The Pursuit of Sake-ness

A journey through Kyoto and Kobe, Japan

By: By Monica Poling

The Details

Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum 

Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum 

Horino Memorial Museum 

Hyatt Regency Kyoto 

Japan Goodwill Guides 

Torisei Restaurant (in Japanese only) 

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Although Americans have been warming Japan’s national drink for decades, in Japan, sake is generally preferred cold.

Apparently, when sake was first exported to America, Japanese brewers didn’t ship their top-quality product. As a result, U.S.-based Japanese would have to warm up the drink in order to hide the flavor imperfections. Whether this tale is urban legend or not, many Japanese continue to equate warm sake with a lower-quality drink.


The Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum features interactive demonstrations. // (c) Monica Poling
The Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum features interactive demonstrations. 

This was just one of the many details I picked up on an exhaustive, two-day study of Japan’s sake culture.

I’d read that the Kyoto area is generally considered a main center of sake distribution, so that’s where I decided to start my research. I set my home base at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto and was delighted to learn that the executive chef at the hotel’s Touzan Restaurant would create a custom meal for me, expertly pairing finely prepared food with complimentary sakes. My first meal consisted of sushi, tempura and even Kobe beef, along with a variety of sake types that set the tone for the rest of my excursion.

The first morning, I headed north to visit the Horino Memorial Museum. The museum is actually a mid-19th-century house that once contained a working sake brewery.

Here, I learned that good sake is made up of three ingredients: high-quality water, high-quality rice and very clean air. This brewery’s waters came from a natural spring that still bubbles up in the courtyard. The end of our tour ended up in the shop, where we sampled several types of sake, as well as the beer that is still microbrewed on-site.

That afternoon, I headed to Fushimi-ku, a quaint town in southern Kyoto. Fushimi-ku is known for its pristine water and is Japan’s second-largest distributor of sake. It is also home of the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum. Gekkeikan is popular in the U.S. and, since I had frequently seen it sold in my local grocery store, I was looking forward to exploring the museum.

The facility did not disappoint. Much larger than Horino, it houses more than 6,000 artifacts and guides guests through the process of sake brewing. There’s even a mini brewery on-site. My favorite part of the tour was wandering through the area that had historical Gekkeikan memorabilia, including an impressive display of sake labels from the 1950s.

After the museum tour, and several free sake samples later, I headed across the street to Torisei Restaurant. I sat at the yakitori bar and enjoyed dozens of skewers with varying grilled meats. My favorite, cheese wrapped in bacon, was so tasty I even felt compelled to write a Haiku poem in honor of it. It is quite possible, however, that my poetic self was inspired by the two very large sake samplers I also enjoyed.

The following day, not feeling any worse for my indulgences, I set out early to visit the granddaddy of all sake museums, the Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum. For this facility, I took the Japan Railways bullet train to Kobe, about a 35-minute ride away. Because I was somewhat concerned about navigating the intricacies of Kobe, a place I’d never before visited, I arranged for the services of a Goodwill Guide, one of a corps of complimentary guides and translators. My guide met me at the train and escorted me directly to the museum.

Hakutsuru is one of the largest importers of sake to the U.S., and this museum was once the site of the actual brewery, which is now located across the street. The immense size of the facility alone was impressive, but even more so, each exhibit had interactive components, including English-language videos to take visitors through the brewing process, as well as the history of Hakutsuru. Life-sized
statues and the sounds of music playing songs sung by the sake factory workers made this feel as if I’d actually been transported to a different era.

I’d arrived early and was only one of a handful of visitors, and the staff was incredibly generous with their time and help. Even the facility director spent time guiding me through the museum. He walked me through the exhibits, taking the time to explain the official sake tasting process to me, demonstrating with the actual cups used at the annual sake competition held each spring.

Although I never did master the finer intricacies of sake tasting — all the drinks seemed good to me — I did gain a much deeper appreciation of the back-breaking work that sake-making used to be. Fortunately, the processes have since been fine-tuned, so now I can enjoy guilt-free sake, whether I drink it hot or cold.