Sake Tasting in Toyama
The Hokuriku region is renowned for producing some of Japan’s finest sake, and Toyama is very much involved in its production. As the popularity of sake (also known as “nihonshu”) has grown worldwide, Toyama Prefecture has become associated far and wide with superior quality nihonshu.
Sake brewing is a time-honored process that has changed little over the centuries that nihonshu has been produced in Toyama. That said, the prefecture’s sake makers are not afraid to innovate: new varieties are continually developed, and label design remains up to date with contemporary tastes. Toyama’s sake industry itself continues to evolve, as exemplified by the opening of a brewery for IWA, a luxury sake brand created by a former Dom Perignon champagne master.
Origins and Characteristics of Toyama Sake
Toyama brewers benefit from supplies of natural spring water, and water that flows down from the North Japan Alps. These give the region’s nihonshu a refreshing, easily drinkable quality. The other key sake ingredient is rice. Rice used in sake brewing falls into two categories: one suitable for eating, the other more appropriate for brewing nihonshu. Toyama brewers use a far greater proportion of the latter, which includes varieties such as Yamada Nishiki, and Toyama-developed Oyama Nishiki. These types yield large grains with big starchy cores that absorb water quickly and dissolve well. Combined with the local water, they give Toyama sake a typical profile that is dry yet mellow, aromatic and well-balanced.
Masuda Shuzo, maker of popular sake brand Masuizumi, was founded in 1893 and is based in Toyama City’s historic Iwase district. Its brewery stands amid streets of wooden buildings that are reminiscent of Iwase’s past as a thriving port town.
From late October through March each year, Masuda Shuzo’s toji (master brewer) and their 18 cooking staf produce over one hundred varieties of nihonshu. These include the brewer’s signature Masuizumi, which was originally created as a sake for Iwase’s geisha community. Tours of the Masuda Shuzo distillery are possible at certain times of year, giving visitors an opportunity to see key stages of the brewing process.
Masuda Shuzo’s president, Masuda Ryuichiro, has also lent his expertise to IWA Sake, a prestigious new arrival on the Toyama sake scene. The brand, launched in 2020, was conceived by Richard Geoffroy, a former cellar master at champagne house Dom Perignon. Geoffroy, together with IWA, aims to develop a drink that is “full of character” while respecting the thousand-year-old tradition of sake making. To achieve this, Geoffroy’s approach centers upon what IWA calls the “precise orchestration” of ingredients.
IWA is named after Shiraiwa, on the lower slopes of the Tateyama Mountain Range, where its brewery is situated.* This building, designed by internationally renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, embodies cutting-edge architecture while simultaneously harmonizing with its natural surroundings. Kuma’s design incorporates traditional, locally sourced materials, and the expansive sloping roof echoes the shape of agricultural housing seen on the Tonami Plain in western Toyama. IWA’s bottle was created by famed industrial designer Marc Newson.
Wakatsuru Shuzo, established in 1862, is based in Tonami City. Thanks to the fertile land of the Tonami Plain and the water of the Shogawa River, Tonami is regarded as one of Japan’s best areas to brew sake. The harmonious balance of richness and lightness possessed by Wakatsuru Shuzo nihonshu is actually born out of competitive spirit. Back in the 1990s, the company simultaneously employed two toji, who each adhered to a different regional style of brewing. One toji favored the Nambu method, which gives a rich flavor, while his counterpart advocated the Echigo style, which results in a lighter flavor. The skills of these two toji, honed through their mutual competition, have been passed down to the current toji who balances the two approaches.
Wakatsuru Shuzo also produces whisky, and is Hokuriku’s sole whisky distiller. Tours of the company’s sake brewery are possible, by reservation.
Tama Asahi is the prefecture’s oldest still-operating sake brewery, established in 1808 and based in Toyama City’s Yatsuomachi Higashimachi district. The brewery’s lineup, in keeping with its stated principle of learning new things from the past, ranges from time-tested traditional brews to innovative new offerings. Honjozo Genshu Owara Festival, made to commemorate the Owara Kaze-no-Bon festival held in Yatsuo each September, is an unprocessed sake made with the year’s new rice crop and possesses a fragrant, mellow taste.
A more recent addition is Echoes, a sake that employs Tama Asahi’s innovation of using yeast from the tulip, Toyama’s prefectural flower, as an ingredient. Echoes’ label design combines traditional Japanese aesthetics with abstract, colorful, and contemporary art-styles.
Where to Sample and Buy
Mitomi, located in the Maroot department store by Toyama Station, is a bright, modern bar with an extensive range of Toyama sake. The bar also sells bottles of sake and hosts sake tasting events in collaboration with Toyama Prefecture Sake Brewery Association.
In Iwase, Saseki is a Japanese Modern-style standing bar opened by Masuda Shuzo. There you can sample many of the brewery’s different sake varieties. Its spacious interior features glassware and other crafts created by local artisans, alongside an imposing tree trunk sourced from a Toyama shrine.
*Please note that the IWA building is not currently open to the public
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