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Sake brewery hopping near central Kobe

Visiting sake breweries in the five sake districts near Kobe

Japanese sake originated as early as the 4th century, and records showed that it was used mostly for religious purposes, while Japanese sake as we know today dates back to around the 18th century with the advancement in brewing technology and flavor.

One of the prominent sake regions in Japan are the five sake brewing districts in Kobe and Nishinomiya not far from downtown Kobe, which altogether make up the Nadagogo sake district. The amount of sake produced in Nadagogo is the largest in Japan. The district is well situated for sake brewing with the availability and access to good quality water and sake rice, which originated in the nearby plains and now grown in the same region, and having the Rokko mountain range at its back in the north, from which cold air descends and creates ideal sake brewing temperatures. Additionally, the sake breweries of Nadagogo are also located at the shore of the Seto Inland Sea, and sake boats known as tarukaisen facilitated the export of sake from Nada to Edo, then Tokyo.

A unique characteristic of many of the sake breweries in the Nadagogo district is that their warehouses were built with the lengths of the warehouse spanning from east to west. Windows on the northern side are typically larger than the south-facing ones to take advantage of the cold air coming down from the Rokko mountains in the north and to regulate the airflow - ensuring that more cold air enters and stays in the warehouses than escapes. However, only few original warehouses remain today as many did not survive the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which struck in 1995 and killed over 6000 people in Kobe, Nishinomiya and Ashiya - the cities in which the sake breweries of Nadagogo span.

Below are two ways visitors can enjoy the sake breweries in the Nadagogo sake district.

Visiting sake breweries in Nadagogo

There are 25 sake breweries in Nadagogo, and many of them offer brewery tours, provide free and paid sake tasting. Below is a selection of four sake breweries, which make for a nice introduction to the culture and history of the Nadagogo sake district.

HAKUTSURU Sake Brewery Museum

HAKUTSURU SAKE Brewing Co., Ltd. was established in 1743, which makes it 280 years old in 2023. However, I heard that 200-ish years is considered to be the average age for a sake brewery in Nadagogo as the younger ones are about 100 years old, while the older ones date back close to 400 years. The main highlight at Hakutsuru is its large museum housed in two warehouses, the larger of which is a reinforced traditional warehouse. The recommended viewing route is to first appreciate the exterior of the building as it is an original building, then watch a video to learn about sake brewing, before looking at the exhibits in the two-story museum. Almost all the equipment on display at Hakutsuru was actually used in the brewery. In addition to an English pamphlet, QR codes containing English translations can be found at some exhibits. There are plenty of photo opportunities at the brewery museum, and there is a shop at the end of the tour with self-serve sake tastings.

Access: Hakutsuru Sake Brewery is an approximately ten minute walk from Sumiyoshi Station on the Hanshin Line.

Sakuramasamune Historical Museum (SAKURAEN)

Established in 1625, Sakuramasamune Co., Ltd. is one of the oldest sake breweries in the Nadagogo sake district. The company used to have two sake breweries, one in Nishinomiya, farther east, and the current one in Uozaki, which led them to discover that the quality of water was important in sake making - through trial and error, some of which included only changing the water source, it was deduced that the difference in sake flavor between the breweries was due to the difference in water. As such, Yamamura Tazaemon, the 6th generation owner of Sakuramasamune is credited for discovering the miyamizu, good quality water used for making sake, in the Nadagogo sake district. Today, the brewery in Uozaki operates the Sakuramasamune Historical Museum known as Sakuraen, a multi-use facility that contains a small museum, cafe, restaurant and shop. Visitors can tour the museum and shop space which has been decorated with equipment and material used in the past.

In the museum area, visitors can make their own special sake label using the photo booth in the display area, which is then pasted on one of the three specific sake bottles purchased. Not to be missed when dining at the restaurant is its ponshunabe hot pot dish, in which sake makes up approximately half of the soup stock. Such a broth containing a substantial amount of good drinking sake is a luxury that can only be afforded at fancy restaurants or at a sake brewery. The restaurant also contains the Sanbaiya bar, where visitors are allowed to order only three serves of sake a day. Regular visitors can opt in to participate in the bar's stamp card system, in which a completed stamp card results getting your name plate placed on the bar's walls and receiving an original sake drinking cup.

Access: Sakuramasamune Historical Museum (Sakuraen) is an approximately five minute walk south from Uozaki Station on the Hanshin Line.

Hakushika Memorial Museum of Sake (Hakushika Sake Museum)

Tatsuuma-Honke Brewing Co. Ltd. was established in 1662, and whose main brands are Hakushika and Kuromatsu Hakushika. The grounds of the sake brewery are fairly large, and open to the public are the Hakushika Memorial Museum of Sake (Hakushika Sake Museum), which comprises of the Kinen-kan memorial gallery and the Sakagura-kan warehouse museum, and a shop with an attached restaurant. The sake museum was built to commemorate the 320th anniversary of the company. Temporary sake-related exhibitions are held at the Kinen-kan, while the Sakagura-kan takes one through the process of sake making through the life-sized rooms and models reenacting scenes, and displays of actual equipment. The sake museum is one of the few, if not the only sake brewery in the area, that displays pictures and items as they were found in the aftermath of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which struck in 1995 and killed over 6000 people. It remains as a sober reminder and a visual record of the destructive force of Mother Nature. Rounding up the public areas is the shop and restaurant that carry products from the sake brand, including paid sake tastings that start from 100 yen.

Access: Hakushika Memorial Museum of Sake (Hakushika Sake Museum) is an approximately 15 minute walk from Nishinomiya Station on the Hanshin Line.

Ozeki Corporation

Makers of the famous and ubiquitous One Cup Ozeki sake, Ozeki Corporation was established in 1711 and has over 310 years making sake. In break from a typical sake shop carrying the company's products and collaboration products containing the brand's sake, Ozeki operates a traditional Japanese sweets shop, Sekijuan, that specializes in desserts and sweets containing sake made in-house.

The steamed sake manju, a soft, steamed bun with red bean paste, is one of their signature products, which contains Ozeki's daiginjo sake. Another signature product is their sake castella cake, a wonderfully light and moist cake that is brushed multiple times with Ozeki's daiginjo sake. A unique item not to be missed is the sake manju soft serve ice cream, which is literally the steamed sake manju bun kneaded with ice cream, served in a cup, regular cone or a rice flour cone.

Access: Ozeki Corporation is an approximately ten minute walk from Imazu Station on the Hanshin Line.

Joining a Nadagogo sake making and local cuisine tour

A worthwhile tour for those who want an in-depth hands-on experience is the 2-day 1-night Sake Making and Kobe Beef Delight tour organized by Kobe Local Tours. The tour whisks one on a gastronomy adventure in Kobe, and comprises of an exclusive sake making experience at a sake brewery and visiting some sake breweries in the Nadagogo district. Other highlights of the tour include dining at a sake brewery, making rice balls and indulging on Kobe Beef, which comes with a sake pairing seminar.

There are two tours, one on December 5-6, 2023 and the other on December 12-13, 2023. Each tour costs 88,000 yen per person and includes accommodation, meals, activities and transport for the duration of the tour.

Going to a sake event in Kobe Harborland

A free-to-enter sake event, Feel the Traditional Sake Brewing Culture from Kobe, will be held from 11:00 to 16:00 on October 29, 2023 at Takahama Quay in Kobe Harborland, a short walk from JR Kobe Station. This fun event is a nice way to get an introduction to the sake history and culture of the Nadagogo region. Paid tastings of sake from the various sake breweries in the Nadagogo region will be available at the event. Other highlights of the event include seeing off a modern recreation of a tarukaisen boat from the port and listening to traditional sake songs.