A trip to Kyoto would be remiss without several things. While I accept that it is impossible to do everything, I have many more trips to make before I have, I will give you a starter list. You need to do a full exploration of the tea culture, including attending a tea ceremony as Kyoto is renowned for the quality of their tea and their beautiful antique pottery. You must have a kaiseki dinner and a proper Kyoto breakfast (my favourite was at Touzan at The Hyatt Regency). Finally, you cannot visit Kyoto without a visit to at least one sake brewery.
The best way to to do this is with a local or local guide as while the language can be a barrier, they can also bring you to the best places, some of which may not be accessible to the public. I went with Inside Japan Tours, who arranged a bespoke tour with a charming and knowledgable local guide Tomoko Osawa. Tomoko brought me to two breweries, the first was Gekkeikan, a large powerhouse producer which also has a sake museum, tour and shop, the second was Matsumoto Shuzo, a smaller more artisanal producer that is not generally open to the public, but Inside Japan have contacts that can make this happen.
Sake is a much misunderstood drink. Like sherry, people think it is closer to a spirit than a wine. Sake is almost always under 15%, just like wine! This is likely because some sakes have alcohol added in the process and so are taxed like spirits. Most assume it should be hot (where only cheaper sakes should be served hot), and while it is nice to have hot sake in winter, the real joy is the more elegant sakes which have diverse flavour profiles from aromatic to sweet to savoury. I learned this the hard way when a lady in a Japanese restaurant in London told me off for asking all about her lovely sake list before requesting it hot. (She was right, and I am still grateful).
Sakes vary as much as wine. There are brown rice sakes, polished rice sakes, there are unpasteurised sakes, hard to come by as they are seasonal, but should you have the chance, treat yourself to the flavourtrip down the rabbit hole that these can become. I have had one that had the richness of parmesan, and another the savoury aromas of porcini. Sakes are brilliant food wines, not just for Japanese food either. Did you know that you can get sparkling sake too? Oooof, and it is lovely too!
Sake is made from fermented rice, which even though it is often referred to as a rice wine, is actually produced in a process similar to beer (hence sake brewery!). As well as different types of rice to begin with, the rice can be treated in different ways too, resulting in different sakes, there are also variations in the brewing processes. The finished product is usually 18-20%, this is diluted to 15% or so usually. In Japan you can buy one cup sakes at the railway stations, little glasses of sake with lids to drink on the train. Gekkeikan also had a terrific bottle which had a glass on top, intended to be removed to drink on the train. Wonderful stuff, that would help with rush hour, wouldn’t it?!
Gekkeikan sake is one of the oldest family operated businesses in the world (they have been making sake for over 360 years). The museum details the processes, both historical and present, and you can have a tasting. The namazake (unpasteurised draft sake) is a must, as is the Ko-shu, which is an aged sake. They also sell pickles made with the leftover sake lees (sakekasu), you can also buy your own sakekasu to cook with at home.
Visit to Gekkeikan
Matsumoto Shuzo is a much smaller operation, founded in 1791. I was welcomed by the owner and his wife and ushered into their tea house where they prepared a sake tasting and tea ceremony for me. It was a very special experience, helped along by the tea house and the ceremony but also by the simple fact that the sakes are gorgeous. Momo No Shizuku (Drewdrops of Peach) is delicate and fruity but has a lovely richness to it also. In season, they produce Momo No Shizuku Shiboritate, a sake that is bottled and sold fresh and unpasteurised giving it a brighter flavour that is otherwise limited in the pasteurisation process.
Visit to Matsumoto Shuzo
Gekkeikan Sakes are easy to source in London (the Japan Centre stocks them), but unfortunately Matsumoto Shuzo aren’t yet. When I expressed disappointment that I wouldn’t be able to find it at home, they mentioned that they would love wider distribution there, so distributors and restaurants reading, please seek it out!
There is one other thing that you must remember. In Japan, you never pour your own sake. Anyone can pour it for you, except yourself, and you pour it for others. And don’t forget to say kampai (cheers in Japanese :) ).
My tour was hosted by Inside Japan Tours who have scheduled tours all over Japan in many areas. They can also organise bespoke tours as they did hear from me. Highly recommended.