The landlocked prefecture of Nagano is set amidst some breathtaking mountain ranges. These mighty ridges are so imposing, both physically and culturally, that they tend to overshadow another one of Nagano’s important features: abundant, high-quality water.
Water flows through all parts of the prefecture, whether in the form of natural mountain springs, snaking streams, or hot springs in towns. Abundant water, quality rice, and a pristine brewing environment have combined to make Nagano a great sake producer throughout history.
But Nagano is more than just sake: it’s home to sacred mountains, ancient cities, quaint hamlets, and soothing onsen. Every season has its highlights – skiing in the winter, cherry blossoms in the spring, festivals in the summer, and autumn foliage.
The prefecture is home to 72 sake breweries, the second largest number in Japan after Niigata, brewing many labels of internationally acclaimed sake.
What makes Nagano’s sakes distinctive, aside from their brews, is their rich cultural history. For instance, Shusen Kurano, the prefecture’s oldest brewery, was founded in 1540 – Takeda Shingen, a famous Sengoku-period warrior, sipped sake here during one of his many battles.
Another brewery, Masuichi-Ichimura, founded in 1755, is known for hosting Katsushika Hokusai, Japan’s best-known
ukiyo-e artist, who produced some great works in Obuse.
The town of Suwa is home to no less than 5 established sake breweries that line a 400m stretch of historic road. Among these is Miyasaka Brewery, established in 1662, is housed in an elegant Edo-period shop where visitors can sample their sake and other local produce.
While tasting is free at all breweries, a small fee gets you a souvenir ochoko (sake cup) from each brewery, and a sake tasting flight at Miyasaka.
Every year in March, the 5 sake brewers organise the Nomi Aruki, a sake drinking festival where one ticket (¥3,000) gets you free-flow sake, snacks and entertainment.
Those who have only come across clear, colourless sake – the most widely marketed form – may be surprised that sake can take on many other colours (milky white, pale yellow, and amber) and textures (thick, fizzy, light). These days, you can also find new variations, including low-alcohol, and ‘sparkling’ sake.
The flavour of sake differs drastically from one brew to another, according from the differences between rice and yeast varieties, water characteristics, as well as brewing and bottling processes.
Age is the first thing you should pick up on, when reading a sake label. Freshly brewed sake is naturally fizzy, and has a slightly fruity odour, while aged sake acquires a gorgeous amber tint, and smoother, longer-lasting flavours.
Another two technical factors worth noticing are the degree of rice milling (often noted as percentages on the bottle) and level of alcohol added. Premium sake is often labelled “ginjo” (60%) or “daiginjo” (under 50%), meaning that it was made with highly polished rice; technically, the smaller the percentage – meaning a higher polish – the cleaner the taste (and the higher the price tag).
If your sake is made without additional alcohol, you will see the term “junmai”, literally meaning “pure rice”, and you can generally expect a fuller taste. But adding alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean it’s masking an inferior sake – most times, it makes the sake smoother to drink.
Many Japanese people believe that sake has an anti-aging effect, thanks to its rich amino- and kojic acid content. Japanese researchers have found that sake may increase good cholesterol levels, and is much less acidic than wine. Studies have also shown that peptides extracted from sake can reduce hypertension.
Benefits also come from the filtration leftovers; called sake
kasu, it’s full of amino acids and vitamins, and is sometimes served as a drink or cooked in meals.
Much like wine, defining a good sake doesn’t necessarily boil down to price – the best way to find a preferred flavour is to go on sake-tasting trips. Plenty of small-scale breweries have shops that sell their variety of brews, with most offering free tasting.
Some sake breweries also produce craft beer, like Tamamura Honten which brews their Shiga Kogen beer with home-grown hops and rice.
ICONS OF NAGANO
Nagano is one of Japan’s landlocked prefectures, and has a rich cultural history acquired over the centuries.
Matsumoto Castle, for instance, passed through many hands after it was first built in 1504. It was constructed with a triple moat, a fortified five-tiered donjon, a turret, and low ceilings and steep stairs to slow down intruders. Today, the castle is a symbol of Matsumoto City, and is a popular place for locals to enjoy cherry blossom festivals in spring.
The small Edo-period town of Obuse is also rich in heritage, with its variety of museums, narrow lanes lined with Edo-period houses, and a prestigious sake brewery. The town is also known for its chestnuts and its related products like ice cream, rice, etc. Visitors can explore the private gardens of some residents and restaurants under the town’s “My Garden” programme.
To the north of the prefecture lies Jigokudani (Hell Valley), famous for its hot spring-loving population of Japanese Macaques. Today, the 200 primates of Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park spend each winter bathing and socialising in their very own onsen – serving as a remarkable example of non-human culture.
Nagano is also home to some of the most unique onsen towns. Bessho Onsen, one of Japan’s oldest, is packed full of designated “national treasures” and historic shrines. The famous Nozawa Onsen has been around since the 8th century, and its 13 public bathhouses (free for overnight guests) range from modern to ancient, like the magnificent wooden temple-style Oyu bathhouse. The latter is also one of Nagano’s best ski resorts.