I often get asked for recommendations from people when they are planning a visit to Japan. “Where should we go to drink good sake?” is the most common question. For starters, just by going to Japan, I tell them they are well and truly on the right track – the birthplace of Nihonshu is certainly going to offer a far greater and varied selection of the stuff than anywhere outside of Japan.
Whilst good, even great, sake is readily available almost everywhere in Japan, just like most return travellers to the land of Nihonshu, I have a handful of favourite places. Of course, I am always on the lookout for the next place to add to that list each time I return. Let’s not forget, there are 47 prefectures, and even after traveling to Japan 11 times, I’ve hardly scratched the surface.
I can only offer recommendations based upon my own experiences and of course, my preferred taste. What might appeal to one person, may not appeal to the next person – a theory also held, when it comes to sake, by the owner on the bar I am about to talk about, and ultimately, recommend.
One of my favourite bars, (if not the favourite thus far), in Japan, is located in one of my favourite cities, (if not the favourite thus far), in the world – Kyoto. The bar is called Yoramu, Japanese phonetics for the name of Israeli born owner, Yoram Ofer.
I first visited Yoramu in mid 2012. From memory, I think I found out about it through Lonely Planet and then conducted a little of my own research on the venue and was convinced it was a must visit whilst in Kyoto that year. I had been traveling to Japan since 2003, visiting Kyoto each time, and of course consuming my fair share of sake, but until then had not heard about Yoramu.
It took me a little while to find the place, but when I did, it did not disappoint. I’d drank a fair bit of sake in my time, I had even created sake lists for restaurants, but had never drank anything like what was served to me that evening. Back in 2012, the selection of sake in Australia was certainly not as diverse as it is today, the industry has grown so much in the last 7 years – however, even now, with the wonderful variety of sake coming into Australia, you could still not have the same sake experience that Yoramu offers.
Around that time, I had been drinking a fair bit of red wine in Australia, I guess you could say it had become my go-to drink. So when asked by Yoram what my flavour preferences were, (be prepared for that question), we discussed what type of wine I enjoyed and he created a flight of three different Nihonshu based on my response. It was the first time I had ever seen such rich colours in sake and definitely the first time I had ever tried a sake that actually tasted more like a sherry. Needless to say, that night my mind, and palate, were blown away by the most interesting and flavourful sake I had ever had.
I returned to Yoramu two nights later for more! I was hooked on what this bar had to offer and hungry to learn more about the different incarnations of sake. I now make sure to visit Yoramu each time I visit Kyoto, usually more than once per trip too. With each visit comes a new and unique sake experience, and of course, a wealth of sake knowledge and passion from Yoram himself.
Yoram Ofer was born in Jerusalem, Israel, in 1962. At the end of his military service, he travelled to Japan in 1984 and has been based there ever since. He opened Yoramu at the end of 2000 and over the years, it has become more of a sake institution than just a sake bar – and by his loyal customers, is certainly treated as such, with patrons having the upmost respect for Yoram’s wisdom and his willingness to experiment with ageing sake at uncontrolled temperatures to create such a unique experience with a beverage that is, more often than not, drank quite young. Everything Yoram serves is Junmai and a lot of the sake he ages is unpasteurised. Yoram says his main goal is to offer his patrons a wide taste range, and he certainly does that. It is not rare to be able to try the same sake from two different ‘vintages’, sometimes over 20 years apart – just that alone is worth a visit for any sake lover or even just the sake-curious. He also has excellent and eclectic taste in music.
Despite being a self-confessed ‘ishiatama’, (Japanese expression for a thick headed person/someone set in their ways), Yoram is humble, eccentric, and evidently passionate about Nihonshu. Sometimes a little misunderstood, Yoram does things a little differently, but I for one am thankful that he does. He does not push his own tastes onto others, nor does he tell you not to drink other styles and incarnations of sake offered at other venues – what he does, is provide a sake tasting experience that nobody else is offering. With every visit I gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for Yoram and the sake he offers.
Yoram provides a one-man operated space and a sake experience to be grateful for and mindful of, his bar is small, seating only around 8-9 people. It’s a quiet place, somewhat esoteric, and certainly a place where sake is the star – there is some food available but Yoramu is ultimately a place to drink and enjoy sake! Kanpai to that!
Sake Bar Yoramu is located on Nijo-dori (east of Karasuma) in Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto. Opening hours: Wed-Sat 6pm-midnight.
In March, 2019, I had the pleasure of visiting Kidoizumi Shuzo in Chiba during John Gauntner’s SPC2.
From the moment we were greeted by the ever so kind and most accommodating Mr. Justin Potts, to our final group photo under the biggest sugidama, (cedar ball), I have ever seen – this brewery visit, the final one of the course, exceeded my expectations in every way.
Kidoizumi have been brewing Sake in the Chiba region since 1879, however, it was in 1956, under the brewery’s 3rd generation ownership, that they decided they’d start to change things up a little, and they have continued the tradition of ‘natural’ brewing ever since. Kidoizumi insist on brewing sake that is completely free from additives, pesticides, chemical fertilisers.
They are the only brewery in Japan using the unique brewing method called ‘Ko-on Yamahai’ or ‘Hot-Yamahai’, a technique they developed at Kidoizumi, where large amounts of ‘house’ cultivated lactic bacteria are added to the moto, (fermentation starter), which is kept at the high temperature of 55 degrees celsius. At first thought an impossible method by other professionals in the industry, Kidoizumi proved them wrong and have been using this method with great success for around 50 years. In fact, everything Kidoizumi make, in terms of Sake, is Hot-Yamahai!
The brewery itself is incredibly photogenic, as is the Toji, (head brewer) – 5th generation, Hayato Shoji, who radiated joy and passion for his craft as he stood lovingly over his fermentations.
Walking into Kidoizumi is a little like stepping back in time, or at least it was how I’d always imagined a Sake brewery to look. Despite seeing a number of them in recent years, none had matched the image I had long ago conjured up, – until Kidoizumi. Of course, that’s not to say the other breweries I have visited have disappointed, far from it, each one is unique and has it’s own character. Kidoizumi though, was definitely an aesthetic delight for me. I fell behind the group several times because I kept stopping to take photos of pretty much everything – I was even enraptured by the maekake, (Japanese aprons), dancing in the breeze as they hung, drying, on a clothesline made from bamboo and rope.
After a tour through the brewery, we headed to a room displaying aged sake dating back to 1974, (my birth year) where we had the opportunity to taste some of Kidoizumi’s delicious sake (unfortunately not the 1974… maybe next time) – better still, our tasting was along side some locally crafted artisan cheese from Haru Fromagerie, (and delicious sake lees crackers made by Justin’s wife) – I was in umami heaven.
Kidoizumi’s sake is layered and complex, full-bodied with a great depth of flavour. Their unique Hot-Yamahai method certainly creates something special in these brews. The three that stood out for me were the AFS Fly 2017, Afruge Ma Cherie 2016 and the Hakugyokuko 2017, which all paired exquisitely with the cheese.
We were also treated to a vegan Kaiseki bento-box lunch from Kurashow to enjoy alongside the wonderful sake. As someone who is not a vegan, I am partial to a piece of salted salmon in my bento, however, I have to say, this was the best bento I have ever had! Every element was so well thought out, incredibly delicious and clearly made with love. A personal note from chef “Pan-chan” on the menu even pointed out the importance of creating dishes that compliment sake. Read more about Kurashow and their naturally fermented food here.
With full bellies and contented hearts, (and most of us taking home a bottle or two of something – for me it was the AFS Fly 2017), we bid Kidoizumi, Justin and Shoji-san farewell and boarded our train back to Tokyo. It was a fitting way to end a wonderful five sake-filled days of John’s course.