By Bonson Lam
Niigata Prefecture is home to some 90 sake breweries and is famous for producing some of the country’s top quality sake. Niigata is endowed with naturally fertile land for producing quality crops of rice, the main ingredient for sake.
The region also has the perfect climate for the best fermentation process that gives Niigata sake its clear and smooth taste. In Niigata City, the prefecture’s capital and largest city, there are many ways to experience sake from large-scale events, brewery visits, to gourmet dining.
Sake tasting event
With many varieties of sake brands having their own unique flavor it can be tough to find the right taste for you. That is why sake tastings are a great way to experience the range of tastes to help you find the right ones that suit your palate.
Inspired by Germany’s October Fest, Niigata’s Sake no Jin Festival started in 2004 on the 50th anniversary of the Niigata Sake Brewers Association. The annual two-day event is held on the second weekend in March and was created to introduce people from outside of Niigata and abroad to sake while having fun with Niigata’s local food and culture. People can enjoy over 500 brands of sake from around 90 brewers. There are also cultural performances and seminars you can attend on sake. The event has grown in popularity over the years with now over 120,000 visitors.
Visiting a brewery
Since 1767 the Imayotsukasa Sake Brewery still uses the traditional way of brewing sake and without any artificial ingredients. The brewery which is open year round to the public even offer free brewery tours that will take you through the brewing process and history, concluding with a sake tasting session. It is possible to do the tour in English if you request in advance. The brewery has gained a lot of attention in many western countries for its award-winning 'KOI' carp-inspired bottle design. A stop by the Imayotsukasa Brewery is a must for anyone visiting Niigata City.
Popular Food Pairings for Sake
Sake is the national drink of Japan and while delicious enough on its own paired with a meal enhances the flavor of the food. In Niigata there are a many local specialties that are recommended pairings with sake, here are a few to try.
- Kurosaki Chamame Soybeans
The ‘King of Edamame’, Chamame soybeans are grown in the Kurosaki area of Niigata and are nothing like the average soybean. They have gained in popularity for their sweetness, rich aroma and elegant flavor and are GI-certified (Geographical Indication), which guarantees their quality.
- Nodoguro Aburi Don
This high-grade fish is caught along the coast of the Sea of Japan. Their flesh is a white color and their meat is fatty and tender. In addition to being a popular choice for sashimi and sushi, they are also delicious grilled and eaten as part of a donburi (rice bowl) a Niigata delicacy.
- Kiwami Sushi Platter
The Kiwami sushi platter is a special 10-piece serving of the finest sushi. The platter includes local seasonal offerings served together with uni (sea urchin), toro (medium-fat tuna), and ikura (salmon roe). The content varies according to the season and sea conditions, but you can always be sure you will be eating the freshest and best fish of the day.
‘Wappa’ refers to the traditional Japanese wood craft made with thin slices of cedarwood, which is commonly used for lunch boxes, and ‘meshi’ is a term for rice dishes. This beautifully cooked and arranged dish is like a work of art, where the rice is cooked in a lightly-salted dashi broth, topped with steamed seasonal seafood.
Gourmet Dining for Sake Lovers
Here are a few recommended gourmet-dining options in the city to take your knowledge of sake to the next level.
Founded in 1846, Nabedyaya is located in the Furumachi district, which means ‘old town’ where the streets are lined with remnants of the historic old city. The restaurant is of traditional elegance serving kaiseki Japanese aesthetically pleasing traditional meals.
This is another traditional Japanese restaurant with over 300 years of history. Many of the rooms are registered as tangible cultural properties. All the meals are kaiseki dishes made from carefully selected seasonal ingredients, full of traditional flavors. The garden onsite is also a delight.
- Koshi no Kanbai
This is a notable brand of sake that started two restaurants. Koshi no Kanbai Kitayama serves traditional Japanese cuisine, naturally perfect for pairing well with sake. The other one, Koshi no Kanbai Manjia serves French cuisine, allowing their sake to demonstrate its versatility with Western cuisine.
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