Last year, my husband Johnny and I took his mom on her first trip to Japan. We had been talking about it for years and we were finally able to make it happen! When planning for the trip, we thought about going on the usual tour of Tokyo-Osaka-Kyoto, but I wanted to do something new for all of us.
Hokkaido was unlike anything I had expected – full of crisp, clean air, genteel people, and expansive spaces. And of course excellent food! We spent the bulk of our time exploring Sapporo, and feasted on all the Hokkaido classics: soft cream, soup curry, miso ramen, Ghengis Khan, and bottomless bowls of ikura and uni. We were in our element!
One big draw for me in Hokkaido was Nikka's first distillery, Yoichi. Masataka Taketsuru set up his first whisky distillery in 1934 in the seaside town on Yoichi, as it best emulated Scotland's climate, where he spent time apprenticing at whisky distilleries. I was so excited to make my pilgrimage to Yoichi – which was a scenic, hour-long train ride from Sapporo.
But first, a pit-stop in Otaru:
Otaru is a charming town about midway between Sapporo and Yoichi, best-known for their artisan hand-blown glass and sushi. I didn't really know where to go for the sushi once we got there, but followed the signs that said "Sushi Boulevard." The street was indeed lined with many, many sushi spots. We randomly chose a small, quaint restaurant called Maruyama, and were seated right away.
The sushi was incredible. Otaru is famous for its sushi chiefly because of the plentiful ingredients.
I must have ordered five different kinds of clams, some that I had never heard of before, which were all so fresh.
I am a total clam freak.
From Otaru, we actually took a bus to Yoichi. There were so few trains running between Sapporo and Yoichi, that the bus was a good option for us (Hokkaido travel tip: you may want a car if you want to actually be mobile and see more nature).
Yoichi Distillery was literally a stone's throw from the bus and train station. There are several tours throughout the day so being on time is important. Note that guided tours are in Japanese, and for English, there is a headphone tour.
Considering the distillery is almost 100 years old, it is exceptionally maintained. I had seen the curious pointy roofs in photos and on Nikka whisky labels and was delighted to see them up close.
Before the tour began, we were able to hold and smell a brick of peat. It was quite vegetal.
Nikka's copper pot stills are gigantic and impressive.
Yoichi Distillery boasts one of the last stills in the world fired by coals.
The Rita House, where Taketsuru and his wife Rita lived.
The grounds are massive.
The Tun Room, where fermentation takes place:
Warehouses where Nikka ages its whiskies:
Grand tasting room:
The tasting bar was in the middle of the museum full of vintage and rare bottles, and Taketsuru family memorabilia.
Orson Welles loves Nikka!
And so does Rod Stewart!
Taketsuru married Rita Cowan in Scotland and brought her back to Japan, where they lived in Yoichi their entire lives. Rita was a huge influence on Taketsuru and the distillery and is greatly admired to this day.
Outside the gift shop (where I went a little crazy...):
Visiting Yoichi Distillery was an eye-opening experience and I feel fortunate to have been able to visit. Taketsuru was a true pioneer in Japan, building his distillery on blood, sweat, and tears, in order to craft world-class whisky. Umami Mart proudly carries Yoichi Single Malt, and many other Nikka Whiskies. The Yoichi is one of my favorite Japanese whiskies – nicely balanced with a hint of smoke.
Photo of my mom-in-law Teresa, taken in Noboribetsu, an onsen town in Hokkaido. Don't miss that either!