Sunset in Karatsu, Saga
The last time I went to Saga was in 2016. There was a lot happening in my life and it was the perfect place to unwind, relax, and heal. Nestled between Fukuoka and Nagasaki Prefectures, Saga Prefecture boasts picturesque coastal views and expansive pine forests. I initially found myself in Saga about 20 years ago, to explore the hometown of my late grandma. She often talked about growing up in the inaka (countryside) of Saga, playing in the ocean, and running around her parent's furniture shop in Karatsu. I've been there many times since then to soak in the onsen and enjoy the fresh seafood. This is one of the places I long to return to after the world heals from the pandemic.
Like many sake-makers in Japan, brewers in Saga are struggling from the effects of Covid. In the fall of 2020, they banded together to promote their sakes under the group SagaSakeSaga. In March 2021, Kayoko collaborated with the group for Shochu Gumi, offering the theme “Aging Shochus in Saga.” I am happy to keep the spotlight on Saga as Covid continues to affect Japan, especially as they gear up for the Olympics.
Saga sakes are defined by an assertive rice taste and have a slight sweetness of cooked rice, and a robust umami. Saga is famous for its thicker soy sauce, beef, and squid, so their sakes must stand up to these stronger flavors. As a result, the sakes are sturdy and bold. With the exception of one of the bottles offered this month*, please enjoy the rice-forward flavors of Saga sake!
Gochoda Brewery's Ippei Setoh summed up Saga succinctly when I asked him what he loves about the region, "It's a treasure trove of food, pottery, and hot springs." I agree – the Saga beef, Yobuko squid, and Takezaki crab are unforgettable, especially with a glass of sake as an accompaniment. The pottery is also hard to miss, with world famous Arita-ware and Karatsu-ware filled to the brim in its small shops, and on mealtime spreads at ryokans (guesthouses).
Breakfast at Naginoto
Dotted along the coastal towns are hot springs, some of the most famous being Ureshino, Furuyu and Takeo. My favorite onsen in Saga is Shioyu Naginoto in Karatsu.
Entrance to Naginoto
I've brought many of my friends there – some extending their stays to savor just one more night. Segashira-san tells us all to, "Come to Saga prefecture, a prefecture where you can be healed." Yes sir – I'll be right over, just as soon as things open back up!
Until then, open up these sakes and celebrate Saga! Here are some ways to do that: 1) grill up some wagyu steaks or pressed tofu and pair with these sakes at room temperature; 2) enjoy fresh squid sashimi alongside these sakes chilled; 3) watch "Fireworks Over the Sea," the 1951 Keisuke Kinoshita film set in Yobuko while sipping on these sakes slightly warmed. Let's kanpai to a healing world!
Yoko, Co-Founder and Kikizakeshi
*This month, Level 2 gets a special release sake that is not within the theme, the limited edition Jozen 30th Anniversary Junmai Ginjo.
Kayoko and me in 2016 in Karatsu, Saga!
Tenzan Brewery (Saga, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 65% Reiho, SMV +2, Acidity 1.8
“In order to let you firmly feel the umami of rice, we do not add water or use carbon filtration after the pressing,” says Kensuke Shichida, the president of Tenzan Brewery. This junmai uses Reihou rice, which initially feels light and smooth, accented by aromas of green apple and banana, then blossoms into a rich, umami flavor. By using Yeast #9, they achieve a slightly acidic finish. Shichida recommends Yobuko squid and Saga wagyu with this sake, but I also enjoyed it chilled alongside smoked cheese and fried tofu.
Gochoda Brewery (Saga, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 64% Yamada Nishiki, SMV: +1, Acidity 1.4
A perfect example of a Saga sake that has plenty of rice flavor, this junmai comes from Gochoda Brewery, whose motto is, “Sake that starts from growing rice.” They have been growing their own Yamada Nishiki rice on site for more than 30 years, shown off in this sake by polishing it lightly and using a house yeast that originated from Kumamoto. The result is a bold sake with aromas of apricot, caramel, and fresh-baked croissant. I love this sake at room temperature or warm and took it to my mom’s Fourth of July BBQ where she served rib eye!
Jozen 30th Anniversary Junmai Ginjo
Shirataki Brewery (Niigata, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 60% Koshi Tanrei, SMV +1, Acidity 1.3
“With gratitude and a desire to reach as many sake-lovers as possible in the midst of this pandemic, we have released this sake to celebrate 30 years of Jozen,” says Shintaro Takahashi, the president of Shirataki Shuzo. Gumi members are the only ones getting this super limited bottle in California! This breezy brew is best chilled to highlight its mango, peach, and mochi aromas. It elegantly unfolds to reveal flavors of fresh pillowy cream and melons. Pair this light sake with seafood carpaccio, California rolls, and potato salad.
Amabuki Chokarakuchi Nama Tokubetsu Junmai
Amabuki Brewery (Saga, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 60% Yamada Nishiki, SMV +12, Acidity 1.8
Riding on the coattails of Kayoko’s May theme Karakuchi (dry sake), here comes an extra dry sake from Saga. Wataru Hosokawa of Amabuki says that it’s important to offer a dry sake that’s balanced with plenty of umami derived from rice, in this case from Yamada Nishiki. A slightly floral and tart aroma arises thanks to the use of Begonia yeast. Hosokawa-san recommends this sake with Saga favorites including raw squid and wagyu. Chill this sake well and bring it to your next summer BBQ!
*Photos of Karatsu by Anders Arhoj