The Sankei News site has a look at at a prefecture you might not immediately associate with sake - Saitama.
Often seen as a commuter bedroom town and food supplier for the sprawling Tokyo metropolis on its doorstep, the prefecture ranks highly among Japan's 42 local government areas, but has a tendency to come in at number 5: for population, regional production, number of private companies, numbers employed (by wholesalers/small companies) and more.
It also comes in fifth among the prefectures for shipments of sake, ranking at number 5 in 2014 with 21,255 kilolitres. It now hopes to move up one place in the 2017 figures - due for release mid-May - and take its place behind the famous sake areas of Hyōgo, Kyoto and Niigata.
Great sake needs great rice and water. The Sai no Kizuna (彩のきずな) variety grown in Saitama was awarded the highest "Special A" grade by the Japan Grain Inspection Association in its "2017 National Rice Flavour Ranking", the first time the prefecture made the grade since 2014. The prefecture is also home to four water sources named in "100 Famous Heisei Water Sources" by the Department for the Environment, including the underflow from Mount Bukō available in the city of Chichibu. With those boxes ticked, the prefecture has 35 sake breweries making good use of its resources.
The prefecture also opened the "Sai Country Sake Brewing School" (彩の国酒造り学校) in 2005 for young or new employees in sake breweries, which provides lectures and practical skills coaching over a two-year period. Students work towards a Level 2 Certification in sake brewing, and in February 2016 all fifth term students passed the exams. Kazuyoshi Shimosaka, president of the Saitama Brewers Association, noted that many breweries are affected by the lack of willing or able successors as the workforce ages, which makes the the development of "in-house tōji" and preservation of traditionally transmitted skills critical.
The Koyama Honke brewery in Saitama City won top prize in the main division of the 2018 "Sake that tastes good in a wine glass awards" for their "Kai" label, the first time prefecture was the overall winner. A Koyama Honke employee involved in research and development commented that their brewing technique had taken a huge leap forward, and through trial and error they had produced something clearly different from "pack sake" (sold/bought in the waxed cardboard packs often used for fruit juice in Europe).