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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 1999

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Ishikawa Sake Will Give You Summer Chills



One of the more interesting things about the sake world is that interspersed between long-famous sake-brewing regions, such as Fushimi, Nada and Niigata, are locales that have well-established sake traditions all their own. Places such as Yamagata, Shizuoka, Shimane and Tottori have well-defined styles and histories that are unique and interesting. Although far from huge in production terms, some of the finest sake in the land comes from these places. Ishikawa Prefecture belongs on that list.

Located on the Sea of Japan, Ishikawa is nice and cold -- perfect for sake brewing. There are basically three regions in Ishikawa within which the sakagura are concentrated. Noto, on the peninsula of the same name, is home to perhaps half the kura, with almost as many in Kaga at the other end. The remaining few (five to be exact) are close to Kanazawa in the center.

The flavor profile of Ishikawa sake has done an about-face over the last few decades. In the mid-1970s, it was fairly heavy and sweet sake, full and complex, with a good dose of umami, the hard-to-describe goodness that is almost intuitively sensed. But since then, it has shifted greatly toward the drier side of things.

Of course, all sake in Japan has become much more dry throughout the years, but Ishikawa sake seems to have done so with a vengeance. However, it is far from excessively dry. Ishikawa sake is usually quite clean and crisp, fairly fragrant and light. And more than anything else, it has a deep and complex structure of flavors that is indeed distinctive and memorable.

This may have been due to the efforts of the late Motohiro Ikemi, who was a tasting official and general sake sensei. In the '70s, he diligently went around teaching the techniques of proper ginjo-shu brewing to the kura throughout the prefecture. The result was that out of nowhere several no-name Ishikawa kura began to waltz off with gold prizes at the tax department's new-sake appraisal competitions. They are hardly "no-name" anymore.

Much sake here is brewed with water running off Hakusan Mountain, much of which then flows down and into the Tedorigawa river. Compared to the water in most of Japan, water here is relatively hard. This is neither good nor bad, but rather calls for brewing techniques suited to such water.

Hard water also lends itself very well to the brewing of yamahai-shikomi sake, perhaps the funkiest style of sake out there. Many kura from this region (and all over Japan, too) brew yamahai, but it would be blasphemous not to point out two of the most well known: Tengumai and Kikuhime. Both (the latter in particular) are some of the most gamy, wild and strongly flavored sake you can find.

Long ago, sake from this region was known as Kaga no Kikuzake. The name, it seems, was bestowed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi during his hanami parties there. It refers to sake brewed with water from Hakusan, in deference to the goddess of the mountain, Kikuri Hime, who resides at Shiroyama Hime Jinja. The term Kaga no Kikuzake is still used today within Ishikawa, although not as commonly.

There are, at present, just under 40 kura actively brewing sake now in Ishikawa. Many are small kura that make top-notch sake but are not often found outside of the prefecture. There are, however, plenty of great Ishikawa sake that are much more easily found.

Some of the more mentionable of these include widely loved Kikuhime and unique Noto Homare. Tengumai and Manzairaku are two kura with a varied range of sake, all of it wonderful indeed, and Tedorigawa has a wide range of distinct styles that maintain a thread of distinction and grace.

Fukumitsuya is fairly large brewer that puts out several labels, including Fukumasamune, Kuro-obi, Kagatobi and Mizuho. A well-run operation with many great sake.

Benkei and Shishi no Sato are two smaller kura whose sake may be a bit harder to find, but should be bought upon visual contact.

Not to go unmentioned are the Noto toji, the school or style of toji headbrewers originating in Ishikawa. Still active today albeit in smaller numbers, from the late Edo Period, Noto toji began to travel to brew in kura as far away as Kansai and Ise.

Also originating here is Association Yeast #15, also known as Kanazawa Kobo (yeast). Also used widely in Shizuoka, it yields light but fragrant sake.

As a general indicator of how good Ishikawa sake is, consider this: 80 percent of all sake brewed there is consumed within the prefecture. There are still many, many relatively unknown smaller kura making a perfectly decent living selling to local customers. A kanpai to their continued success.

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"Kaga no Hakusan" junmai daiginjo koshu

Nihonshu-do: +5

Acidity: 1.3

Seimai-buai: 40 percent

The brewers of this sake, Kobori Shuzo, also make a line under the label Manzai- raku, fine in its own right. This particular junmai daiginjo has been aged three years under proper conditions, so that the flavor has become well rounded and balanced. The flavor is light and crisp, somewhat buoyant as well. A very slight tartness supplants it all, and ties it all in to the currant-laced fragrance. There is also a nonaged version of this sake that is significantly less expensive and somewhat lighter, if less distinctive.

* * *

On the evening of Aug. 21, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist and yakimono expert Rob Yellin and I will be hosting our fourth sake and Japanese pottery seminar at the sake pub Mushu near Shin-Ochanomizu/Awajicho stations, 6-9 p.m. If you are interested in more details and/or attending, please e-mail me or call/fax me at the e-mail address or number below (e-mail is preferred). Participation is limited to 45 people.

Questions about sake? Ask by e-mail at, or fax your name and address to (03) 3460-8263. Also, to be put on a contact list for information on sake-related tours, events, and seminars, send an e-mail or fax me. For oodles of information about sake, visit

The Japan Times: July 22, 1999
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