NOTE: As John Gauntner has pointed out (Sakagura tourism? Not so fast!) breweries are food producers observing stringent hygiene requirements. Don’t assume you can drop in unless they have a shop, bar, museum or other public space. Always ask in advance if you can visit, and don’t be surprised if they say no because they’re in a crunch period for competition brewing, don’t have a public space, or no-one speaks your language.
We left Yamagata city and headed west to the wintertime ski resort of Zao, which in the November off-season turned out to a charming, slightly run-down town with plenty of onsen hot springs. There was one in our ryokan, an outdoor rotenburo a short hike up the hill, and four public onsen dotted around the town that were free with tickets from the hotel. After a day of hiking and soaking, we carried on to Sendai and took a day trip to the fox village which is just on the other side of the mountain range outside Shiroishi.
I met brewery owner Tonoike Shigeki in London at the WABI Japanese food festival, where he was serving little bites of food to go with the brewery’s sake, prepared by a London-based Japanese chef, and promoting his home town of Mashiko. (If you’re in the UK you may have heard of it, as it was recently featured on TV and in an exhibition at the Japanese Embassy in London as it’s closely linked with British potter Bernard Leach and the pottery centre he founded in St Ives in Cornwall.)
I struggled to find anywhere to stay in Mashiko itself and had opted to day trip from the nearest bullet train station, but when I mentioned this to Shigeki he immediately found me somewhere in the town – he also works for the tourist association! After a bit of an adventure finding our B&B, following GPS up a dark hill from a bus stop not far from the middle of nowhere, we spent the morning at the Hamada Shoji Sankokan and Mashiko Ceramics Museum before heading to the southwest of the town to find the Tonoike brewery.
Shigeki was away on business in Asia, and so asked his son Tonoike Shusuke to show us around. Shusuke suggested arriving after 2:00 pm when he could take a break from brewing, but if we arrived earlier we were welcome to relax in the brewery’s cafe. We turned up at the same time as a tour group, and it was obvious that the brewery encouraged visitors with its shop, cafe and tasting counter (although when some of the staff apologised for not spending more time with us they mentioned that a group had shown up without reservations).
The shop had not only sake but also shōchū, yuzu sake and strawberry sake (for the strawberry, complete with anime-style mascot girl in a maid costume), pickled vegetables (probably made with the sake lees), amazake sweets, rice crackers and even skin care products – there are lots of stories about sake and/or kōji being beneficial for the skin, although I haven’t seen much in the way of proof.
They may not get many foreign visitors – as soon as we turned up one of the staff ran up to me to say Shusuke was on his way! He dutifully arrived a few minutes later as we were looking around the shop, apologised for wearing a face mask as he had a bit of a cold, and brought us into the brewery through a wooden door with the traditional cedar ball hanging overhead – he explained that this was last year’s cedar ball, with the year before’s hanging to one side – they would have the new one up soon when the first batch of new sake was ready.
That’s it for part 1, click here for part 2!
- Tonoike/Sanran brewery (English)