Japan as Yamata no Orochi
It looks like there’s no such thing as “the last trip to Japan” only “the most recent”. I’ve been to the country twice but I still feel it’s not even near enough. The amazing thing about Japan is that it’s so diverse in terms of nature, customs, food and of course sake. It reminds me friendly Yamata no Orochi, a dragon with several heads and tales from Japanese folklore, where each head has its own unique personality and represents one of the eight Japanese regions.
My two trips to Japan were quite heavily focused on Tokyo and Kyoto. We ventured to other places such as Arima Onsen, Hiroshima and Miyajima, Hakone, Matsumoto, Okuhida and Hirayu Onsen. Still, we only stayed there for a night or two without seeing much. Now I would like to visit a less central prefecture and explore it. While the next trip to Japan is not even on the cards, I have already started thinking about what region I want to travel to.
I always wanted to visit a more rural region of Japan to enjoy the country’s beautiful countryside, sleepy villages and laidback towns, romantically neglected shrines and local food specialities. And certainly, jizake, local sake. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a few local dishes with a bottle of nice sake from a brewery around a corner and enjoy it with somebody, who knows the area very well?
Introduction into Miyagi prefecture
So I was quite excited when last month I’ve got an invitation to a presentation of Miyagi prefecture, called Miyagi: A Passage to Tohoku. Some of my former colleagues were from Miyagi and I remembered the name and watching with them the footage of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on TV that day. Time passed and the whole region has now recovered from the devastating natural cataclysm.
However, it wasn’t the first time Miyagi prefecture came into my sight in recent months. My son actually travelled to Sendai, the capital city of Miyagi Prefecture last year. When he told me about his plans I was wondering, why he had chosen that destination. Now after seeing the photos from his trip and attending the Miyagi presentation, I understand why.
Miyagi prefecture is a part of Tohoku, a vast region in the north east of Japan (thus the name東北地方, Tōhoku Chihō, literally “North East Region”). The region comprises six prefectures in the north of Japan’s largest island, Honshu: Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Yamagata, Miyagi and Fukushima. The region is well known in Japan for its beautiful countryside, mountains, lakes, and hot springs.
More importantly for me, Tohoku is famous for its high-quality rice, which is a source of its beautiful sake. In Japan, the region is also well-known for its harsh winters. Cold weather is good for sake making. But I’ve made a mental note to avoid going there in winter.
Sendai: the legacy of the Date clan
Miyagi prefecture is probably is better known outside Japan because of Sendai, the largest city in the whole region. It’s a city founded in 1600 by legendary Date (rhymes with “latte” as in coffee) Masamune, a colourful warlord of Sengoku era.
Sendai is famous for zelkova trees growing along its main streets, Jozenji-dori and Aoba-dori, Zuihoden, Date Masamune’s mausoleum full of beautiful wood carving, ruins of Aoba Castle (aka Sendai Castle) with Musamune’s statue with an iconic crescent-moon-bearing helmet, the Sendai Tanabata, a Japanese star festival and many other attractions.
As my son put it after his trip: “Sendai is a lovely city located in the heart of Miyagi Prefecture. With friendly people and good food, it was a perfect first stop in our journey to Japan. When we were at Sendai castle ruins, which looked over the city, I noticed something shimmering in the distance. At first, I thought it was some sort of a cloud but it turned out to be Sendai Daikannon, a 100-meter tall statue of Nyoirin Kannon.”
The area is also famous for beautiful nature spots around the city, including Matsushima Bay, considered as one of Japan’s three most scenic views together with Miyajima and Amanohashidate.
Miyagi: Sake country
During the presentation at the Miyagi: A Passage to Tohoku, the organisers showed a short promo film about the prefecture focusing on sake breweries. Indeed, there are about 30 sake breweries in the prefecture. Many of them make amazing sake I am eager to try. Miyagi can boast a few very famous and well presented in London breweries.
I have written about Urakasumi brewery several times already and also mentioned sake from Ichinokura and Niizawa breweries before. Two of them were present at the Miyagi event. Urakasumi brewery was presented by its president, Koichi Saura, who comes to London quite often to promote its great sake. I am not going to comment on Urakasumi sake here, it’s just excellent.
Ichinokura brewery is quite famous for its taruzake, cedar flavoured sake. According to Sake World, it produces more taruzake than any other sake brewery in Japan. You can read more about taruzake here. Ichinokura Taru Tokubetsu Junmai sake is a fine example of taruzake. It has a gentle cedar aroma with fruity notes thanks to the high polishing ratio of 55%, which the reason for being tokubetsu (special).
I liked the taste of Ichinokura taruzake very much. It’s delicate and slightly dry as many other Ichinokura sake while the acidity is well-balanced. You can spot dry fruits and prunes in the taste. The texture is a bit creamy and the sake has a nice smooth finish.
The event also featured three other breweries I was less familiar with. Otokoyama Honten is located in Kesennuma, in the far northeastern corner of Miyagi Prefecture. The brewery makes sake under three brands, Otokoyama, Sotenden, and Biroku. There were two Sotenden sake at the event, Sotenden Daiginjo and Tokbetsu Junmai. They were two very good sake but I need to try them again to form my opinion.
Another sake was Hoyo made by Uchigasaki brewery and distributed here by World Sake Imports UK which I figured out straight away seeing Asami behind the stall. You could try two sake from the brewery, a colourful Shining Prince Genji Tokubetsu Junmai and Hana no Kura Junmai Daiginjo.
Kura no Hana was my favourite sake of the evening. It was delicate and mildly sweet with low acidity and amazing fruity aroma. As you drink it, the alcohol is hardly noticeable, which makes the experience very pleasant and relaxing. It’s a perfect sake for a party, which will tick boxes for everyone.
The last brewery featured at the event was Katsuyama Shuzo. Katsuyama sake is quite special. First of all, the bottles are not traditional long-necked ones. The brewery only makes junmai sake mostly daiginjo class. The bottles are quite lavish reflecting the status of the Katsuyama as a “sake brewery for the lords” since it was established in 1688.
Above all, the brewery only makes junmai sake mostly in the daiginjo class. Taste-wise, the brewery is focusing on umami in its sake. It’s quite savoury and rich. It’s definitely an interesting sake, which should be great with traditional Sendai dish, grilled beef tongue (gyutan).
A destination for the future
Miyagi: A Passage to Tohoku was a very good event. I was definitely impressed by Miyagi prefecture and what it has to offer to tourists. I wish I could go there and write a few posts to give you more flavour and tips about the region. There are so many good sake breweries in Miyagi and the food looks fantastic.
So probably when I am planning my next trip to Japan, I will include Miyagi to my itinerary. I am already looking forward to walking in the shadow of zelkova trees in Sendai, visiting Date clan’s monuments, looking from the ruins of the Sendai castle at the city, and spending a day at the Matsushima Bay.
I want to take a tour of a few sake breweries in the region and drink their sake in the environment was made for paring it with local food and having a conversation or two in Japanese to practise my language skills. Until then, I am going to invite a couple of my friends, open a bottle of Urakusumi Honjozo I have in my fridge and toast for our future travels.