The Jomo News site features an article by Yūmi Honma, member of a group that aims to draw tourists to the former Katashina area of Gunma Prefecture, speculating on how sake breweries can be used to draw overseas tourists out into the regions and what clues can be taken from wine to entice them.
Japanese tourists are well known for wanting to eat and drink local produce while on holiday, but the same can be said of the overseas visitors arriving in larger numbers than ever before and saturating existing tourist hotspots such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.
So if the time is right to start luring foreign tourists out to the regions, what attractions can they be tempted with? One, according to the article, is sake breweries. The number of Japanese restaurants outside Japan has risen sharply since washoku, traditional Japanese food, was recognised as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2013. There are thought to be over 10,000 Japanese restaurants in the West, and their popularity has driven up exports of sake with new records being set every year from 2010 to 2017 and total volume tripling in that time. There is even a sake contest held by a French sommelier (I assume they're talking about Kura Master) and the overseas market for sake is expected to keep growing.
Bringing up the (commonly heard but sometimes debated) assumption that people who like wine are easy to interest in sake, the article continues by saying that wine terminology is often used to try to explain sake abroad, giving two examples: terroir (hotly debated) and mariage (pairing). Sipping local wines while looking out over picturesque vineyards are the main tourism drivers for some regions of France and Italy, so there's potential for local water and rice to draw in tourists to sake-producing areas.
Unlike wine, where flavour is determined mainly by grape variety, the interplay of water, rice and kōji is more complex - affected by a complicated production process that includes both saccharification and fermentation. Flavour is greatly affected by the technique and craft of the brewer. The chance to find out the details behind this complicated process should draw in overseas tourists who are already curious about sake.
Gunma Prefecture has 26 sakagura, plus an abundant supply of suitable water flowing down from mountains such as Mount Hotaka and Mount Akagi. The Tone district has its own Sakagura Tourism initiative, featuring four sake breweries, two craft beer breweries and one winery. (Your regular reminder that sake in Japanese just means alcohol, so a sakagura is technically anywhere that produces alcohol.) The district ran a trial tour for sommeliers from Tokyo and overseas, combining tasting local produce in sakagura tourism with adventure sports in the mountainous region, which was highly rated by the participants.
Sake is seen as an old man's drink even in the area that produces it, but as breweries change hands as older generations retire there's more emphasis on producing sake that appeals to women and to overseas tastes. Many Gunma sake breweries allow tourists inside for tours (with advance reservation) and produce limited edition products that can only be bought on site. So visiting is the only way to get a taste of what the region has to offer.
- Original article (Japanese, Jomo News, 20 April 2018)
- Kura Master (French, Japanese)
- Previous articles talking about terroir: Back to the land, IWC tasting at the Japanese Embassy in London in July 2017, including the Hyōgo delegation talking about terroir