated city at night.

Address: 8F MY Plaza Building, Nishi 4-chrome, Minami 4-jo, Chuo-ku, Sapporo-shi

Opening hours: 6pm–1am on Monday–Saturday, 5pm–12am on Sunday

Website

While there’s deep history that ties Hokkaido to sake, it’s not the only Japanese drink around. While visiting Hokkaido Sake Bar Kamata, there’s a giant sign at the intersection in the middle of Susukino, a minute’s walk away from the Susukino subway station, that you won’t miss – Nikka Whisky.

5. Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery & Nikka Bar Rita – true love for whisky manifested

Image credit: Nikka Whisky

With dozens of distilleries found in Hokkaido, you simply have to go for the best. The first-ever Japanese distillery is founded by the father of Japanese whisky himself, Masataka Taketsuru. Yoichi Distillery, as its name suggests, is established in the quaint town of Yoichi, a neighbouring town of Otaru.

The creator of Nikka Whisky was the first Japanese to master the art of making whisky, after moving to Scotland in 1918 to learn the craft once he became captivated by the western alcoholic beverage.

Image credit: Nikka Whisky

Some years after returning to Japan, the son of a sake brewer handpicked the location of Yoichi to set up his distillery, as its cool climate, crisp air, ideal humidity and fresh water resembled the conditions of the Scottish Highlands.

To this date, Yoichi Distillery still stands at where it first started, continuing to produce top-grade Japanese whisky using traditional coal-fire distillation methods. This tedious but worthwhile process creates an exquisite toasty, burnt flavour that is absent from most commercial distilleries today.

Visiting the distillery, you’ll be treated to its unique selection of alcoholic beverages paired with dishes from its own menu.

Image credit: Nikka Whisky

To honour his wife, Taketsuru established Nikka Bar Rita, a bar in Otaru named after her.

A collaboration between a local bar and Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery, it was created to share the love of whisky with as many people as possible. It was for this purpose that he chose the nearby popular tourist destination just a short distance away from Otaru Canal as its location.

So if you’re visiting Otaru, do make a short trip to Yoichi to truly appreciate the craft of Japanese whisky!

Address: Kurokawacho 7-6, Yoichicho, Yoichi-gum, Hokkaido 046-0003

Opening hours: 9am–5pm

Website

By now, it should be clear that Hokkaido is the go-to place to try some of the top sakes – whether it’s in terms of taste, freshness or sheer uniqueness! From rare selections to locally-grown ingredients, you can be sure that these places boast nothing short of the best. Discover the world of sake and you’ll enjoy the beverage and Japanese culture in a whole new light.

For more information to help you better plan your next sake-filled visit to Hokkaido, check out the Hokkaido Tourism Organisation’s website and Facebook page!


Brought to you by Hokkaido Tourism Organization.

About Author

Stephanie Lauw
Stephanie Lauw

Stephanie is an English literature and film student who has succumbed to the occupational hazard of over-analysing her favourite TV shows. She enjoys theatre and music, and dabbles with both by writing bad plays and experimenting with her band. Her current dream is to island hop the filming locations of all the seasons of Survivor.

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