Its that time of year around Japan, when sake barrels are being opened, marking the end of the brewing season. The brewing of sake traditionally begins around October 1st, also know as Sake Day in Japan. Apparently, at this time the sake from spring of that same year has mellowed and aged enough to be enjoyed, and the process starts all over again. When I saw that there was a sake festival happening at a little brewery outside Fukuoka, I got a group of people together to go and partake in the festivities.
The festival was being held in Itoshima city, just outside of Fukuoka. Getting there from Kumamoto was possible by either bus to train. Either way, it would have been around 5000 yen or more per person and could have take up to 2 or more hours. My group of friends and I decided to rent a car, which would make the journey a lot quicker and cheaper. But it did mean that the driver was not permitted to drink since there is an absolute zero tolerance to drunk driving in Japan. I’m not sure I would have made the sacrifice, but was happy my friend did.
The trip took a little over two hours, and many road tolls later we finally arrived at the sake brewery. Had we taken the bus or the train, it probably would have taken a bit longer, and would have cost about twice the amount per person. So in this case, it was handy that my friend had an international drivers license.
The day started off very wet, not especially the best day to be enjoying a festival that was mostly outdoors. But luckily, as we drove into Fukuoka the rain subsided, creating a nice though cloudy day that wasn’t too cold. Although the town is considered a suburb, you have the feeling of being in a rural setting, surrounded by rice fields. The festival grounds weren’t grandiose in any way, just a few large warehouse style buildings with a parking lot in between that served as the festival grounds.
Like all Japanese festivals there were many food trucks set up, interspersed with the sake tasting areas. You could also go inside the two warehouse buildings. One was full of sake tanks in different stages of fermentation, and the other was for bottling.
Upon arrival you pay 100 yen and receive a nice glass sake cup. Then you start sampling. All of the sake being sold and offered for tasting was made at the brewery. They had 4 or maybe 5 different brews ranging in strength. There was also a sample that might have been directly from the newly opened barrels, which I thought was the most interesting because it was unfiltered and seemed to have some effervescence like champagne. After trying a few samples we all decided that we needed to eat food before diving much further into the sake sampling. So off we went to see what was on the menu at the festival. There were some local dishes from fish roe to oysters, and the usual fair of karage, gyoze, yakisoba, fish cakes, and fresh made tofu that I was told was super yummy.
As our group was sitting and eating we noticed that at other tables people each brought something to the table to be shared, where as our group that was made up of 2 Americans, 2 Australians, and one Japanese person just bought food and shared with our partner or ate by ourselves.
After eating we wandered and sampled some more sake while waiting for the throwing of mochi. Mochi is thrown at different times of the year for good luck. It usually happens around New Year’s, when you move to a new house, and I guess when you open the sake barrels. It was an amazing sight to see, and people were really into getting as much as they could. It is a symbol of good luck, but I guess there were also some prizes included with the mochi.
Sadly, we just missed out on buying a ticket to sample from different barrels, as the tickets had just been sold out, so we opted to buy a bottle and found a table to just drink and people watch for awhile. The table next to us was filled with a large group of men who looked to be close to 80, who eventually stood up with several empty sake bottles, all with big smiles and a little tipsy. It was pretty amazing, and something I hope I can do when I’m 80, still enjoying life with friends. After drinking quite a bit we decided we should start heading home, but first we had to go see the waterfall just outside town.
The drive up consisted of many hairpin turns that made everyone incredibly happy our driver had not partaken in the festivities. As we arrived the rain was returning, and because we had driven up a hill the temperature had dropped significantly. We made it to the waterfall, snapped some photos, and ran back to the car so as not to get too wet.
All in all, a nice day trip to get away and enjoy spending time with friends. Next weekend we will all be attending another sake festival, but this one is only a few local train stops away from Kumamoto, so we can all enjoy the festivities!
Have you been to a sake festival before? What was your experience like? What are your thoughts on sake? I would love to hear your comments below.