Nara: birthplace of modern sake

While sake has been made in Japan for over a thousand years, Nara is known as the birthplace of refined sake. Monks at Shoryakuji Temple developed a way to create a safe, consistent fermentation process. Nara sake is called umazake, for its rich, delicious taste.

Sake, shrines and temples

Like beer, sake needs a yeast starter for the fermentation process, known as a shubo. Early sake was unfiltered, cloudy and prone to spoiling during the brewing process. At Shoryakuji Temple, the monks developed a new yeast mash, called a shubo or bodaimoto, which was stable and resistant to contamination. Every January, Nara's sake brewers join together to help make the shubo at the temple's Bodaimoto Sake Festival. Although they use the same starter, each brewery creates its own distinct tastes. Sake also figures strongly in Shinto traditions for important ceremonies and as an offering to the deities. Ohmiwa-jinja Shrine is sacred for brewers, who come here to pray for good sake. When you see the sugidama (cedar ball) hanging from the doorway of a sake brewery in Japan, those cedar branches come from the huge tree in dense forest flanking the sacred mountain here.

How sake is made

The highest-quality rice, pure water and a high-quality shubo, are essential elements. Timing is everything when dealing with fermentation, and a split-second can change the taste of the final product. Winter is the best time to make sake, when fermentation is easier to control. The fermentation process takes several weeks; the unfermented solids, or sake lees, are removed. They are used to make Nara's distinctive pickles, narazuke. The remaining liquid is filtered, pasteurized (unless it is to be unpasteurized, or namazake) and aged.

Recommended brewery tours

Many of Nara's sake breweries have been in the same families for generations, and some offer tours and tastings. It is best to check before you visit, as some breweries do not offer tours during their busiest brewing periods.

Imanishi Seibei Brewery in historic Naramachi was established in 1884. Its main brand, Harushika, is one of Nara's best-known sakes and is exported around the world.

Umenoyado Sake Brewery has a history of over 120 years and has been specializing in handcrafted sake in Katsuragi city. They aim to share the pleasures of sake globally while staying true to their heritage and innovative methods.

Step inside Kubo Honke Brewery, a 300-year-old riverside brewery in the picturesque village of Ouda and learn about the traditional brewing techniques that have made it famous.

Gojo Brewery was established at the base of Mt. Kongo in 1924. Fresh water from the mountains is blended with natural spring water from a local well to make richly mellowed sake. Look out for the main brand, Goshin, a favorite of local sake connoisseurs.

This photogenic house and sake factory at Kawai Sake Brewery were established in the early Edo period (1603-1867), in the historic town of Imaicho. The friendly staff are happy to guide you through a free tasting of several varieties of sake.

Although the Miwa area is said to be the origin of sake brewing in Japan, Imanishi Sake Brewery is the last remaining brewery in the area. After over 360 years, it is still run by the same family.

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