As a travel blogger, one of the most frequently asked questions I receive is, “What’s your favorite destination?” And for a long time, I had trouble settling on my top three destinations. After my two-week trip to Japan in 2019, answering that question got a whole lot easier. Japan is a unique combination of completely foreign and wholly welcoming. Fabulously futuristic and totally traditional. I loved the contradictions and thrived on discovering the unique desserts in Toyko, making character bento boxes, and discovering off-the-beaten-path destinations most tourists miss, like Ibaraki and Gunma.
I fell in love with foods I’d never even heard of, like okonomiyaki, wagashi, and burnt ramen. And of course, I had to try Japan’s national drink–sake.
It can be tricky to find unique, local attractions (that aren’t overrun by tourists), since most websites and promotional materials are only in Japanese. Unless you’ve got a Japanese friend, there’s a good chance you’ll miss out on some true local gems.
Think of Sake Voyage as your Japanese BFF. This brand new site highlights four unique sake breweries and two very special sake pairing dinners just a few hours north of Tokyo– a perfect weekend getaway! Plus, they’ve chosen breweries that offer tours and materials in English, so you won’t miss a thing!
Note: This post is sponsored by Sake Voyage and may contain affiliate links. All photos belong to Sake Voyage and are used with permission. As always, all opinions are my own and I’ll never recommend anything to you that’s not awesome!
The four sake breweries of Sake Voyage
Tonoike Sake Brewery
Located in Mashiko, a town known for its pottery, Tonoike Sake Brewery is crafting a different kind of legacy. Although the brewery was opened in 1937, founder Itsugoro Tonoike’s family has been brewing sake since 1829!
With nearly 200 years of brewing sake, the Tonoike family created a sake that’s earned them a fourth-place spot in the World Sake Brewery Rankings. Visit their brewery, where you can visit a small museum and learn about the brewery’s history while handling antique sake tools!
Watanabesahei Sake Brewery
You’ll find the rustic Watanabesahei Sake Brewery nestled at the foot of the Nikko mountains. Founded in 1842, the brewery is run by the seventh-generation of the family. It’s not just their age or location that sets this brewery apart– for the past 50 years, the Watanabesahei Sake Brewery has focused on making Junmai-shu, pure rice sake with no distilled alcohol. Can you taste the umami flavor of the local rice used to make this sake?
Katayama Sake Brewery
Making sake is a labor of love and family-owned Katayama Sake Brewery puts their hearts (and their muscles!) into every drop. Most breweries use automated machinery to press the rice, but Katayama Sake Brewery does it all by hand. It’s not a quick process– in fact, the process takes place over the span of three days! Founded in 1879, the seventh-generation owner brews the sake himself every winter.
If you want to truly appreciate the unadulterated simplicity of sake, their Genshu (unfiltered, unpasteurized, and undiluted sake) is a must-try.
Love New Zealand? The brewery is the official producer of the All Blacks official sake!
Shimazaki Sake Brewery
Although its official name is Shimazaki Sake Brewery, you’ll likely hear this brewery referred to as The Cave Brewery. Their IWC Trophy award-winning sake, Uroko, is aged in a cave that was dug by hand during WWII to produce combat vehicles.
The brewery, founded in 1849, uses groundwater from the Nakagawa River, which flows from Mount Nasu, to produce sweet sake that ages well.
Take a tour of the cave and try their Azumai Rikishi, which means “Sumo of the East.” Named by the second generation brewer, the name and motto stuck: “Azuma Rikishi, a famous sake that is unbeaten in a fight.” After your tour, be sure to check out the shop, where you’ll find brewery-exclusive sakes.
Two sake pairing dinners
If you’re a foodie like me, pairing a variety of sakes with unique dining experiences is something for the bucket list! Sake Voyage has enlisted two world-renowned chefs to create multi-course pairing dinners featuring sakes from the four breweries above!
L’Ordre du Mérite Agricole Chevalier-awarded chef Kazunori Otowa combines haute French cuisine with fresh, farmed, and foraged local ingredients to create an unexpected 7-course fine-dining experience at Otowa Restaurant. The Relais & Châteaux restaurant carefully selects handcrafted local sakes to pair with abalone pie, foie gras terrine, and Waygu beef. Afterward, finish with something sweet! Dessert pairs sweet local strawberries and sake ice cream!
Ryo-kan created a special Japanese Kaiseki, a traditional multi-course meal, just for Sake Voyage. Handcrafted sakes are chosen to complement fresh local vegetables and fish from the Gotō Islands or Waygu beef from Tochigi. If you’re looking for traditional flavors in a modern setting, book their 9-course tasting menu!
Being stuck inside this year has given me a lot of time to think about my next travel destination. Will I go somewhere new and exotic? Or revisit an old favorite? After learning about all the sake experiences I missed, Japan is near the top of my post-COVID travel bucket list!
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