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Silvena Rowe, guest blog: trip of a lifetime to sake's homeland

Published:  05 July, 2010

Guest blog by Silvena Rowe, last year's winner of the Sake Contributor Award from the International Wine Challenge and Sake Samurai Association.

My mission as a sake ambassador started in last November prior to my trip to Japan when I was invited to create an 11 course lunch for the Japanese ambassador to Britain, Shin Ebihara, and his guests. I was exceedingly nervous, but there was no need, for it was great triumph, finishing with a chocolate truffle creation using koshu (aged sake) that the guests loved.

It was a great honour to cook for the ambassador, something that I won't forget, but the highlight of the award was still to come, a week in Japan, visiting breweries across the country. For that I am most grateful to the Sake Association.

My amazing trip began with me stepping onto Japan Air flight in London. Service on Japan Air was as efficient as you would expect from the flag carrier, arriving ahead of schedule at Narita Airport on a sunny Sunday in late February. Tired and jet lagged after more than 11 hours in the air, I stumbled through immigration, collected my bag and through into the arrivals hall.

There to greet me was a camera crew from Fuji TV, primed as to my arrival in Japan, they wanted an interview. Why was I here, what was I going to do, who was I going to see? I smoothed my crumpled clothes, worried that my hair was a mess, and answered that I was in Japan to improve my knowledge of sake, to visit the kuramotos (the breweries), and, to the best of my ability, promote their fantastic product.

Interviews over, I boarded the Narita Express and was whisked off to Tokyo Station, the first of many trains, bullets and otherwise, express buses and flights that I was to take in the hectic days that were to follow as I covered more than a thousand miles across the Japanese countryside.

The following morning I was up early and boarded the bullet train south west to Osaka, there to be collected by Mr Susumu Hamabe of the Tatsuuma Honke Shuzo (Shuzo means sake producer) to visit their factory at Nishinomiya that lies halfway between Osaka and Kobe at the centre of the Nada-gogo sake producing region, the largest in Japan, famed for producing high quality sake for more than two hundred years.

Here I was introduced to Mr Kenji Tatsuuma, whose family have run the family business since 1662 and are rightly proud of their Hakushika (white deer) brand that first appeared at the Paris Exposition of 1889. I was shown a wonderful museum and then toured the facility, which was huge, and the largest that I was to visit.

Here the sake is produced using the waters of the Miyamizu which flows underground from the Rokko mountains, high in phosphorus and potassium (good for making sake) and low in iron (bad), it is considered to be one of the best waters in Japan.

The following day I moved north, on to the west coast, to Fukui to be received with great warmth by the hugely charismatic Mr Atsuhide Kato of Katoukichibee Shouten, whom I had already met in London at the IWC awards dinner. The brewery was founded by Kichibee Kato in 1860, the Showa Emperor chose the sake produced by the brewery to be served at his enthronement in 1926 and even today it is the official sake on board government aircraft. Originally the entire output of the brewery was under the Koshinoi brand, but in 1963, it was re-branded as Born, which in Japanese can mean purity, striking truth, creation and future vision, a lot of things for one word.

After a tour and tasting, Atsuhide took me to Eiheiji, the huge Buddhist temple of eternal peace in the nearby mountains, where the priests and trainees practise the perfection of Zen, a fantastic experience.
In the evening we had the best sashimi (very fresh, raw seafood) that I have ever had the good fortune to taste, and to my delight I had arrived right in the middle of the King Crab season, wonderful stuff.

Next it was on to Nagoya where I was met by Mr Takeshi Sekiya of Sekiya Jozo, a family run business that combines both modern and more traditional methods of production. The brewery is relatively small compared to some, and they like to think of themselves of true artisans, exclusively using their own rice production to make their main brand, Houraisen.

Here I was treated to a Japanese tea ceremony and in the evening slept in a traditional Ryokan (a Japanese inn), the floor covered by a Tatami, (rush matting) and a Futon to sleep on. We ate a local delicacy, wild boar, and fish from the river the roared past the front of the hotel.

At Shiogama in the Miyagi Prefecture I visited the Urakasumi Saura brewery and was welcomed by Mr Koichi Saura, chairman of the Sake Association to his picture postcard perfect brewery. Here the Nanbu Toji (master brewer) produces what they call maraboshi (dream sake), a wonderful accompaniment to the best sushi I have ever eaten. Fuji TV filmed the tasting that was laid on for me at the brewery and interviewed Mr Saura.

Later in the day I was taken to the mausoleum of the feudal lords of Sendai-Han, the 201 steps through centuries old cedar trees to one of the most important Shinto Shrine was awe inspiring, and I was greatly honoured to be allowed a glimpse into a surreal world that few visitors are allowed to see, the interior.

Ms Kobyashi, a colleague of Mr Saura, and a winemaker, was recently back from Australia and she joined me for the rest of my trip. At the crack of dawn we were off again, travelling the 50 miles by express bus from Sendai to Sagae in the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture, where we were met by Mr Junichi Suzuki of Gassan Shuzo, and given a very warm welcome. They have been brewing sake in this region for hundred of years, but Gassan was only formed in 1972 when three breweries merged. Mount Gassan, from which the brewery takes it name, is permanently topped with snow, the melt water of which is perfect for sake making.

Last, but by no means least, came my visit to Ichishima Shuzo in Niigata, home of Omon brand. I had met Mr Kenji Ichishima, chairman of the Sake Samurai Association, in London in September, and it was a great pleasure to see him again. We were received with tea ceremony and shown around the brewery and had a tasting of finest sakes that the breweries have to offer, produced from rice that grows well in its maritime climate, and its famed soft waters.

Ichishima was certainly one of the most beautiful of the breweries that I visited, and has a history that stretches back more than four centuries, but unfortunately, we did not spend as much time as I could have wished, the terrible earthquake in Chile having caused the Japanese authorities to implement their tsunami emergency evacuation plans and naturally everyone was nervous.

My official tour ended in Niigata, but it was by no means over. Having seen very little of Tokyo, I had arranged to stay for a few days at the end, and still had some work to do, an interview with The Japan Times (English Language), and whole day of filming with Fuji TV, where we toured the main produce and fish market of Tsukiji to select ingredients, and I rustled up three western style dishes to match with sake. All this filming was for the popular morning show Tokudane which aired after I left.

* The Sake Samurai Association, in partnership with the International Wine Challenge, is offering restaurateurs, journalists and distributors an opportunity to win an all expenses paid trip to Japan.

Entrants should compose a draft of no more than 300 words on how their contribution to sake awareness helps to raise its profile in the UK and/or Europe. Entrants should also attach a recent CV for the judge's attention.

Closing date for receipt of entries is July 30, 2010. Entries should be sent to: Sake Contributor Award, International Wine Challenge, William Reed Business Media Ltd, Broadfield Park, Crawley, West Sussex, RH11 9RT. For any queries please email