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Sake (Japanese alcohol) has gained quite a bit of international popularity recently. If you find the chance to visit Japan, it's a great opportunity to sample a much larger variety of sake than what you can find overseas. Keep reading to find out more about sake and the highly recommended spots in Tokyo where you can enjoy it.
1. What's Sake?
Sake is made by adding koji (fermentation starter) and water to steamed white rice, which is then fermented and aged to perfection. It's a method that is unique to Japan, and there are different types of sake in different parts of the country. Although it sits in the same category as beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages, the alcoholic content tends to be around 15% - 16% ABV. Recently, in a bid to appeal to the international audience, low alcohol sake with 5% - 10% ABV has become more common as well.
A defining characteristic of sake is its complex categorization based on the ingredients used, rice polishing/milling ratio, and brewing method. In Japan, each sake brewery guards its own secret recipe that has been handed down through several generations. The chief brewers are called the "Toji", and the other skilled brewers are called the "Kurabito." The road to becoming a Toji is difficult, and one has to hold the Grade 1 CSP (Certified Sake Professional) certification to even be considered. Sake made by the most skillful technicians are said to characterize Japan itself, filled with a painstakingly crafted, delicate flavor.
2. Types of Sake
Sake is classified according to its ingredients and method of production. To facilitate classification, sake labeling has to indicate: ingredients, rice milling/polishing ratio, koji usage, and flavoring/fragrances used. Of course, this classification is not an indication of the superiority or inferiority of the liquor itself. Here are a couple different kinds of sake.
3. Ginjo Sake
Ginjo sake is made from koji, water, distilled alcohol, and rice with a 60% or less polishing ratio. It's manufactured using an extremely advanced low-temperature brewing method that makes its flavor and scent the very best that sake can offer. However, it also means that mass production can be difficult, and the cost of production tends to be quite high as well. As you'd expect, ginjo sake is often displayed at sake exhibitions. By fermenting over a long period of time at low temperatures, the characteristic ginjo fragrance is reminiscent of apple, banana, and melon. Some highly popular, classic choices are [Koshi no Kanbai] from Niigata Prefecture and [Bakuren] from Yamagata Prefecture. Both have a crisp and refreshing flavor.
4. Daiginjo Sake
Daiginjo sake is made from koji, water, and rice with a 50% or less polishing ratio. Additionally, the low-temperature fermentation process is much more thorough than that of ginjo sake. Lastly, a small amount of distilled alcohol is added to bring out its fragrance. Its fruity fragrance and refreshing flavor make it a popular choice for sake beginners and experts alike. The [Kokuryu Shizuku] from Fukui Prefecture comes highly recommended. You'll be able to enjoy the fruity of aroma and sweet aftertaste of lychee, strawberry, and apple that is characteristic of daiginjo sake.
5. Junmai Sake
Junmai sake is made from white rice, koji, and water. In order to qualify as junmai, over one third of the ingredients has to be white rice or the equivalent of brown rice, and the weight of the koji has to exceed 15% of the weight of the white rice. Recently, due to progress in rice polishing technology, there has been a characteristic increase in junmai sake with high rice polishing-ratios. The [Kubota Manju] from Niigata Prefecture is a well-known sake brand that comes highly recommended. The smooth texture and discreet, rice-like flavor makes it an extremely popular choice.
6. Honjozo Sake
Honjozo sake is generally recognized as the most basic sake. It is made from koji, water, distilled alcohol, and rice with a 70% or less polishing ratio. However, you'll also find [Special Honjozo Sake], which is a broad category referring to honjozo sake with special flavors and fragrances, those made with less than a 60% rice polishing ratio, as well as those manufactured using unique brewing methods. The highly recommended [Kenbishi] from Hyogo Prefecture has a crisp flavor and powerful kick. The refreshing [Hakkaisan] from Niigata Prefecture is a classic and extremely popular choice that been well-beloved in Japan through the ages.
Although most sake is heat-treated to stop yeast activity prior to bottling, those that go without heat treatment are called namazake. Due to its characteristic freshness, it is best stored at near freezing temperatures to bring out its flavor. The [No. 6] from Akita Prefecture comes highly recommended. The well-balanced sweetness and acidity is akin to white wine and has been seeing a rapid rise in popularity recently.
8. The Taste of Sake
Sake is largely divided into sweet and dry categories. Sweet sake is high in sugar content and low in acidity, dry sake is low in sugar content and high in acidity. Body-wise, sake is further divided into light-body and full-body categories. This means that you'll have sake that is sweet and light, dry and light, sweet and full, and dry and full. Sweet sake with a light body has very little aftertaste and comes with a gentle flavor. It's a popular option as it doesn't get in the way of tasting your food. Dry sake with a light body is low in acidity, making it easy to drink. Sweet sake with a full body brings out the original gentle sweetness of the rice, and nicely compliments Japanese cuisine. Dry sake with a full body features the optimal balance between sweetness and acidity, and goes well with strong-flavored dishes and delicacies.
9. MYSH Sake Bar (Shibuya)
This bar is only open three days week, from Thursday to Saturday. You'll be able to enjoy a daily rotation of sake handpicked by the owner to match the local cuisine. The owner's goal is to help you find your favorite sake. So, not only will you be able to taste a large variety of sake, she'll even tell you about the breweries and farmers that have manufactured them. The bar also offers a generous variety of side dishes, such as the [MYSH Classic 3-type Snack Assortment] that goes well with sake. You'll be able to choose from [Vine Ripened Tomato from Miyazaki Prefecture], [Cream Cheese and Dried Fig], [Specialty Pickled Radish with Cheese], and [Shibare Cured Ham], served with freshly ground wasabi. The bar is very welcoming to sake novices and has thus gathered itself quite a bit of popularity.
MYSH sake bar
Open: Lunch 11:00 am - 3:00 pm / Dinner 3:00 pm - 11:00 pm (L.O. 10:00 pm)
Average price: [Dinner] 5,000 JPY / [Lunch] 1,000 JPY
Access: 5 minutes walk from the exit No.13 of Shibuya Station
Address: 2F, New Art Bldg., 5-30-3, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (Map)
10. Minami Aoyama Hifumi (Gaiemmae)
This restaurant constantly has a selection of about 30 kinds of sake and heaps of fresh seafood and other delicacies to order from, all at a reasonable price of 500 JPY per dish. This modern and wood-toned space is perfect for a relaxing meal. The interior offers both counter and private room seating, so regardless of whether you're coming alone or with a group, you'll surely find suitable seating. In spite of the low price, the incredibly fresh seafood served here is directly sourced from contracted fishing ports. The [Sashimi Assortment] is a great dish where you'll be able to taste 8 to 10 different kinds of classic and exotic fish. This restaurant is a great spot to sample a large variety of fresh fish while matching them with all kinds of delicious sake.
Minami Aoyama Hifumi
Open: Lunch 11:30 - 15:00 (last order 15:00) / 18:00 - 00:00 (last order 23:30) *Opens at 17:00 starting January
Average price: [Dinner] 6,000 JPY / [Lunch] 1,000 JPY
Access: A three-minute walk from Gaienmae Station. Take Exit 1a, turn left at Francfranc, and you will come across the restaurant while walking down the hill.
Address: B1F Cattleya Building, 3-2-3 Minamiaoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo (Map)
11. Washubar Kuri (Ginza)
This prolific bar handles about 3,000 different types of sake a year. As each bottle is emptied, a different brand is opened, making sure that it's an entirely new selection each time you return. The [6-type Sake Course] is very popular, but if you'd prefer to simply order one type of sake, you'd still be able to choose from small, medium, and large sizes. From the fragrant and firmly acidic, to the well-aged and seasonal limited editions, the sake here is full of personality, and the bar is always filled with pleasant surprises. There are plenty of excellent side dishes here that have been painstakingly curated, such as the [Duck Bacon] that comes highly recommended. The [Cherry Blossom Chips] are well-smoked to produce the most addictive and gentle fragrance, and are said to go incredibly well with a glass of sake!
Open: [Weekday, Saturday, day before public holiday] 5:00 pm to 0:00 am (L.O. 11:30 pm)
Average price: [Dinner] 4,000 JPY
Access: Five minute walk from Tokyo Metro Ginza Line, Hibiya Line & Marunouchi Line Ginza Station
Address: 2F Toni Bldg., 6-4-15 Ginza , Chuo-ku, Tokyo (Map)
12. Shusaron (Shinagawa)
An unusual bar that specializes in koshu wine (Japanese wine made from Koshu grapes). 100 different types of koshu wine of all kinds of tastes and fragrances are available at all times. This bar even has priceless wines from more than 60 years ago! For beginners, it's recommended that you begin by drinking and comparing a 3-year-old wine with a 10-year-old wine. The delicacies available are carefully tailored to match the characteristics of koshu wine. Among them, the [Fried Chinese Yam Topped with Smoked Miso] features miso painstakingly smoked over a 2-week period coupled with deep-fried Chinese yam, providing a thick umami (Japanese savory taste) that goes perfectly with a glass of koshu wine.
Open: [Weekday] normally 17:00 to 00:00 (last order 23:30) last order for food 23:00
[Saturday, Sunday, public holiday, day before public holiday] normally 15:00 to 00:00 (last order 23:30) last order for food 23:00
Average price: [Dinner] 4,000 JPY
Access: Three minute walk from JR Keihin Tohoku Line, Tokaido Line, Yamanote Line, Yokosuka Line & Keihin rapid Line Shinagawa Station
Address: Keikyu Shopping Plaza Wing Takanawa WEST 2F, 4-10-18 Takanawa , Minato-ku, Tokyo (Map)
13. Sake no Daimasu Kaminarimon Branch (Asakusa)
This spot functions as both a sake store and a bar. With over 100 different types of local sake from various regions in Japan, sake lovers will be able to drink and compare from as little as 90 ml per order. For an additional 500 JPY, you'll even be able to conveniently drink the sake you've purchased at the store. The owner who is a certified Kikizakeshi (sake specialist) will even assist you with finding a sake that matches your tastes. You'll be able to choose by the manufacturing region or by taste. This place has it all, from the classic sake to the limited edition sake that you'll only be able to purchase here, as well as a large variety of sweet sake. As you'd expect, you'll also be able to choose from a generous variety of snacks to match your sake. The bar has counter seating, making it an easy spot to enter at a whim, and tends to be quite popular with international tourists.
Sake no Daimasu Kaminarimon Branch
Open: [Weekdays] 4:00 pm - 11:30 pm
[Saturday, Sunday, National Holidays] 12:00 pm - 11:30 pm
Average price: [Dinner] 2,000 JPY / [Lunch] 1,000 JPY
Access: A 30 second walk off the side of the back of Kaminari-mon. Take the side street next to the police box, then take the first right after that and you should see it.
Address: 1-2-8 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo (Map)
14. Meishu Center Ochanomizu branch (Ochanomizu)
At this sake specialist, you'll be able to drink and compare from 150 kinds of carefully selected sake, while chewing on their special cured delicacies. Their set menus with 3 types of sake paired with snacks such as the [Beginner Set], [Daiginjo Sake Set], [Aged Koshu Wine Set], and [Seasonal Sake Set] are extremely popular with both beginners and sake veterans. Of course, if you're on a budget, you'll be able to order individual items to drink and compare at a more reasonable price. The highly recommended [Smoked and Torched Mackerel] is smoked over a long period of time at low temperatures and goes very well with sake. They're open from noon, so you'll have more than enough time to enjoy sake to your heart's content.
Meishu Center Ochanomizu branch
Open: [Tuesday - Saturday] 12:00 pm - 10:00 pm (Food L.O. 9:00 pm, Drink L.O. 9:45 pm)
[Sunday] 12:00 pm - 7:00 pm (Food L.O. 6:00 pm, Drink L.O. 6:45 pm)
Average price: [Dinner] 3,000 JPY / [Lunch] 1,000 JPY
Access: 5 minutes walk from JR [Ochanomizu Station] / 5 minutes walk from [Tokyo Metro Ochanomizu Station] / 10 minutes walk from JR [Akihabara Station]
Address: 1F, Lions Plaza Ochanomizu, 1-2-12 Yushima, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo (Map)
15. Nurukan Sato Ginza Branch (Ginza)
As the name of the bar suggests ("nurukan" means "lukewarm sake"), they pay special attention to the temperature of their sake. They have a stock of over 150 different types of sake ready at all times. Not only will you be able to adjust the temperature of any sake you've ordered, but they also offer an extremely popular drink set where you may drink and compare from 3 different types of sake with varying rice polishing ratios. Additionally, you'll be able to enjoy renowned sake from all over Japan at reasonable prices and even order the ones you enjoyed by the glass. The traditional Japanese cuisine here is prepared with a wealth of experience, and at the end of each meal, you simply have to try the [Meat Sushi]. This incredibly luxurious dish uses domestically grown beef for its sushi and tops the hand rolls off with salmon roe and sea urchin.
Nurukan Sato Ginza Branch
Open: [Monday - Thursday, Saturday, National Holidays] 5:00 pm - 11:30 pm (L.O. 10:30 pm)
[Friday, Day Before National Holiday] 5:00 pm - 4:00 am (L.O. 3:00 am)
Average price: 7,000 JPY
Address: 8-2, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo (Map)
Source: hitosara (Japanese)
Sake can taste entirely different depending on the region and method of production, making it quite a profound drink! Please try to drink and compare all kinds of sake to find the one that matches your tastes.