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Truth by the Barrel: In Search of Kobe’s Finest Sake

A look into Nada Gogo’s centuries-old rustic wood warehouses that have turned into museums, shops and restaurants to tell the public the whole story of sake making.

By 6 min read

There’s a saying that goes, “Sake no naka ni makoto ari (In sake there is truth).” Nowhere does the truth speak louder than in Hyogo Prefecture, home to the sake brewing district of Nada-Gogo (Five Villages of Nada). Tucked between Rokko mountains and the Seto Inland Sea, the brewing companies of this area have been quietly serving the good people of Kobe, and the archipelago beyond, with their fine sake—and that’s one truth that doesn’t hurt.

Locals’ will, locals’ way

Sake barrels

Nada’s brewing traditions have weathered the centuries well, and while the ritual of imbibing sake runs back 2,000 years, the Nada brewers have spent their time perfecting the art of commercial production, outlasting wars, economic downturns, and other catastrophes to bring their product to the people.

Local specialties in Japan are special for a reason. The smoothness and complexity of Nada-brewed sake is attributed to the purity of the local water—miyamizu—a heavily mineralized hard water that flows from the nearby Rokko mountains. To these have been applied the knowledge and craftsmanship of the Nada toji, or master brewers, who make absolutely certain that their “water of truth,” when served, is nothing less than perfect. The toji is a key element in producing its refreshing taste and low iron content.

Another key ingredient is Yamada Nishiki, the lauded “King of Sake Rice,” whose low protein content, dense white core and consistent size and texture, give Nada sake its characteristic refreshing and robust flavor. This specialty rice is grown under contract in the rich valley lands northwest of Kobe.

Fancy a sake soft serve ice cream? They have it on tap.

Japan defines eight categories of sake under the National Tax Agency’s tokutei meisho-shu (special designation sake) system, and these are determined by the type of ingredients and the sei-mai buai (rice polishing ratio). Two of the most popular varieties of sake are ginjo-shu, with its rice polished below a 60% ratio and which possesses a fruity aroma, and junmai-shu, which is made from only rice and water, and is characteristically savory in flavor. Depending on the philosophy and methods used by its toji, however, subtle differences in taste and texture exist from brewery to brewery.

Aware that their craftsmanship is of important cultural value, many Nada companies have opened their doors to the public, remodeling their centuries-old rustic wood warehouses into museums, shops and restaurants to tell the public the whole story of sake making. Their tours, which provide multilingual displays and pamphlets, typically end with a tasting session. Thus informed, visitors may purchase the sake of their fancy, or any of the other sake-related products on sale at the brewery shops.

The Nada-Gogo area straddles both Kobe and nearby Nishinomiya city. It comprises Nishi-go (Nishi district), Mikage-go (Mikage district), Uozaki-go (Uozaki district), Nishinomiya-go (Nishinomiya district) and Imazu-go (Imazu district), all of which are easily accessed by Hanshin and JR railway lines running between Kobe and Osaka.

Kiku-Masamune Sake Brewery Museum

Craft person at Taru Sake Meister Factory.

Established in 1659, the Kiku-Masamune Sake Brewing Company is a short walk from Minami-Uozaki station on the Rokko Liner. Its museum transports you through 360 years of brewing history, giving insights into the full brewing process: from yeast cultivation through to rice polishing and the final separation of the sake from the fermentation mash.

Kiku-Masamune’s bestseller is Hyaku Moku, an “A-list” highly-polished junmai dai-ginjo sake made wholly from Yamada Nishiki rice. Staff will invite you to experience its sharp, “dignified” flavor and umami (savory) aftertaste. To contrast, you might like to try freshly pressed shiboritate nama genshu (unpasteurized and undiluted sake), which carries a mild fruity aroma but with a drier finish. Fancy a sake soft serve ice cream? They have it “on tap.”

An added artisanal attraction of the Kiku-Masamune Brewing Co. is its Taru Sake Meister Factory. Here you can watch craftsmen shape the barrels for taru (barrel) sake from fine-grained Yoshino cedar wood of Nara prefecture.

Hakutsuru Sake Brewery

Hakutsuru cosmetics

To the west of Kiku-Masamune stands the Hakutsuru Sake Brewery, whose distinctive white crane motif makes it one of Japan’s most recognizable sake brands. Its product line-up is also impressive and features umeshu (plum liqueur), cooking wines and shochu, as well as skin care items—all of them, surprisingly, derived from the grain of the simple rice plant. The company’s oldest brewhouse, now a museum, uses life-sized figure displays to demonstrate how it achieves this wide range of products.

Afterwards, you can taste the formidably named Cho-tokusen Hakutsuru Tenku Fukurozuri Hakutsuru-Nishiki, a junmai dai-ginjo sake with a mellow personality and fruity aroma, only 270 years in the perfecting. Or try unique types of plum liqueur such as nigori (cloudy) and genshu (undiluted) umeshu at the ground floor tasting corner.

With a growing following in sake from young women, Hakutsuru also turns its brewing by-products into cosmetics, such as lotions and cleansing creams which are rich in amino acids. One of their most popular is the Tsuru-no-tamatebako Yakuyo Daiginjo Moist Skin Cream, a moisturizer that contains essential elements of junmai dai-ginjo.

Kobe Shu-Shin-Kan Brewery

Kobe Shu-Shin-Kan Brewery


Further west, and a short walk from Hanshin Ishiyagawa train station in the Mikage-go area, lies Kobe Shu-Shin-Kan Sake Brewing. In 2017, the company’s Fukuju Junmai Ginjo took the Gold Prize at the International Sake Challenge. Nobel laureates (and those who have had the chance to attend a Nobel Prize ceremonial dinner since 2008) may recognize its taste as one of the exclusive sake labels that has been gracing the banquet table annually for many years. You can sample genshu (literally “original” sake), an undiluted form of”‘truth water” that packs a rich and powerful taste. Because of its high alcohol content, it is usually served cold or with ice.

Kura jikadori namazake means sake “just pressed” at the warehouse. This is offered in seasonal variations such as Nada-no-ki-ippon Junmai namazake, which has an umami taste, the aromatic ginjo nama-genshu, and the elegantly smooth dai-ginjo namazake.

With international interest in Japanese sake also growing, Kobe Shu-Shin-Kan provides explanations about its brewing activities in 16 languages, in addition to multilingual video presentations and English-speaking staff who are on hand to guide and help.

At the end of a day spent tasting your way around the breweries of Nada-Gogo, there’s another saying that will ring true: “Sake ga shizumu to kotoba ga ukabu (When drink goes down, words come up).” Believe me, the good folk of Kobe love to talk.

Essential information

The Nada-Gogo region straddles both Kobe and nearby Nishinomiya City. It comprises Nishi-go (district), Mikage-go, Uozaki-go, Nishinomiya-go and Imazu-go, all of which are easily accessed by the Hanshin Railway and JR Railway lines running between Kobe and Osaka.

  • By train: Hanshin and JR railway lines operate between Kobe and Osaka, stopping at stations close to all Nada-Gogo breweries. Distances from stations to breweries are walkable. Rail route maps: Hanshin railway, JR East
  • By ferry: Traveling to and from Kobe by way of the Seto Inland Sea adds an extra element of adventure to the Kansai (Kobe/Osaka/Nara/Kyoto) travel experience. Jumbo Ferry service links Kobe with Shikoku and the island of Shodoshima.

For more information on Nada-Gogo, see here. For a Hanshin Nada-Gogo sake brewery guide, see here. For more information on each brewery, see Kiku-Masamune Sake Brewery Museum, Kiku-Masamune Taru Sake Meister Factory, Kobe Shu-Shin-Kan Brewery and Hakutsuru Sake Brewery.

For travel, safety tips and national and regional measures in Japan to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic spread, please refer to the JNTO Coronavirus (COVID-19) advisory information page at here.

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