Located in a residential area near Seibu Railway's Higashi-Murayama Station in Tokyo, sake brewery Toshimaya Shuzo - known for its Kinkon refined sake - has gained prominence by giving monthly nighttime tours of its brewing facilities.
A mid-April tour group of about 20, including couples and a group of women, gasped with admiration upon entering the shikomigura, or sake brewing house. Some noted the facility had a pleasant smell.
The three-hour tour includes a tasting session and offers visitors the opportunity to view steps in the sake brewing process such as the washing and steaming of rice.
In the quiet of the night, visitors were able to hear the sound of rice fermenting by putting their ears to the fermentation tank.
The tour was conceived and planned by Takaharu Tanaka, the manager of the sake brewery. Its close proximity to the train station has helped garner it the favourable customer reviews Tanaka had hoped for.
"If people can drop by the brewery on their way home from work and observe actual sake brewing, they will feel more familiar with sake breweries and with sake itself," Tanaka said.
The brewery has plans to host tours more frequently in the future in order to increase its fan base.
Though Tokyo's reputation is as a consumer of sake rather than a producer, nine sake breweries operate there - mainly in the Tama area, owing to its abundant groundwater.
As the yen weakens and the number of foreign tourists rises ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games, sake breweries have been dreaming up ways to position themselves as "Tokyo's local sake."
Ishikawa Brewery Co. - known for its Tamajiman sake - attracted around 450 foreign visitors last year. As of the end of March, about 300 foreigners had visited its facilities in Fussa, Tokyo.
Kaiko Hatakeyama hosts foreigners in both English and French.
A former flight attendant at Japan Airlines, she was hired three years ago as part of plans to enhance the brewery's capacity to receive foreign visitors.
Prior to joining the brewery, she had some knowledge of wine, but knew little about sake. She has studied hard so that she can accurately explain the production process.
Hatakeyama says that foreign visitors seem convinced by her description of the use of koji mould for the preparation of rice fermentation and by her explanations of how sake production differs from wine production.
In late April, just before the Golden Week holidays, Hatakeyama gave a guided tour to a group of about 10 foreigners - mainly American citizens living in Japan.
Watching them enjoy namazake (unpasteurized sake) and daiginjo, Hatakeyama smiled and said, "I hope to simply and clearly explain the complex sake brewing processes that produce such sophisticated flavor and help spread the attractiveness of sake throughout the world."
Ozawa Shuzo Co., which brews Sawanoi sake near a rich green valley in Ome, in western Tokyo, collaborated with the East Japan Railway Co. on a sake event meant to attract people from central Tokyo.
In early June, the railway ran an "Ozashiki-ressha," a special train equipped with a tatami room, from JR Shinjuku Station to Sawai Station, the nearest station to the brewery.
The event included a tour of the brewery and a tasting session for Ozawa Shuzo's specialty local sake.
The event was nearly booked up a month in advance. "We hope to spread the word that a pristine natural environment can be found on a day trip from Tokyo. This environment is essential to provide the clean water needed to brew sake," a brewery official said.
Reservations are required in order to tour the breweries mentioned in this story. Information on breweries that accept visitors can be obtained on the website of the Tokyo Sake Brewer's Association (www.tokyosake.or.jp/guide/).
On the website of the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association (www.japansake.or.jp), sake breweries that offer public tours can be found according to brand and region.
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