For the Sake of Saijo

by Lucy Davis
wifm_autumn09_low-48As sake stars in the nouveau watering holes of London, New York and other fad spots, what do we really know about this revered brew? Is it 1,000 or 2,000 years old? Is warming it really sacrilege? Does some sake give no hangover?

Even experts quibble over these and other mysteries of Japan’s iconic alcoholic beverage often erroneously called rice wine.

One sure thing is that foreigners no longer have an excuse for not understanding sake, with a number of English-language websites now devoted to buying, making and appreciating it. Perhaps the most famous foreign sake sage is Ohio-born John Gauntner, who has written several books and dozens of articles on the subject. Fluent in Japanese, Gauntner is also the only foreigner to sit on the panel of the government’s Award for the Promotion of Japanese Cuisine Abroad. wifm_autumn09_low-51

Once your appetite is whetted, you are ready for the holy grail of sake—Saijo, for nowhere else has sake more to lose than this small town near Hiroshima.

An annual weekend sake festival held in October, when brewing begins, is not just for column inches and tourism, but a platform for locals to pray for a good season. Amid much song and dance, thousands flock there also for sake-flavored food such as noodles, okonomiyaki, and bishu nabe (a hotpot of chicken gizzards and vegetables), a colorful parade and, of course, sake-themed souvenirs.

Dwarfed by scenic mountains feeding wells with the “purest” of water for obsessive brewers, Saijo promotes a walking-tasting tour of eight of its 10 breweries for those who can still stand.

At Saijo’s recent Sake Matsuri (festival), I rose very early to score some of the most sought-after brews. Sadly, so did thousands of others, most of whom had already bought in bulk. I settled instead for a parade by the region’s proudest brewers, called the Oosugidama Mikoshi. The crowd waved, bowed and cheered as if they were royalty.

Perhaps the king of them all is Hisao Maegaki. This brewery president also heads the powerful local sake brewers’ association. “Many foreigners have embraced sake as the quality has improved. We are proud to be such an important region for producing quality sake,” he told WIFM.

Normally serene Saijo is far in distance—and spirit—from the shiny bars abroad that serve sake as if to taunt traditionalists. “Respect Tradition, Celebrate Evolution,” New York cocktail staff cry as they mix a “Fuji Sunset,” “Blushing Geisha,” or “Eager Ninja.”

There may be no real Japan connection to the sake served in such bars abroad as Oregon, California and Australia now brews sake, exploiting its cheaper labor, ingredients and technology.


Sake’s history will likely never be settled. Naturally, some Chinese also claim first bragging rights. It certainly precedes many nations’ domestic brews. Fact is, only relatively recently did sake become the refined beverage that is enjoyed today by connoisseurs. Tastes have changed and so has how it is served.


Serving hot sake is frowned upon by many connoisseurs. Critics of flaming it claim sake was only warmed in the past because the heat masked the awful taste of a cheap gut rot. Quality has improved so much that heating premium sake harms its more refined taste and steams it away. But what is better than sipping warm sake on a cold winter evening followed by steaming miso ramen that wards off a hangover?


Some say sake guarantees a hangover. Others claim that’s wrong. We all know that hangovers come from impurities in an alcoholic drink. In sake, that means proteins and fatty acids in the rice kernel. As premium sake contains rice milled to under 70% of the original kernel size, experts say it destroys most impurities. Purists sniff that those who complain sake gives them a hangover have simply never tasted a premium brand. They quote a famous Japanese saying: “You know good sake the next morning.”

John Gaunter:
Official Saijo website:
Saijo Festival:
Hiroshima Interpreter and Guide Association (English and German):
Cell: 082-245-8346