Sake (酒) is one of Japan’s most well-known products, and it is famous throughout the world. Understandably, many visitors to Japan are eager to try Japanese rice wine for themselves. However, sometimes it can be hard to know where to begin; I came to Japan knowing nothing about how sake is made or which brands of sake are the best, which resulted in trying something subpar.
For those who are in the same boat, the Nada (灘) area is the perfect place to acquaint yourself with sake. Nada can boast of producing some of the best sake in Japan. Its proximity to high-quality water and rice as well as its favorable weather conditions allows the area to thrive at sake production.
The area has been producing sake since the 17th century and now, it accounts for 30% of Japan’s sake production. While many areas of Japan such as Niigata (新潟) and Aomori (青森) also have famous sake districts, Nada is far more accessible; it is perfectly located in Kobe, Hyogo (神戸市兵庫県), which is an easy trip from Osaka (大阪) or Kyoto (京都). There are numerous breweries in the area, many of which offer free tours and free samples. One of the best choices for foreigners is Hakutsuru (白鶴).
Hakutsuru has a long history. Its founder, Jihei Kano, began producing sake in 1743, naming it Hakutsuru, or white crane in English, a few years later. However, its first store did not open until 1869, and it was actually located in Osaka, not Kobe. From then on, the company flourished.
By the early 1900s, other branches were established throughout Japan and Asia, and its sake was even exhibited at Paris’ world fair. Additionally, the museum has been open since 1982. Hakutsuru also has an art museum, which was opened in 1934. Currently, Hakutsuru enjoys a good reputation, and its sake is considered some of the best in Japan by the National Research Institute of Brewing.
The sake brewery museum and shop spans two floors and covers all stages of the sake-making process through videos in English and Japanese as well as displays and models of the various steps and tools. The process is more elaborate than I expected.
First, the rice is polished to remove components that would negatively affect the sake’s taste. Then the rice is washed and steeped to absorb water, and finally, it is steamed. However, the rice cannot ferment on its own so a malt called koji (麹) is added to a portion of the rice. It converts the starch in the rice into sugar. Koji is also used to make miso and soy sauce, so it has an important role in Japanese food culture.
The rice-koji mixture is kept in a warm, humid room for a few days to allow the koji to cultivate. This is a labor-intensive process and the rice and koji must be mixed often. Then, the yeast starter called moto (元) or shubo (酒母) is added. As the name indicates, this is an essential part of sake brewing. Moto means “origin” or “source”, and shubo means “sake mother”. Over the course of a few days, moto, yeast, rice, and koji are mixed in large vats before, finally, the mash is ready to be fermented.
The fermentation process can take anywhere from two to six weeks. The final step is pressing, where the sake liquid is separated from the rice mixture.
As someone who knew nothing about how sake is made, I found the museum fascinating and informative. The museum has a good mix of both videos and displays. The videos are comprehensive, and it is interesting to see both the traditional means of sake production (the focus of the museum) and the modern ways.
The displays are great as well, though unfortunately, the signs have very little English. However, it was great to see the true size of the sake brewing vats and other tools. In general, the museum does a wonderful job of explaining how sake is brewed, making it a must-see for sake lovers and sake newbies alike.
For those interested in art and Japanese artifacts, there is also a small section that offers a taste of what the Hakutsuru Fine Art Museum offers.
When you finish walking through the museum, be sure to stop by the gift shop. Here, you can sample some of Hakutsuru’s sake as well as other products like umeshu (梅酒, plum wine) and a liquor made from yuzu (柚子), a Japanese citrus fruit.
When I visited, there were five drinks you could sample. The shop itself sells far more than just sake and other forms of alcohol. You can find a variety of skincare products containing sake, which is a popular ingredient in Japanese beauty products; it is said to help brighten and smooth skin, and the lotion did indeed feel great.
There are sake bath products, sake cups, and even sake ice cream, so there is something for everyone. Seeing all the uses for sake was almost as interesting as the museum!
Hakutsuru is not difficult to access. It’s only a fifteen-minute ride from Kobe on the Hanshin line via Sannomiya station (三宮駅). If you want to arrive even faster, you can take the express train to Mikage (御影駅), where you will transfer to a local train. No matter which way you choose, the fare is only 190 yen. From Sumiyoshi station (住吉駅), it is a short, five-minute walk. Alternatively, it is a fifteen-minute walk from JR Sumiyoshi station. The building is a little tricky to locate, so be sure to look out for the white heron logo. The museum itself is free, and it is open daily from 9:30-4:30.
Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum is a great stop to make if you are in Kobe or the Kansai area. It is an engaging and interesting museum, and it’s the perfect way to learn more about one of Japan’s most famous exports. Of course, the sake is delicious too! Hakutsuru is only one of the many sake museums in the area so if you have a day free, why not wander through Nada to try its many different kinds of sake for yourself?