I caught the sake bug during my three years in Japan and had the pleasure of visiting dozens of sakagura, many through the gracious hospitality of Yuki-san and Kyoko-san and their wonderful project: Sake Lovers. One such trip was to Nagano Prefecture where we visited, among others,Tanakaya Shuzo brewery and Marusei Shuzo. Tanakaya sake produces the Mizuo brand, which uses the clean and pure local water from a natural spring at the foot of Mount Mizuosan as well as Kinmon Nishiki rice, cultivated in close proximity to the brewery. Tanakaya’s storehouse is located in the old town of Okushinano Iiyama, in the northern part of Nagano prefecture. In winter, the area gets more than 2 meters of snow, and sake brewing is done in a snow-covered brewery. The sake is aromatic, smooth and rich, characteristic of Nagano nihonshu. Tanakaya is a small size brewery that is tourist-friendly, with a tasteful tasting room/store and very informative tours.
Marusei is the quintessential “Mom and Pop” sake operation and operates in a much more basic, and even rustic fashion. For a true sake geek, seeing the old hardware still in use at this facility (as well as a funa-shibori filter!) is truly heartwarming. The brewery was established in the turmoil of the post-Meiji Restoration era and the name, Marusei, translates loosely as “peace around the world”. At the time I visited in September the 2018 the master-brewer, Shinji Seki,was perhaps one of the youngest Tojis in Japan. His enthusiasm and energy was infectious and hopefully characteristic of the new generation of Tojis. Marusei is a multi-generational concern, and the presence of three generations at the brewery and shop, all extremely welcoming and charming, made this one of my favorite sakagura visits in Japan. I recall sipping the easy-drinking colored “carp” series in the tasting room/shop that recalled a bygone era. Marusei uses Nagano’s famous Miyama Nishki rice and local water and yeast.I would highly recommend a visit to either of the above breweries in particular and to Nagano Prefecture in general to taste the unique Miyama Nishiki and Kinmon Nishiki rice varietals. They are rich, sweet and robust, owing as much to production traditions in Nagano as the prefecture’s unique rice varietals, and pair wonderfully with the local cuisine. After Niigata, Nagano has the second largest number of breweries in Japan, so you’ll have plenty to chose from!