Hizen Hamashuku: Historic breweries that house the world’s best sake
Walking down a side street within the quaint Hizen Hamashuku quarters of Kashima city you will come across an inconspicuous brown building with a large blue cloth sign that is the home of Fukuchiyo Shuzo. Within the wooden sliding doors is the world’s best sake – at least according to the International Wine Challenge, where Fukushiyo Shuzo’s refreshing and fragrant Nabeshima Daiginjo sake was named champion in 2011.
Winning the honor as best sake in the world has drawn international interest to Hizen Hamashuku and the three sake breweries operating in the area that for hundreds of years has also been referred to as Sakagura-dori (Sake Brewery Street) are drawing tourists from all over the world.
Long before being incorporated as part of Kashima city, Hamashuku was a prosperous town at the mouth of the Hamagawa River along the Tara Kaido highway – a sub-road of Nagasaki Kaido highway.
During the Edo Era, in order to show fealty to the Tokugawa shogunate, the feudal daimyo lords of each region across Japan spent every other year living in the nation’s new capital. A road system was set up as for the large procession that accompanied the lords, and post towns emerged along the way where travelers could rest their bones and get a bite to eat. They also liked to imbibe in local sake.
It was at Hizen Hamashuku – along the Sakagura-dori – where 13 sake breweries emerged to help weary travelers whet their whistles with some of Japan’s best sake before making the long, long arduous journey to Edo. Today, visitors can enjoy sake in the same atmosphere as travelers from 200 and 300 years ago, as the area has been well-preserved and maintains its Edo Era charm.
Once abounded with merchants’ houses and other shops, Sakagura-dori is now filled with preserved historic buildings, several of which still house thriving sake breweries. These days, three of the original 13 sake breweries remain. Several of the other distinct white-washed buildings along this 600m-long stretch house sake shops, cafés and bars where visitors can sample the local wares.
The picturesque townscape is designated by the national government as a preservation area of important traditional architectures. Incoming tourists disembark at the rustic train station – Hizen-Hama Station – and from there, under the visage of scenic Mount Taradake, it is a short, approximately 6-minute walk to Sakagura-dori.
Saga Prefecture is blessed with a natural landscape abundant with fresh produce and the natural ingredients required for delicious sake. The freshwater flowing from Mount Taradake and into the Ariake Sea is mineral-rich and is known as one of the best 100 natural water sources in Japan. When mashed with sweet-tasting rice grown in Saga Prefecture’s temperate climate, the water provides local sake brewers ample opportunity to brew some of Japan’s best sake.
The breweries open in March, and in spring – the planting season – visitors can enjoy pure, undiluted sake as well as unrefined sake prior to processing. The summertime, when preparation and brewing planning is underway, is the best time to enjoy softening sake or sparkling sake. From late September and October, the autumn rice harvest takes place, and the sake that has been matured all spring and summer is now bottled. Then in winter, around New Year’s, sake brewers partake in the “first squeeze of the year,” which is performed for good luck.
Today, six sake breweries are operating in Kashima city, with three of those located at Hizen Hamashuku, including the aforementioned Fukuchiyo Shuzo, where, while tastings and tours are unavailable, with a reservation one can receive an explanation of the Nabeshima brewing process.
Tours are available at Minematsu Shuzo, where fourth-generation owner Kazukiyo Minematsu, who was born and raised in Hizen Hamashuku, is happy to share information about the area’s history. Mr. Minematsu has painstakingly decorated the brewery with Showa Era retro-style furniture and utensils creating a unique, traditional atmosphere. The brewery purposely makes sweeter sake to appeal to those with a sweeter palate, and the brewery’s Kikuosho Junmai Daiginjo – matured for 40 days – has a flowery fragrance and deep flavor. The recipe for the well-known Kikuosho High-Class sake has remained the same for years, while the Hizen-Hamashuku Junmaiginjo uses 100 percent Yamada Nishiki rice grown in Saga Prefecture.
Nearby Mitsutake Shuzo provides tastings of its fragrant and balanced sake as well as Kyushu’s first potato-based shochu. The Makai e no Izanai black rice malt potato-based shochu is made from Koganesengan potatoes grown in Kagoshima. The Mitsutake Handmade Junmaishu, brewed in the conventional handmade style, was awarded at the National Sake Competition.
The other three Kashima city sake breweries are Yano Shuzo, which has stood alongside the Nagasaki Kaido for more than 100 years and maintained its Kansai Era charm, Sachihime Shuzo located near Yutoku Inari Shrine – one of the three largest Inari shrines in Japan – and Baba Shuzo, founded more than 200 years ago in the lush natural environment outside of Kashima city.
Because of the local sake breweries’ national and international attention, Kashima city has come to be known as “the town that produces the world’s greatest sake,” and has seen an increase in visitors. In addition to sake brewery tours and tastings, visitors should be sure to check out the Sake Brewery Tourism event held every spring, which draws more than 80,000 tourists. All six Kashima city breweries open their doors to guests during the event, including a flower and sake festival, the Kashima Fermentation Festival, and the Yutoku Monmae Spring Festival.
Also, the Hizen Hamashuku Autumn Sake Festival is held from the end of October until the beginning of November, at which time guests can enjoy sake tastings, local foods and stage shows. (Unfortunately, this year the Festival will be cancelled due to the novel coronavirus.)
Hizen Hamashuku, also known as Sakagura-dori, is a 600-meter stretch of road in Kashima city lined with sake breweries and sake shops that is a favorite destination for tourists from Japan and overseas. The historical area is recognized as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings.
Address: Hama-machi, Kashima-shi, Saga Prefecture, Japan
TEL: NPO Hizenhamashuku Mizutomachinaminokai +81-(0)954-69-8004
Access: 6-minute walk from Hizen-Hama Station