The Saijo Sake Festival is unlike any festival we had ever been to.
The two-day-long celebration, which takes place annually on the second weekend of October just outside of Hiroshima, Japan, was somehow both super organized and completely wild. There was everything from sultry geishas performing in the streets, to a 5,000 person outdoor izakaya pub, to over a thousand sakes to sample.
It was without a doubt a top highlight of our time in Japan, and if you're lucky enough to have a chance to go it'll likely be yours too. Here's everything you need to know.
As they say in Japan…
Get Ready to Knock Your Sakes Off!
Know Your Sake
We would've had an even better time at the Saijo Sake Festival had we known a bit more about sake before we went. Here are some fun facts to get you started.
If you're already a sake expert or just want to drink and be merry, click here to jump straight to the info on the Saijo Sake Festival.
The World's Shortest History of Sake
Sake (pronounced sah-keh) was brought into Japan in the Yayoi period (300 BC-250 AD) when rice cultivation was brought from China to Japan, but didn't become popular until the 1300s. It has since become Japan's national drink. There are over 1800 sake breweries in the country making as many as 10,000 different sakes.
Recently, domestic sake consumption has started to decline due to an aging population and competition from imported alcohol. Don't feel too bad for the sake makers because thanks to thirsty foreigners, global demand for sake has continued to increase.
For more sake's history and current trends, I highly recommend listening to the BBC's Food Programme's podcast called, The Sake Revelation.
Sake Isn't Rice Wine
Although everyone calls sake "rice wine," it's not really wine at all. It's made with four basic ingredients: water, rice, yeast, and mold, so it's really beer made with rice instead of hops.
It's rice beer!
Really, really strong beer. Sake is brewed to around 20% alcohol and then diluted with water. Typically they are bottled at around 15-16% alcohol, but sparkling sakes can be around 5-8% and undiluted sakes (Genshu) can be up to 20%.
What Separates Good Sake from Bad
Water plays a huge role in the taste of sake. Whether it comes from mountain streams, melted snowfall, or underground springs, the source gives each sake a unique flavor. (Or at least that what the sake experts say)
Rice is just as important. Sake brewers don't use just any type of rice.
Sake rice is a specially grown strain of rice that has a particularly starchy core, uniquely suited for sake production. The quality of the rice plays a big role in determining the quality of the sake, but so does how the rice is polished which is esentially how much of the outer layer of the rice is removed. The more polished the rice, the more polished (and finer) the sake tastes (… and the more likely you'll want to polish it off in one sitting!)
After it is polished, the rice is ground, washed, and steamed (yes, I don't see myself making sake at home anytime soon), the magic ingredient called koji is sprinkled on top. Koji is a Japanese yeast that turns the rice starch into glucose, allowing it to ferment.
No koji, no sake.
The Wide World of Sake
Just like with beer, each sake brewer has their own unique style and sake flavors vary throughout Japan. The good news for you, if you attend the Sajio Sake Festival, is that you'll get to try them all—from cloudy to sparkling, hot to cold, and everything in between.
Types of Sake:
- 純米酒 Junmai-shu is pure rice sake. No distilled alcohol is added. It has a full body and acidity.
- 本醸造 Honjozo-shu is almost pure rice sake, which just a tad of distilled alcohol added. It has a lighter body, is drier, and is often served warm.
- 吟醸酒 Ginjo-shu is made from highly milled rice, with or without alcohol added. It has complex, delicate, floral, and fruity flavors.
- 大吟醸酒 Daiginjo-shu is made from even more highly milled rice, with or without added alcohol. It's complex, full, and fragrant.
- 生酒 Nama-sake is unpasteurized sake. It has a fresh, lively flavor, and must be stored cold. It is sometimes but not always sparkling.
Hot vs. Cold?
Sake is like wine in that its temperature affects its aroma and taste (more detail here), except it's served at a higher range of temperatures.
Sakes that are typically lighter in body (sparkling or Nama-sake) are best served cold as the sake becomes more clean and fresh on the palate. If you're drinking a more full-bodied sake (such as Junmai-shu), you might consider drinking it warm or hot. At the end of the day, it comes down to personal preferences.
The Saijo Sake Festival
What Is It?
The Saijo Sake Festival is an all-ages outdoor craft and food market, combined with cultural fair, combined with booze fest.
Most of the people who attend are Japanese tourists. When we went, we definitely drank more cups of sake than the number of foreign tourists we saw. But, as foreign tourism increases, that's probably not a safe drinking game to continue.
The festival is split into four main areas: the streets, where you can stop in at the local breweries for tours and tastings; the outdoor izakaya and outdoor picnic area, where you can sample Japanese tapas and food; the cultural stage, located around Saijo Central Park; and the Sake Plaza, our favorite. More to come on this last part below.
Everything is in Japanese and hardly anybody speaks English (much like the rest of Japan), so find a local friend to translate, use Google Translate, or just embrace the confusion and get by without language, as we did.
Find Your Way to and Around the Festival
Saijo, as you probably guessed, is the name of the town where the festival takes place. It's a 35-minute train ride from Hiroshima. One-way tickets on the JR Sanyo Honsen Line cost ¥580.
Quick Tip #1: Don't worry if you have bags with you because there are secure storage areas at the station that only cost a few bucks.
Quick Tip #2: Get your return ticket when you arrive, because the trains can get extremely busy in the evenings when everyone's heading back home.
The festival grounds start as soon as you walk out of the train station. There is no fee for any of the festival except the Sake Hiroba (below). A lot of the sake brewers give out free samples too, but you'll definitely want some cash to buy a couple of souvenir sake bottles and for food.
Here's a map you can save to your phone following these instructions:
The Street Festival
Start your Saijo Sake Festival off with a hangover prevention method that every Japanese person swears by: Ukon.
You'll find tons of tents selling it right by the train station and even more people chugging down the 5-Hour-Energy-sized bottles. We had no idea what it was at the time, but since everyone else was doing it, we had to join it. It was syrupy and delicious.
Only a couple of days later, when we mentioned it to Kim's Japanese cousin, did we find out that Ukon is a turmeric-based hangover prevention drink. No wonder we didn't feel like crap the next day!
The festival grounds aren't that big. Almost everything's within a six or seven square block radius beginning right outside the main train station (see Map). The streets are jam-packed with hordes—very orderly hordes!—of people and lined with sake breweries that offer free tours and tastings.
It's not only sake though. Far from it. There's tons of food to pig out on too.
Amongst the sake breweries are food vendors who everything from soba noodles to grilled meat to sweet rice treats. There's also a 5,000 person outdoor izakaya pub serving Japanese tapas, and Japanese Nabe (hot pot).
Needless to say, don't eat before you come.
Sake Hiroba: The All-You-Can-Drink Sake Tent
The main draw (at least for us) at the Sajio Sake Festival was the Sake Hiroba (or Hall of Sake).
Here, you can sample up to a thousand different types of sake from brewers across the country. Really. One thousand. And it's all you can drink! This means you can become a veritable sake expert in no time… or not remember a thing.
Tickets cost ¥2100 ($20 US) at the gate or ¥1600 ($15 US) if you buy them in advance at 7/11 (Code #057-988), Lawson (Code #61925) or Ticketopia (Code #991-104).
Quick Tip: Don't spend all your time at the sake hiroba, but don't go there too late because some of the most popular sakes do run out.
When you enter the Hiroba, you're given a small souvenir sake glass for sampling. They also provide a printed list of all the sakes, but it's in Japanese so unless you have a Japanese-literate friend or Google Translate it's not much use.
We didn't understand a thing and barely anyone spoke a word of English, but that didn't stop us from having a blast. We went from tent to tent (every tent represents a different region of Japan) haphazardly tasting as many varieties of sake as we possibly could. Most were served chilled but some were served warm, and others were sparkling. It was a surprise every time!
For Goodness Sake, Go!
If you're going to be in Japan in October and don't have set plans, make the Saijo Sake festival part of them. Even if you do have plans, change them. The Saijo Sake festival is an awesome cultural experience that I doubt you'll have anywhere else in the world.