Servers pouring Japanese sake

Photo:courtesy of Robert Lennon

Saijo, Hiroshima: Come for a Love of Sake, and the Annual Sake Festival

Saijo is a pretty little town nestled in the countryside of Hiroshima Prefecture. It can be reached in under an hour by train or by bus from the center of Hiroshima. In addition to being a university town that hosts a large and beautiful campus, it is also a gem for people interested in sake. This is because there are nine breweries in Saijo that welcome everyone and try to be as accessible as possible.

The sake available is unique and diverse in both its production and flavor. It makes sense that the town also hosts an impressive, albeit slightly wobbly attempt at a sake festival in early October every year. Whether you want to visit the breweries or the festival, this is the place to go if you are in the Hiroshima area and like sake.

The Breweries of Saijo

There is a lot that can be said about the breweries individually. However, the nine breweries are as follows: Komotsuru, Kamoizumi, Saijotsuru, Sanyotsuru, Sakurafubuki, Kamoki, Hakubotan, Kirei, Fukubijin. This might appear a little overwhelming at first. However, all of the breweries are within a 5–15 minute walk of one another, which makes it possible to explore a lot of them in a short time. There are plenty of places to eat near the breweries and thankfully they are all a short to reasonable walk from Saijo bus and JR station.

Because of their accessibility, friendliness and scope, it is not a surprise that they have been chosen as the first sake brand for the Japanese Development Assistance Programme. This means that they are highly respected within the Japanese sake community, and with this support, more and more information continues to become available for visitors.

The breweries like to showcase their differences, and all the breweries have English-speaking staff to explain what makes them unique. Brews change with the seasons, and the freshest is always on tap—making a visit any time of year unique.

(Connor Livingston, USA)

Thankfully, there is already a lot of information online and at the locations about Saijo’s rich alcoholic history. This is important at a time when sake has witnessed declining sales. This is because other drinks have ballooned in popularity over the years, such as whiskey, beer and wine. Nonetheless, Saijo offers visitors the chance to witness a fascinating part of Japan, and local history at its very best.

I was impressed by the openness of the people and range of sake that the breweries offered. The Japanese spirit so often embodied in craftsmanship and attention to detail was to be found all over the place. I am particularly fond of Fukubijin and Kamoizumi, but please try as many as you can in order to identify the taste that best suits you.

Why is Saijo sake so unique?

Booths selling sake to festival visitors

There are many answers to this question. Firstly, the Saijo Sake Brewers Association maintains the standards of Sake that is produced locally. The water that is used is ideal for sake production, and the rice that is chosen is done so by Toji masters in Hiroshima. A Toji is a master brewer who has a refined set of skills from a lifetime of sake brewing. The above highlights how the industry is maintaining its high standards, both through oversight and the individually skilled craftsmen who work within it. Finally, sake production in this area dates back to the 15th century, and has flourished beyond many nation-changing periods and in a struggling market over the past 100 years. It is quite simply, a survivor.

The author of The Sake Handbook, John Gaunter, identified four relevant sakes in his handbook that impressed me after tasting sessions. One sake brewery is called Kamoizuma and has an impressive and simple brand that is enjoyable at several Kaiseki (Japanese high quality traditional food) restaurants in the city, which accompany their seasonal set meals. Gaunter is right to point out that "it really comes into its own when it warms up a bit, near room temperature." And that makes it a good drink to enjoy slowly at the table over a long evening.

At the same time, a large bottle of good quality Saijo sake and some high quality sushi from a store can cost less than fifteen dollars. Therefore, almost all people with very different budgets can enjoy it.

The Komotsuru Brewery took its name in 1873 but dates back to the early 15th century. This is worthy of mentioning as it gained attention in 2014 when Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and President Obama shared a bottle at a sushi bar in Hiroshima. Again, it is very reasonable, costing ten dollars for a small bottle.

It has won the sake gold medal 18 times in the New Sake Competition. It also boasts an impressive history and is brewed using superior rice called Yamada Nishiki. The rice used in sake production cannot be understated. Sometimes foreigners don’t know the difference between very different looking sake bottles due to the language barrier, and therefore only try the cheap sake that is made from cooking rice and sold in cups at convenient stores. Delicious sake uses large rice grown specifically for making sake that is polished up to 70% and offers a truly delicious experience.

The Saijo Sake Festival

Smiling man holding sake cups
Photo courtesy of Robert Lennon

The Sake Festival (Sake Matsuri) is a two-day long event that offers sake from all over Japan. Therefore, you have the opportunity to try sake from places as far apart and diverse as Okinawa and Hokkaido. But, don't forget all that local sake too!

The festival is a lot of fun but has had to change in recent years. In the old days you could pay a standard fee of around fifteen dollars and have full access to the festival with all you can drink. However, due to some people being unable to get home, and stress placed on public services, there is a new system in place. When entering the festival site, it is necessary to pay the entrance fee which is around ten dollars and are then given a certain number of tokens. You can buy more when you inevitably drink them away.

Crowds of people at the Saijo Sake Festival

The Saijo Festival was a lot of fun. I had only recently arrived in Japan and didn’t know what to expect. The people there were very nice and the sake, well, what I can remember of it, was fantastic.

(Tom Lee Eveleigh, UK)

I’ve been there more than 5 times … I think …I like it because so many people are there every year … it’s like the Hanami parties in Spring. People drink from early afternoon and have fun hanging around. A very nice atmosphere, I think.

(Yurika Nakayama, Japan)

In addition to the sake area, there are also live bands playing on a stage and food stands that go on and on for around a kilometer from the main station through the center of Saijo. If your friends do not drink sake then that is not a problem. Beer, cocktails and many other beverages are available.

Saijo Sake Festival 2019 Dates: Saturday–Sunday, October 12–13, 2019

Overall, I highly recommend the town of Saijo to sightseers, and the annual festival. But remember, if you do go to the festival, drink ukon and some water first. And if you are unable to attend the festival, then spend a pleasant and relaxing day walking aound this pretty town and getting to know its history.

And by history, I mean, sake!

Official Sake Festival Website (Japanese)

Sake Matsuri on Facebook (Japanese)

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