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Girljin in Japan
By Rachel Tranter Davies
How to Enjoy Sake in Kyoto
Kyoto is full to bursting with incredible temples, shrines and traditional machiya, but Japan's former imperial capital is also home to some of the oldest sake breweries in the country... And some of the best places to enjoy them.
Sake, or Nihonshu, is an alcoholic drink made from fermented rice, typical of Japan, hence the name Nihon meaning ''Japan'' and shu meaning ''alcohol''. Although sake is sometimes referred to in English as a ''rice wine'', this isn't strictly true. Rice is fermented using koji, a special form of yeast (also made from rice), and that is responsible for imparting myriad flavors into the end liquid. Sake is often diluted to a palatable alcohol content of around 10-20% using fresh water, something which Kyoto is particularly famed for. Kyoto's soft water is renowned for being of the highest possible quality with a deliciously pure flavour, and has long been the lifeblood of the breweries of the Fushimi district, one of Japan's oldest and most prominent centers of sake production.
Sake has played a central role in Japanese life for over 1,000 years and is incredibly popular both at home and when out at restaurants and bars. Sake is particularly associated with izakaya; a casual type of Japanese pub offering sharing style plates of Japanese cuisine and lively atmospheres, making them the perfect choice to satiate your curiosity into a real Japanese drinking and dining affair. There are so many different types of sake, each having a suggested serving style and temperature, that, as a beginner, it's best to ask for advice from bartenders and restaurant staff on how best to enjoy each one.
There are several different types of sake produced in Kyoto. Explained simply, sake is made when rice is ground or polished, washed and steamed. The categories of sake are determined and defined by the degree to which the rice is polished and also by the brewing method. Head into Fushimi, Kyoto's famous sake-producing region, where you can book onto a tour at one of the many breweries (my favorite are Geikkeikan for a very impressive, large-scale operation and Matsui for a smaller, more local experience).
After learning the ins and outs of sake making, make sure to visit Ginjo Shubo Aburacho (Sanbangai, Otesuji Shopping District 780 Higashi Ote-cho, Fushimi-ku), a sake merchant located a short walk from the Gekkeikan brewery. Ginjo Shubo Aburacho stocks over 80 types of locally-produced sake that are mostly Ginjo (premium made from polished rice with the husk, bran, and germ completely removed) and Daiginjo (super-premium made from highly polished rice). They have a ''try before you buy'' policy whereby visitors can sample three different sake before making a final decision on which to purchase.
This month, be sure to get your hands on a bottle of Shiro Zake; the first variety of sake of the year, available in early spring. With a gorgeous white hue and lovely sweet flavor it has come to be associated with girls, and especially hina matsuri, a traditional festival celebrated this month on March 3rd. During hina matsuri families display heirloom dolls - some passed down for generations - to act as caretakers of young girls' health and happiness, warding off bad luck and bringing in good fortune. The pure white Shiro Zake complements the lovely pink ume plum blossoming all around Japan and this combination of pink and white also signifies happiness and good luck.
Here are my top picks for sake bars and izakaya that have particularly knowledgeable and helpful staff and a wonderful selection of different sake styles.
Masuya Saketen has a huge variety of sake from all over Japan. It's the perfect place to try your favorite type of sake or adventure into the unknown. There's a great display of sake bottles on one black board wall near the entrance. Next to the bottles is a very helpful hand drawn graph, categorized into fruity sweetness or refreshing and sharp flavors, acting as a guide to help with ordering; www.masuya-saketen.com/
This cozy little bar is ideal for a truly immersive sake-tasting experience. Bar owner, Asakura-san, is well versed in English and will gladly take time to introduce and explain your choice of sake, from the personally selected collection that fill the bar. The intimate bar of less than ten seats is wildly popular and gets very busy but is definitely worth the effort; openkyoto.com/dining/sake-bar-asakura.html
Want to try hundreds of different types of sake paired with deliciously smoked appetizers? This is the place for you. Everything is smoked in-house, from edamame beans to eel to duck. Ask the staff to recommend a sake to wash it down with, sit back and enjoy the incredibly chic interior.
This is an excellent craft beer and sake bar. It has a very industrial feel with exposed piping, wooden beams and concrete floors. Upstairs they play old black and white Japanese films on a projector on the wall. They often run tap takeovers and special sake tasting events; www.sakahachi.jp/
Four Seasons Kyoto
If you're on the hunt for something a little more special, the newly opened Four Seasons Hotel has champagne and sake evenings every day in their tea house, Shakusui-tei, from 17:00-21:00. If you pay them a visit on the weekend, you’ll also be lucky enough to be entertained by an elegant maiko from Gion Kobu; www.fourseasons.com/kyoto/
Rachel is a food, drink and travel writer. Originally from England, she recently relocated to Japan and is now finding her feet in Kyoto. You can find her blogging tweeting and instagramming her experiences at Girljin in Japan.