When I first made plans to visit Japan, I was told I should make the trek all the way to the rural Ishikawa prefecture to experience the sake. When I asked why, everyone from California to Tokyo had the same response: good water, good rice.
The Ishikawa prefecture, renowned for its amazing sake, is a long strip of land along the country’s western coast on the Sea of Japan. Ranging from Kaga in the south to the Noto Peninsula in the north, it is a land of stunning natural beauty and home to wonderful people who respect the time-honored traditions of their ancestors and are deeply connected to nature. It is this connection to tradition and nature that is a common thread in everything produced in the area, especially the saké.
Surrounded by mountains, the land is composed of a rich soil known for producing quality rice, such as that grown in the famous Shiroyone Senmaida Rice Terraces where rice has grown in the fresh sea air since 1865. The mountains, unadulterated by pollution like that of largely populated areas like Tokyo, feed the valleys with clean, pure water. The result is perfect saké rice that is then mixed with koji, a cultured mixture of grains and yeast, to make alcohol of unsurpassable quality.
While you can taste exceptional sakés throughout the region, a visit to the Noguchi Naohiko Sake Institute outside of Komatsu City is an absolute must. On the day of my visit, a gentle rain fell over the valley where the institute sits in the shadow of Mount Kannon. In contrast with the flowing mountain landscape, the crisp, modern lines of the institute, housed where an abandoned junior high school once stood, presented a mesmerizing juxtaposition.
The brainchild of a group of founders that includes Naohiko Noguchi, the “God of Sake Brewing,” the Sake Institute exemplifies the commitment to quality residents of the Ishikawa prefecture put into everything they create. Noguchi became a toji (brewmaster) at the age of 28 but had to develop his skills through unique methods. Unable to consume any alcohol, he had to carefully study the age-old techniques of saké brewing and use meticulous notes and record-keeping to create perfect, consistent saké. By reviving the nearly lost art of “mountain waste brewing,” he has spent 70 years crafting delicious saké and working toward his lifelong goal of “making delicious sake and making people who drink it happy.”
While the institute is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., tastings require an advanced appointment that can be booked online. These experiences take place in a room designed to emulate the experience of a Japanese tea ceremony. The zen-like setting features a pristine view of lush rice fields with the gentle slope of the mountains as a backdrop. As each offering in the saké flight is served, it is presented in a unique piece of glassware carefully chosen to showcase the type of saké being served along with a perfect food pairing to bring out distinctive notes of each brew.
Saké tasting may be just one of many ways to discover the wonders of the Ishikawa prefecture, but it is one that lets you truly connect with the traditions of the region and the spirit of the people who call it home. Whether you pay a visit to the Noguchi Naohiko Sake Institute or visit one of the myriad saké shops throughout the prefecture, you will quickly discover there is something special about the local saké personifying the heart and soul of Ishikawa.
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