It's easy to knock back glasses of sake and whisky highball at an izakaya without much thought beyond how great they taste. But by visiting the places where the drinks are produced, you’ll learn of the unique ingredients and production processes, the stories of the people involved, and a little bit more about Japanese history and culture.
Slightly outside the Greater Tokyo region, in the surrounding prefectures of Yamanashi, Shizuoka and Chiba, there’s a range of breweries, wineries and distilleries that make for easily accessible day trips. Most of them provide free tours. Given that the prerequisites for making high-quality booze include clean water and fresh air, you’ll be visiting lush natural environments – and you might just be tempted to leverage the visits into longer itineraries so you can explore the surrounding areas.
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The grounds of Ishikawa Sake Brewery feel like a little village, made up of a cluster of charming timber buildings constructed in the late 1800s, six of which are registered as Tangible Cultural Properties. They’re connected by stone paths lined with foliage: in spring, the trees are dotted with pink cherry blossoms, and in autumn the leaves take on fiery red hues.
The guided tour at this heritage brewery, established in 1863, starts outside the sake brewing building, under a dangling sugidama. You’ll learn that this iconic adornment of a giant ball of cedar leaves is traditionally hung by breweries to mark the beginning of a new production season.
You’ll then enter the brewery, where the air is sweet and funky from a hundred-plus years of sake-making, and be guided through the production process, with a comprehensive take-home booklet to jot down any notes. You’ll see the quintessential Japanese sight of sake fermentation tanks and other equipment essential to the process.The tour concludes with a sampling session, then you’re free to browse the store, or go for a drink and something to eat at the on-site Italian or Japanese restaurants.
The English language tour is about 40 minutes long, and is a succinct, informative and entertaining look into the history of Japanese sake.
Arriving at Katsunuma will have you wondering if you are, in fact, still in Japan and haven’t fallen through a wormhole to the French countryside – there’s vineyards as far as the eye can see. Katsunuma is home to Japan’s native koshu grape, which has been cultivated here for more than 12 centuries, taking advantage of the area’s fine weather, drastic temperature variations and fertile earth. However, it wasn’t until the 1880s that the grapes took on a new role in viniculture.
Château Mercian inherited the storied history of the first private wine company in Japan, Dai-Nihon Yamanashi Budoushu-Gaisha, which was founded in 1877. The winery offers two tours: a standard ¥1,000 option (60 minutes with three tastings) and the premium ¥3,000 splurge (90 minutes with six tastings). Otherwise, you can just explore the wine museum and gardens at your leisure for free. While the tour guides have limited English, the tours do grant you access to the vineyards.
The original brewery, a beautiful timber building over 100 years old, has been converted into a wine museum, which charts the development of the industry; though explanations are largely in Japanese. The stylish Wine Gallery, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the vineyards and surrounding gardens, is the place to go for tasting, food and shopping. The best time to visit is summer and autumn, when you can see the vines hung heavy with plump grapes.
If you arrive by the highway bus (about 90 minutes from Shinjuku), it’s about an eight-minute stroll to Château Mercian from the Katsunuma bus stop. You can also come by train to Katsunuma-budokyo Station, which is an eight-minute cab ride away.
The small but elegant Katsunuma Winery has been making wines for three generations since 1937, specialising in the region’s native koshu grape. Its house label Aruga Branca consists of several styles of wine, from Brilhante’s dry sparkling white to Doce’s sweet white dessert wine, all made from koshu harvested from the oldest vines.
The cellar, set in a charming 130-year-old merchant’s house, has a tasting room with a fun, hands-on approach: you simply purchase a card and use it to help yourself to 20-plus varieties of wine, which range from ¥100 to ¥300 per pour. If you run out of credit, you just top it up and keep doing the rounds. From the tasting room, a timber deck overlooks the vineyards, a picturesque setting in which to enjoy a bottle of wine. Tours are offered, but currently only in Japanese.
Located at the foot of Mt Fuji, Kirin Fuji Gotemba Distillery began its first bottling in 1973 and today is one of the few whisky distilleries in the world that distill both malt and grain whiskies. The pure water that has been filtering through the majestic mountain over a period of 50 years is used in all the whiskies produced here. As a result, the Kirin Fuji-Sanroku Signature Blend, a mix of both malt and grain whiskies, is revered for its clean finish and fruity, floral notes.
The well-organised tour kicks off with a cinematic experience – an entertaining 10-minute, widescreen, projection-mapped documentary on the history of Kirin’s whisky production. After that, you’ll walk through the multiple stages of the distilling process: see the enormous pot stills, visit the aroma booth, view the bourbon casks used to age the whisky, and observe the action in the labelling and packaging room. Then, wrap things up with two free whisky tastings in the European- style bar.
The adjacent gift store is a great place to purchase Kirin whiskies and related paraphernalia from hip flasks to cute whisky glasses with Mt Fuji rising inside. Don’t miss the observation deck on a clear day, where you may be able to catch a glimpse of the glorious aforementioned mountain. Tours run every 30 minutes, last about 70 minutes and are conducted in Japanese. However, there’s English audio guides and pamphlets, and much of the signage is bilingual.
A former herb farm that’s been repurposed into a brandy distillery certainly makes for an interesting day out from Tokyo. Located in Otaki, Chiba prefecture, Mitosaya was developed by owner-distiller Hiroshi Eguchi in 2018 on the back of a successful crowdfunding campaign, and released its first products last year in summer. It’s a sprawling, green hideaway comprising three buildings and two greenhouses, including an exhibition room containing over 500 specimens of medicinal plants, a legacy inherited from the facility’s former life as a herbal study and education centre.
Mitosaya makes botanical brandy using raw materials hand-picked from around 500 different herbs, fruits and vegetables that have been growing at the 16,000sqm farm for the last 30 years, including quintessential Japanese ingredients like yuzu and persimmon. Aside from fruit brandy, the distillery also produces herbal tea, cosmetics, herbal water, herb-based insecticides and syrups flavoured with cherry blossom, red shiso and cinnamon.
Mitosaya is only open to the public once a month, when you’ll be able to walk around the garden, get in touch with nature, and sample food and drinks at the bar set up in a light-filled renovated greenhouse.
Baird Beer is distinctly aromatic, whether you’re sipping the Rising Sun Pale Ale, Red Rose Amber Ale, Suruga Bay IPA or any one of their seasonal and special craft brews. This is thanks to the use of whole flower hops, rather than the processed pellets more commonly used by other breweries.
This is just one of the nuggets of information you’ll learn on the Baird Brewery tour, which runs on weekends and public holidays at 12pm, 2pm and 4pm, and lasts between 30 and 45 minutes. As you walk through the brewery, you’ll learn about the beer-making process in general, and the ingredients, techniques and processes that make Baird Beer special. In a fitting conclusion, the tour winds up at the 20-tap tasting room to put what you’ve learned into context. A large deck juts out of the tasting room, overlooking the tranquil natural scenery, where you’ll easily lose track of time working your way through the tasty offerings.
Founded by husband and wife Bryan and Sayuri Baird, the brewery is one of Japan’s first craft beer producers, with its foundations dating back to 1997. This Shuzenji brewery opened in 2014 after outgrowing its former location, and is set by the stunning Kano River, surrounded by the lush nature Shizuoka prefecture is famous for.
Catch a taxi from Shuzenji Station (around ¥1,800), or a bus: get off at the Yasutake stop and walk east for about five minutes through the rice fields and past hops vines. Sure, Baird Beer has several taprooms in Tokyo but making a trip out to Shuzenji is an informative and enriching experience. Bryan Baird explains its allure in a simple equation: ‘Beer + Nature = Paradise’.
With over 300 years of history, Sawanoi is a sake brewery where you can discover the culture and production process of Japan's national drink while sampling some top tipples. Located in the lush Okutama region of Tokyo Prefecture, about an hour and a half train ride from Shinjuku Station, the brewery features a large garden overlooking the Tama River, with an open-air area where you can order bowls of noodles and sake tasting sets to enjoy as you bask in the tranquil nature. Tours are offered in English, but you'll need to reserve via the website.
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