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Brewing and exploring in Saku, Nagano and Niigata: Two heartlands for sake lovers

Photo credit: KURABITO STAY

Nagano Prefecture  is one of Japan’s leading sake brewing areas, with over 80 breweries, and Saku (population 97,508) is home to 13 of them. Breweries gather near good water and ample rice, two things that Saku has in abundance. This makes it an ideal place for breweries creating sake that pairs perfectly with local cuisine like freshwater fish and Nagano-raised pork.

Local sake pairs exceptionally well with regional cuisine.
Photo credit: KURABITO STAY


Saku: A great place for sake

The city of Saku in Nagano Prefecture punches above its weight in the sake brewing world. With 13 sake breweries, ten of which are dotted around the city center, a sake lover could spend days exploring all the different breweries and labels here. The abundant water flowing from mountain streams serves to nourish local rice, bringing together the two key features for a thriving local brewing tradition and making Saku a special destination for sake.

Clear mountain streams are a crucial source of both rice growing and sake brewing.

KURABITO STAY: Embrace brewing tradition

Sake lovers visiting Saku can experience brewing tradition in a unique way with the KURABITO STAY program. KURABITO STAY has remodeled a building of Kitsukura Shuzo sake brewery, founded in 1696, where the seasonal brewing team of “toji” (master brewer) and “kurabito” brewers once stayed. Today, the building serves as lodgings where guests can stay for an authentic experience of “tomari-komi” (live-in) brewing. 

The rooms at KURABITO STAY are simple but comfortable traditional Japanese spaces.
Photo credit: KURABITO STAY

During KURABITO STAY, guests don’t only stay at the brewery, they work under the direction of brewing staff, too. Specifics depend on timing, since brewing follows its own schedule, but guests might get to help with rice steaming, making koji or monitoring fermentation. 

Rice needs to be carefully spread and mixed when making koji.

After the stay, KURABITO STAY will send the finished sake on (to a domestic address) so guests can taste the fruit of their hard work.


Guests can help brew different sake recipes during their live-in brewing experience.
Photo credit: KURABITO STAY

Exploring Saku by bicycle

The city of Saku is located along a river basin, and the terrain is relatively even. While serious cyclists are encouraged to try more difficult mountain courses, less intense routes are available, and several explore the Nakasendo, the inland trail that connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) with Kyoto.

The Nakasendo follows the lower land through the mountains of Nagano.
Photo credit: KURABITO STAY

The course of the old Nakasendo ran roughly north to south through Saku, and many of the businesses, like inns, restaurants and drinking spots that flourished there to serve nobility making the trek have left a mark. In fact, several sake breweries were built near the route to serve thirsty travelers. Tracking that route by bicycle is a great way to extend the Saku sake experience, since it puts ten of the town’s breweries in easy reach.

What makes Saku so special?

Saku brings traditional Japan into reach, with access to history, culture and countryside scenery that is hard to find in Tokyo. Apart from the KURABITO STAY experience, the city also has its own unique culture and practices, like farming koi carp in rice fields, called “suiden-yori.” 

Saku’s rice fields have historically also served as koi farms, too.
Photo credit: KURABITO STAY

Most koi breeders keep their fish in tanks or specially built ponds, but in Saku many took advantage of water-filled rice paddies to also raise fish. This had the benefit of reducing space needed for fish farming and supplementing feeding as the fish could eat the insects, snails and other pests attracted by the rice.

Going beyond sake with the Echigo Tsumari Art Field

Nagano is second only to Niigata Prefecture in its number of sake breweries, which gives ample evidence of Central Japan’s rice bounty. Sake lovers will surely enjoy exploring beyond Nagano to investigate Niigata’s many smaller breweries that use different traditional methods to emphasize the flavor of local rice in their sake.

This work by Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, “The Rice Fields,” makes good use of local scenery. 
Photo Credit: Nakamura Osamu

For adventurous travelers, it might be nice to look beyond sake to see what else rural Japan can offer, and the Echigo Tsumari Art Field is a perfect example of that potential. In addition to hosting the Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale, the area has year-round art events, outdoor displays, and workshops linking agriculture and art appreciation to create a deeper understanding of both. 




    About the author

    Author: Jim Rion
    Profile: Jim Rion is a sake translator and writer living in Yamaguchi Prefecture. His book Discovering Yamaguchi Sake is an in-depth look into that area’s local sake brewing. He is also cohost of the Sake Deep Dive podcast with sake brewer Andrew Russell.





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