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Time for Sake Tourism?

There are about 1300 sake breweries in Japan. How many of them actively welcome Japanese tourists? Not many. How many of them welcome foreign tourists? Even fewer.

It’s common sense for wineries and whiskey distilleries to open their doors to visitors. It’s good PR, supports local tourism, and gives them a chance to make some sales on the spot. So why not sake breweries?

With a few exceptions sake breweries are simply not set up for visitors. And to be fair, there are some good reasons why they might be reluctant to have tourists wandering in between the sake tanks.

A trip to Okayama breweries
A trip to Okayama breweries

For one, breweries are dangerous places: wet floors, high platforms, machinery and brewery workers chasing here there and everywhere. The other danger is of contamination. Sake brewing is a delicate process. Bacteria brought in on the shoes or clothes of visitors could easily result in entire batch literally going down the drain.

Still, things may be changing. Last month I had the fantastic opportunity to report on a tour of Okayama sake breweries. Run by Sake Brewery Tours, it was also supported by the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association and local breweries.

Needless to say, visiting four sale breweries in five days and sampling more brews than I can accurately remember (wonder why?) was a fun and educational experience. One fascinating feature of the tour was how it linked sake to the local area. So we learned about Okayama sword smiths, Bizenware pottery and the seafood cuisine (sake and oysters!).

Going by recent statistics  sake’s long decline may finally be bottoming out, but Japan’s shrinking population means the sake market is likely to shrink too. Everyone’s eyes are on export.

But overseas sake is still suffering the PR hangover of years of cheap and nasty export sake. What better to create sake enthusiasts and boost exports than by taking people right to the source?

Making sake at Tsuji Honten Brewery in Katsuyama city, Okayama Prefecture
Making sake at Tsuji Honten Brewery in Katsuyama city, Okayama Prefecture

Another important point is that sake’s about the food. It’s made to be drunk with food, and often the food from the area where it’s made. That’s not to say you can’t drink or with other cuisine, of course (there was a sake and Indian food pairing event in London not that long ago) but drinking in it with local food is the perfect place to start!

You’d be hard pushed to find a better place to drink sake than Okayama anyhow.