One of the many fun things to do in Japan is drink sake. And you’ll find plenty to choose from as you explore Japan’s bars and restaurants, with traditional and modern concoctions on offer.
But where do you find the best sake in Japan when you have so many choices? Our local MACHIYA INNS & HOTELS staff has chosen the top five destinations to visit when you’re in the mood for fine sake during your travels. Whether you’re an experienced sake lover or new to the world of sake, visit our picks to find the best sake in Japan!
“Sake” in Japanese refers to alcohol in general (whisky, beer, wine, etc.). The drink generally referred to as Japanese sake or Japanese rice wine in English is called “nihonshu” (日本酒) in Japanese. If you’re in Japan and looking at a bottle of Japanese sake, you will find it labeled as “seishu” (清酒). Japanese liquor laws require Japanese sake to be labeled as seishu, which translates to refined alcohol.
Sake is made by fermenting rice, and although it is often associated with Japan today, the process of fermenting rice to create an alcoholic drink originated in China a long, long time ago. It’s believed that this initial form of sake came to Japan in the 2nd century B.C., but production processes gradually shaped it into the distinctive drink that countless locals and tourists enjoy today.
Ready to order Japanese sake in a restaurant or izakaya bar while in Japan?
Make sure you ask for “nihonshu” instead of just “sake”, otherwise the staff may not realize what you want. But you still need to be more specific: there are lots of types of Japanese sake in Japan, and many different ways to drink and enjoy them.
So, if you’re just starting out on your sake journey, ask the staff for the venue’s “osusume” (おすすめ), or recommendation. That’s a fantastic way to explore new types of sake. They will most likely recommend how to drink it, but if you have a preference for a hot or cold drink, be sure to let them know so they can take that into consideration when recommending a Japanese sake to you!
Another great technique for finding the best sake in Japan is to ask for “jizake”（地酒）, or local sake. You’ll get a local drink that’s well known in the region you’re visiting — and you might just love it enough to purchase a bottle to enjoy later!
Whatever Japanese sake you drink, toast it with “kanpai” (乾杯)! That’s the Japanese equivalent of “cheers”, translating roughly as “empty cup” or “drink your cup dry”.
Now that you know a little more about Japanese sake, or nihonshu, check our our list of top 5 destinations in Japan for sake lovers. This is where you will find the best sake in Japan during your travels!
The Fushimi Sake District in Kyoto, Japan is one of Japan’s oldest areas for traditional sake production. Located in southern Kyoto, you may recognize the name of from the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is located in the same area. Fushimi has been a leading producer of Japanese sake for centuries, and the Fushimi brand of sake is popular all throughout Japan.
What makes Fushimi so special for brewing sake? It’s down to the Horikawa River and the’ underground springs, which ensures a constant flow of soft water. There are currently around 40 sake breweries in the charming, traditional area, and many have areas for visitors to come and see the sake production in process, as well as sample and buy products directly from the breweries themselves. If you want to here sake recommendations directly from the experts, this is a great destination to add to your Japan travel itinerary!
And while you’re in the Fushimi Sake District, why not pair your Japanese sake with local Kyo-ryori (Kyoto cuisine)? After all, discovering new foods is another of the most fun things to do in Japan. If you enjoy food pairings with your drinks, then traditional Kyoto cuisine is the best pairing for the local nihonshu found here in Fushimi. You can also enjoy a more casual pairing with your Japanese sake with some of Kyoto’s delicious street foods!
Niigata, even for local Japanese, immediately conjures up images of delicious Japanese sake. Although located a littler further from the main tourist destinations of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, Niigata is the premier travel destination for true nihonshu connoisseurs.
Known for producing some of the best sake in Japan, there are around 90 sake breweries across Niigata Prefecture. The land in Niigata is naturally fertile and perfect to make high-quality rice, which is needed to produce Japanese rice wine. The local climate is also ideal for fermentation. Add to that the abundance of delicious soft spring water flowing from the mountains, and you have the perfect location for high quality sake.
Niigata breweries pride themselves on making the best and highest quality sake, and believe in quality of quantity. They spare nothing when it comes to the careful preparation and brewing process of sake, and so their reputation in Japan for the best sake well-earned.
If you still haven’t decided on a date for your Japan vacation, we recommend visiting Niigata during the second week of March. Each year, Niigata hosts a two-day event, the Sake no Jin Festival, where you can try sake from hundreds of brands and brewers — a fun way to discover the best sake in Japan while making amazing memories!
Takayama (also known as Hida-Takayama) is a beautiful city in the Gifu Prefecture’s mountainous Hida region. You may have heard of Takayama as the location of one of the most beautiful festivals in Japan (the Sanno Matsuri), but Takayama is also where you can find some of the best sake in Japan!
What makes Takayama one of the premier destinations for tasty sake in Japan? It’s the cold climate (ideal for microorganisms crucial in brewing sake), the nourishing mountain water from the Japanese Alps, and the delicious rice. Mix these together and you get wonderful local sake that’s well worth a trip to Takayama.
While you’re visiting, wander into the wonderfully preserved Takayama Old Town and find your favorite Japanese sake while you immerse yourself in the area’s unique atmosphere! You’ll find many sake breweries, passed down through generations, still operating in this sightseeing area. You can spot them by the many sakedaru, or sake barrels. outside, as well as the sugidama, or cedar ball, which is traditionally hung outside breweries. Pair the delicious Japanese sake in Takayama with the equally delicious Hida-beef, a local specialty!
For more on what to do when in Takayama, be sure to check out our list of best things to do in Hida Takayam!
Nada, in Hyogo Prefecture, is one of the most prominent areas for brewing sake in Japan. For Japanese sake experts, you may have heard the term “Nada Gogo” used in discussions of Japanese sake: this refers to a group of five areas, all brewing sake, situated close together between Osaka and Kobe.
Nada owes its fantastic local sake to the water here, called miyamizu. Miyamizu is hard water which is high in calcium and potassium but low in iron, great for brewing full-flavored sake. The rice used also contributes as the Yamada Nishiki rice used in Nada are softer and more starchy then normal rice, which works brilliantly in the brewing of nhonshu here.
Many of the breweries in the Nada district open their doors to visitors to view the brewing process and sample the sake. Some even have small museums dedicated to the brewing of sake, making the perfect destination for Japanese sake lovers! As Nada is located in easy access of Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto, it makes a great day trip location.
Kanazawa, located in Ishikawa Prefecture, is a castle town with over 400 years of history. It’s a famous and beloved destination for Japanese looking to experience history and tradition, as well as delicious local cuisine and equally delicious Japanese rice wine!
Kanazawa has everything breweries need to make high-quality sake in Japan: clean, pure water; high-quality rice; and winters that are snowy, cold, and perfect for the fermenting process. That’s why Kanazawa has a long history of sake production — even famous feudal warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi served Kanazawa sake at his legendary five-day cherry blossom viewing party!
It’s a must-go destination for foodies, too. You’ll find some of the greatest food and sake pairings in Kanazawa, as the local jizake complements the fresh local seafood perfectly. You’ll have no problem finding delicious Japanese sake at the many restaurants in Kanazawa City. Be sure to also experience the history of the city by visiting spots like Kanazawa Castle, Kenrokuen Garden, and Omicho Market! For more on our favorite things to do while in Kanazawa, check out our list of top places to visit!
We hope our guide to the best destinations to enjoy local sake in Japan helps you have an unforgettable visit!