Around every corner in Kyoto is another temple or traditional shoin-zukuri house, but Japan’s former imperial capital is also home to some of the oldest saké brewers in the country. The rice wine has played a central role in Japanese life for over 1,000 years, so sipping some saké while eating one of Kyoto’s famous, multi-course kaiseki meals can be just as rewarding a cultural experience as visiting a Shinto shrine.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
One of the most famous Shinto shrines in Kyoto lies in a district known for saké brewing. In the eighth century, Fushimi Inari, renowned for thousands of red gates lining trails that lead to the top of Mount Inari, was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake. Today the gates exist through donations by individuals and companies, and you’ll find the donor’s name written on the back of each gate. Offerings of saké bottles even adorn some of the smaller shrines within the complex.
Gekkeikan Okura Sake
It wasn’t until the Edo period in the 16th century that saké brewing flourished in Fushimi. In 1627, Jiemon Okura founded a brewery here, and today Gekkeikan is not only one of the oldest saké brewers, but also one of the oldest companies in the world. At the museum, visitors learn about the history of saké making and of the company. Over 400 antique tools—from giant wooden barrels to rice boxes—are on display, but some of the most fascinating artifacts include Gekkeikan’s 19th century bottles, packaging, and promotional products. Visitors end the tour with a saké tasting that includes Gekkeikan products only available at the museum, including the dry and crisp “Tama-no-Izumi,” which was the company’s original name. The packaging for the “Retro Bottle Ginjoshu” is modeled after antique bottles from the Meiji period.
This saké emporium located along the covered shopping street of Ote-suji Dori is just a short walk from Gekkeikan. It stocks more than 80 types of locally-produced saké that are mostly Ginjo (premium made from polished rice with the husk, bran, and germ completely removed) and Daiginjo (ultra-premium made from highly polished rice). Visitors are also allowed to sample up to three different sakes before buying. The store also stocks several bottles of shochu, a Japanese spirit made from barley, sweet potatoes, or buckwheat.
Sanbangai, Ote-suji Shopping District, 780 Higashi Ote-cho, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto
For a casual meal, head to this energetic restaurant in the heart of Fushimi, which carries seven types of saké and also makes refreshing cocktails combining saké, soda water, and different fruit syrups. Drinkers can even order saké mixed with ginger ale or Coke. There’s plenty of pork on the menu, but this spot really specializes in chicken, utilizing a variety of parts (including heart, liver, and neck) skewered and grilled; try the chicken sashimi (yes, served raw). Saké and food pairings are left to the discretion of the diner at this easygoing spot.
Matsui Saké Brewery
This microbrewery has been in operation since 1726 and in the Matsui family for over 15 generations. It’s modernized since then, and now boasts solar panels on the roof to generate energy for the brewery. The storefront carries several types of saké, but the most unique variety is the nama-zake (saké that is neither filtered nor pasteurized). Since it hasn’t been heated to a high temperature, this sort has a fresher and more complex flavor.
A short walk from there, diners can try Matsui saké paired with a traditional multi-course, kaiseki experience. This tradition of serving intricate, multi-course meals before tea ceremonies originated in the 15th century and it typically includes courses like a small amuse-bouche, sushi, soups, flame-grilled meats, and seasonal pickled vegetables, all beautifully arranged on plates with garnishes. The restaurant, established in 1856, is inside a traditional Japanese house near Shimogamo Shrine and it offer an incredible view of the cherry blossoms during the spring. Go at lunchtime to save.
The view from inside Shoraian, which clings to rocks overlooking the Katsura river, is so stunning it’s no wonder members of the royal family have vacation homes here. The star menu ingredient is the city’s famous tofu, made with Kyoto’s clear running waters. The appetizer course typically consists of this plain white tofu served with a glass of plum saké. Locally-brewed saké by Tamanohikari or saké from Daikokumasamune in Nara is available at an additional cost. Upon request, the waitstaff can recommend the best pairing for the day’s meal.
Sake Bar Yoramu
In Japan, saké often takes a back seat to the food, but the rice wine is center stage at this bar by Israeli owner and saké expert Yoram Ofer. He has personally selected the bottles, which range from fresh and unpasteurized to aged sakés (many of which are aged in-house). The tiny bar of only nine seats also offers a small menu of items from around the world, all chosen to complement saké. Standing isn’t typically permitted inside Japanese bars and reservations are only taken for the opening hour at 6 p.m., so this bar’s sophisticated patrons arrive early to get a spot. It’s only open at night; during the day the space operates as a restaurant serving fresh soba noodles.