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Enjoying a pizza

Melissa B

Visiting the most historic brewery in Tochigi
- Daiichi Sake Brewery Tour in Sano -

Daiichi Sake Brewery - The history tucked away in Sano

Having visited several breweries across Japan, I was curious to find out more about the most historic one in Tochigi prefecture, and learn about why it’s sake is considered one of the three most famous in the Kanto region.

Daiichi Shuzou is a cultivation brewery. This means they don’t only produce a unique selection of sake– they cultivate their own sake rice! This is very rare for a brewery because it requires a lot of additional expertise and hard work. Daiichi Shuzou is located in Sano city. The city has been selected by the Ministry of Environment as one of the top 100 remarkable water sources in Japan.

The surrounding forested mountains create high quality soil which allows for extraordinarily pure river water. The brewery’s access to Sano’s excellent mineral water and their self-produced rice, is what makes their sake so special.

Despite opening in the Enpo era in 1673, this brewery has been so well maintained. It looks just as it would have hundreds of years ago. Daiichi Shuzou is even registered as an intangible cultural property for their traditional sake brewing methods. Most notably for their method of producing koji, a type of mold crucial for making sake. 

See how the brewery has changed on the Daiichi Sake Brewery Tour. Now vs Then

The Brewery tour

First impressions of Daiichi Sake Brewery and cedar balls

Upon arrival, I walked through a tall gate marked with the brewery’s name, owner, and year of establishment. I learned that the ball of cedar hung at the entrance symbolizes the new annual production of sake. When it is freshly green, it indicates the type of sake currently in season. Then, gradually fades to brown over the course year.

I first made my way to the reception, which is located in the first building on the right. The interior is carefully decorated for each season. At the time of my visit, beans for the holiday Setsu-bun, were on display! 

At the reception desk, I received a brochure in English and met my tour guide. The check in process is very straightforward and the staff were very friendly and attentive. When you visit, be sure to have a functioning smartphone. You will need it to scan the QR codes in the pamphlet.  From here you can play and hear the English audio guides from the Nearby Tokyo website (you can listen here). The staff explained that there is WIFI at the brewery. But be advised your device can only connect to it in certain areas and the signal may not reach all of the points of interest along the tour.  Once I checked in and received my brochure the tour was ready to begin. .

All breweries will have a cedar ball that signals when a brewery has a new season of sake

Map that is given to everyone on the Daiichi Sake Brewery tpur

The Daiichi Sake Brewery tour map that includes helpful information and audio guide QR codes

Sake Brewing 101

Although the layout of this brewery is in its original state, the usage of some of the buildings have changed over the years and some of the equipment has modernized. The first building on the tour was built over 160 years ago and originally functioned as a storehouse for the harvested sake rice. Now, it is a gallery of photographs that shows Daiichi Shuzou’s delicate step-by-step process of sake production from farm to bottle. 

The tour guide gave a detailed explanation about each step as well as the specialized workers involved, and the specific materials and methods used to make their sakes. Before the tour, I hadn’t known about the role of toji, or master brewers, who oversee each step of the brewing process and how vital they are to producing great sake.

The Photo Gallery on the Daiichi Sake Brewery Tour shows every step of the sake making process

A trip to the garden

After receiving a crash course on how the brewery operates, the guide brought me outside to the courtyard, where there are two distinct gardens. The first garden was built in the Meiji Era in front of the owner’s house and therefore easily visible. 

The second garden was built in the Edo era, but is protected from foot traffic by a wooden gate. However, once a year guests can enter the house for a limited time in the autumn and view the garden from the inside. 

Keep in mind, this requires a telephone reservation prior to visiting. Unfortunately there are currently no online reservations, but I’ve been told the staff members will do their best to book in English when you call.

View of the gardens on the Daiichi Sake brewery tour

During the Daiichi Sake Brewery  tour you’ll see the  beautiful Japanese Garden.

Onwards through Daiichi Sake Brewery

The various sections of the brewery are located beyond the courtyard, past the office and storage refrigerators. The next stop on the tour is the milling room. In the past, there was a water mill that would take water from the river running alongside the brewery to polish the sake rice. The mill has been replaced with an electric motor that can process an impressive 1200kg of rice at a time! 

The tour guide explained how the machines are used and changed for the specific variety of sake being made. I found it fascinating to learn about the different types of powder, or nuka, a by-product of the polished rice. The brewery sells these powders to local businesses that want to purchase them to use as farm fertilizer or make rice crackers and dango (a Japanese dumpling, usually served on a skewer).

 Two more storehouses remained on the tour: the steaming vat area and the sake tank storehouse. Due to the fragile nature of the sake process, guests on the tour might not be allowed inside of the rooms during brewing season, but are allowed to view them from the doorways or windows while they listen to the explanation of the steaming, cooling, and fermentation processes. 

It was surprising to hear how delicate this step of sake production actually is. Just entering the rooms may change the levels of good bacteria going into the sake, which will inevitably interrupt the sake making process and change the flavor. Sake production is typically from mid October through March, so from April to October guests might be allowed access to step inside the steaming area for a closer look. 

Get a up close look at the equipment used in the sake making process

From field to brewery

Once all of the storehouses had been explored, the tour guide directed me back to the rice field. The rice originally produced here was for eating, but during the Edo period, the owners decided to grow rice for sake with the intention of boosting local business and earning more income. 

It was interesting to learn how the history and the peaceful state of Japan influenced the consumption of sake. My advice is to visit in the warmer months in order to see the crops, before the rice has been harvested. 

Take a walk to see the rice paddies that grow the sake rice

Time to taste the sake

At the conclusion of the tour, I returned to the first building where the gift shop is located. There, I  sampled eight types of sake while a specialist explained each bottle. 

The sake available to sample changes throughout the seasons and after the tasting, guests receive a sake glass that can be taken home as a souvenir! To taste 8 sake and receive your glass, it is only 300yen per person and if you want to taste them again, it is an additional 200 yen. 

Half of the sake I sampled was made using the rice from the breweries own rice paddies and the other half were made from renowned rice farms around Japan including those of Nagano, Hyogo, and Niigata. Each variety had a distinct taste, even if they were made using the same type of rice, because of the specific brewing methods.

My personal favorite was their Kaika Junmai Daiginjo (with the green label). It had a fruity flavor that resembled the taste of melon and is made with the Yumesasara brand of rice from Tochigi. Their Kimoto sake (with the brown label) stood out with its yogurt-like taste. It takes the longest to make, but has the most classic sake flavor like those of the Edo period. 

If you are visiting but are unable to sample the alcohol, they also offer non-alcoholic ama-zake as well as ama-zake soft serve ice cream. There’s even a fun gacha-gacha machine to make a selection for you!

Sake tasting on the Daiichi Sake brewery tour

Kampai! Time to taste the sake

How to get there

The brewery is located in Sano city, Tochigi prefecture, and is accessible from Tokyo, by train, on the Tobu Sano line in just two transfers. It is situated roughly between Tajima and Sano City stations, but it is closest to Tajima station. 

After exiting the station, cross the street and take a simple 12 minute walk along route 7 towards central Sano. There aren’t any noticeable signs for the brewery along the way, but once you see a green overpass bridge, with the kanji characters for Daiichi, turn left and the brewery is located on the right-hand side. You can also follow the river from the station to the brewery.  For those coming by car, the brewery has plenty of parking directly out front. 

In addition, you can book a Daiichi Sake Brewery tour through the official English website for Daiichi sake brewery (Japanese website here).

The historic architecture feels like stepping back in time.

Final Thoughts

  • Experiencing a Daiichi Sake Brewery tour will surely expand your knowledge of Japanese sake varieties and brewing methods, the role sake has in Japanese history, the influence on the community, and the precision it takes to produce each batch.

The brewery itself has so many delightful small details from the tiles on the roofs to the hinges on the gates that made the care and precision of the brewery apparent throughout the whole tour.

The tour took about an hour overall, but the friendly staff were patient enough to wait for me to take photos, ask all my questions, and they explained everything about the brewing process in as much depth as possible within our time together.  More than anything, the opportunity to taste their wide range of sake can’t be missed!

Other recommended places to go and things to try in Sano city:

Sano Yakuyoke-Daishi (Sosuiji): One of the three main Tendai temples of the Kanto region for improving your luck and warding off misfortune.

Izuruhara Benten Pond and Isoyama Benzaiten Shrine: A pond made up of one of the clearest water sources in Japan and a Shrine constructed in the Kamakura era. Good for foliage in the Fall.

Karasawayama Shrine: A shrine built on the site of an old castle. Sakura Trees bloom in the spring and foliage can be viewed in the fall. There is a great view of the surrounding cities and many cats, taken care of by the shops, inhabit the mountain.

Sano Premium Outlets: A popular outlet with over 180 shops and restaurants (Link).

Mikamoyama Park: A large park good for families, near pear orchards and grape vineyards– local products of the Sano-Iwafune area. 

Sano ramen:  Ramen Kousuke — It is close to Tajima Station, or, Iori — The Shiso Gyoza is unique and compliments the ramen nicely. (See our ramen page here)

Imo Fry/ Tochigi-style Yakisoba: Idei Yakisoba, or, Eharashouten — Popular local food.
Araiya Miso Manju:
a local chain of Japanese confectionary shops.

Sano Tourist Farm Strawberry Field Agritown for Strawberry picking.

 

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Did you find this article useful?

I hope you enjoyed reading about this hidden gem just north of Tokyo, if you would like to know more about fun things to do and travel ideas, please continue to have a look at our must-see / must do things nearby Tokyo page.

To book unique activities in English, please see the Nearby Tokyo experience page.

Enjoying a pizza

Contributor:  Melissa B

Melissa moved to Japan in 2014 from Boston Massachusetts in the US. She currently works and resides in Tochigi City. Holding a background in art, Melissa is always looking for a good exhibit to see or music event to attend. On her days off, she frequently goes sightseeing to hot-springs, temples and shrines, and unique restaurants.

See all of Melissa’s local guides:  Melissa B’s Travel Guides

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