| Jessica Piora & Yuichi Kobayashi
Suwa Gokura: Nihonshu Tasting in Kami Suwa
Is it happy hour in Nagano? We’ve got you covered! Today we will introduce a nihonshu tasting itinerary in the city of Suwa, in Nagano Prefecture.
What is Nihonshu?
What famous alcohol is made in Japan? Did you guess sake? You are both right and wrong. While sake is what many outside Japan call it, sake refers to any alcoholic drink. In Japan, sake is referred to as nihonshu, which when translated directly means Japanese liquor. It is an alcoholic beverage made from fermenting rice, water for washing and diluting, and koji spores(an enzyme-secreting fungus). The finished liquor is transparent with high alcohol content (16% on average).
Nihonshu, like wine, can be sweet or dry. It can be enjoyed cold or warm. In Japan, it is available everywhere, from the closest convenience store to a bar downtown. Like any liquor with an enthusiast crowd, there are varieties of nihonshu produced by small breweries only available locally. And why the Suwa Gokura or five breweries of Suwa come recommended.
What makes these five breweries so special? The Shinshu region of Nagano, with its cold climate, delicious rice, and mountain water, creates the ideal conditions for nihonshu production. The five distilleries offer a special tasting course to visitors. If you purchase a sake-meguri pass, you can enjoy nihonshu tasting at all five breweries for a reasonable price.
Sake Meguri Pass
The pass is available at any of the five breweries. It is currently ¥2000 and covers 25 varieties of nihonshu in the five breweries. Due to current restrictions, tastings are suspended. As a replacement, the pass comes with a stamp card, a special edition glass, and a bag (the color changes with the seasons). When you visit a brewery, you receive a special edition glass of nihonshu that you can take home with you and a stamp on your stamp card! Besides the tasting, you can purchase full-sized bottles of nihonshu, cups, and other nihonshu related items.
The first and the last brewery are 350 meters apart, and it takes less than 5 minutes to walk between the two. The breweries are closed on Wednesdays and Sundays, so avoid visiting on those days. Each brewery specializes in a different kind of nihonshu. The stories of each brewery are unique, so we talked with the staff to learn more about the distinctive types of nihonshu that they offer.
Masumi, founded in 1662, is the oldest of the five. It was named after "The Mirror of Masumi" a holy treasure at the Suwa Taisha shrine. Masumi produces nihonshu using a special kind of koji, called #7 Yeast, local rice, and mountain water.
#7 Yeast is one of the reasons why this brewery is so widely appreciated.
Masumi has a lovely garden, where you can sit and sip on your nihonshu. The atmosphere is peaceful and relaxing.
Originally located in Sakamura, Yokobue moved to its current location 60 years ago. They specialize in dry nihonshu. They release a different seasonal special every month. Yokobue only sells to customers who come to their shop in Suwa, and even Izakaya owners come to the shop to purchase the bottles in person.
Founded in 1756, Honkin is a small family business that works hard to continually produce quality nihonshu for more than 250 years. Their signature liquor is called Taiichi, and they only sell locally. Their goal is to offer a simple liquor that brings people together.
Reijin is the only brewery out of the five to brew nihonshu and beer. In fact, if you are familiar with Suwa beer, this is the brewery that makes it!
They started selling beer 20 years ago. They explained that while nihonshu requires cold temperatures to be made you can brew beer all year round! They sell their dry nihonshu all over the country.
This brewery’s nihonshu was presented to the imperial household. It is sweet and characterized by good balance, produced with fine water and rice. Maihime sells its nihonshu all over the country and it is quite famous.
Take a break
On your way from one brewery to another, you will find a picturesque Shinto shrine, named Yatsurugi Jinja, and a temple called Kyonenji. Take a break from your tasting tour to enjoy these beautiful locations.
Other attractions in Kami Suwa – Tateishi Koen
Are you a fan of the Japanese anime Your Name? This is the place for you. Tateishi Koen is a public park where you can go to enjoy a beautiful view of Suwa lake (the largest lake in the prefecture), and the city of Suwa. Fans of the movie Your Name love this park because they can step into a scene from their favorite movie! If you too love the movie, make sure to pay a visit! You will not be disappointed.
Sunset at Suwa Lake and footbath
After a long day walking around, you'll want to rest your feet while watching the sunset on Lake Suwa. Not only is the view of the lake incredibly picturesque, but you can also take it in while you enjoy a footbath. The footbath is open to whoever wants to soak their feet and warm up.
How to reach Kami Suwa
From Nagoya station take the Chuo line to Shiojiri. About 2 hours.
From Shiojiri take the Chuo line for Chino and get off at Kami Suwa station. About 21 minutes.
Things to keep in mind
1. Once purchased, the sake-meguri pass does not expire. You can complete the tour over several days.
2. Nihonshu has a high alcohol content, please drink responsibly.
3. The drinking age in Japan is 20.
4. Do not drink and drive.
5. Enjoy your time in Suwa!