Known as the “Sake Kingdom” of Japan, few prefectures can compete with Fukushima when it comes to nihonshu. A region boasting some of the country’s highest quality rice and crystal clear locally sourced water, it comes as no surprise to hear that it won the most Gold Prizes at the Japan Sake Awards for seven years consecutively between 2013 and 2019.
While there are many cities in the prefecture with top-grade sake, the castle town of Nihonmatsu, famed for its cherry blossom trees in spring and chrysanthemums in autumn, still manages to stand out. There are a handful of highly reputed breweries in the area, all of which have water sourced from the imposing stratovolcano, Mt. Adatara, that helps to give the liquor a mellow taste.
We were fortunate enough to sample some of their produce while enjoying a feast fit for kings during a recent trip to the city. That was followed by a mini pub crawl to try some terrific cocktails. There was also an opportunity to experience Zen meditation and have a go at making sweets. The tour started, though, with a stroll around one of Nihonmatsu’s premier attractions.
Nihonmatsu Castle Ruins Park
Despite being largely destroyed during the Boshin War in the late 1860s, the location of Nihonmatsu Castle was named in 2006 as one of the “100 Fine Castles of Japan” and designated as a “National Historic Site” a year later. Originally built as a fortified residence in 1341, it was completely rebuilt from its base 300 years later by Mitsushige Niwa, the first feudal lord of the Nihonmatsu domain.
Though now essentially castle ruins, the sight of the Minowa Gate, reconstructed in 1982, makes it feel like you’ve visited an actual castle. In front of the gate is an impressive monument to the young corps (aged 12-18) who bravely fought and died for their city. The ascent to the top of the mount is a nice, comfortable walk with plenty to see along the way including ponds, a waterfall, tea house and a unique-looking umbrella pine tree.
Reaching the highest point, the view of the surrounding countryside is marvelous. The most popular time to visit is in spring when the 2,500 or so cherry trees are in full bloom. The trees are illuminated in the evening in what is one of “Japan’s Top 100 Cherry Blossom Spots”. The place can also get crowded in autumn for the Chrysanthemum Festival, so it was nice to go there in winter when we had the park pretty much to ourselves.
Along with rice and sake, Nihonmatsu’s also known for its wagashi (traditional sweets), particularly tamayokan (sweet bean jelly balls). Rather than just sampling some, though, we thought we’d try our hand at making them at Matsumoto, a small, confectionary store with a history that goes back five generations. Our sensei showed us exactly what we had to do and though it didn’t look particularly difficult, producing something that looked as artistic as what he came up with proved beyond us. That said, it was a fun experience.
Later in the day we sat down and enjoyed our creations with a cup of tea at the 300-year-old Ryusenji Temple, a peaceful setting up in the mountains with splendid golden decorations inside. As for the sweets, while it was clear from their appearance that they’d been made by amateurs, the taste didn’t disappoint. It was also nice to have them alongside the temple’s 43rd Buddhist priest, Yoshiniro Kogetsu as he chatted to us about his love of Radiohead.
Moments earlier, he had his serious face on as he prepared us for some Zen meditation. After presenting us with a shakyo (hard copy of a sutra), he talked us through the process, mentioning that any lapses of concentration would mean being struck softly with his keisaku (flat wooden stick). He also delivered some wise words from Nelson Mandela before ringing the bell to begin. It was time to free our minds and sit in silence for around 20 minutes. It’s a serene experience, but it felt like just the right amount of time as it can get quite painful on the legs.
A Feast Fit for Kings
For dinner, we were told we were going to have a bento in a makeshift building which didn’t sound particularly appealing. However, it turned out to be a fine dining experience in a beautifully designed dark room filled with chrysanthemums, sake bottles and a kimono dress on the wall. In the center was a table immaculately prepared with four huge bento boxes for the members of our tour. Inspired by “masu” (a traditional measuring box), they were made using Japanese lacquer and gold foil decorated with a 100 percent silk string. It almost looked too good to open.
Open it we did, though, and inside it looked like a colorful piece of art. From the succulent seafood, including a delightful assortment of sashimi, foil-baked salmon and sushi rolls, to the roast beef, pickled vegetables and partially dried Japanese persimmon, it was an unforgettable feast that went on for a long time. What made it even better was the high-quality local alcohol that went well with the different kinds of ingredients.
There were four kinds of sake on the table when we arrived, three of which were brewed by companies with histories going back centuries. The oldest, Okunomatsu, founded in 1716, provided a drink that was light and refreshing with an earthy finish. Daishichi, established just over three decades later, uses a traditional labor-intensive method called kimoto that helps to give their sake a smooth and rich taste. Senkonari, a sweet sake made by Himonoya Brewery, is a local favorite that’s hard to find outside of Nihonmatsu, while the sparkling Nihonshu from Ninki, the youngest of the breweries, was arguably the easiest to drink.
Named Shogun Bento, it costs ¥15,000 which includes the food, four brands of sake and a round-trip taxi fee from Nihonmatsu Station. Currently, it’s a special private dinner course at the castle park arranged for the Chrysanthemum Festival in autumn, however, there’s a possibility the city could feature this special meal at other events in the future including during cherry blossom season in spring.
A Cocktail-based Bar Crawl
Organizers of the tour clearly felt we hadn’t drunk enough during our meal, so it was then on to a mini pub crawl in the center of Nihonmatsu. The first stop was Dream, a place with a rustic Showa retro look and a friendly atmosphere. Our cocktail of choice here was “Shonen-tai”, named after the young boys who died trying to defend the area during the Boshin War 150 years ago. It includes Daishichi sake and Bols Blue Cointreau which gives the drink its distinct color that conveys the community’s tears at the loss of the adolescent soldiers.
It was then less than a one-minute walk around the corner to Ten, a popular haunt for both locals and visitors that is more modern than Dream yet still has a “throwback feel” to it. A bit like a sports bar from the ’90s, there was baseball on the TV and a good selection of snacks to choose from including nachos, pizzas and chips. Our drink in this place was a sweet plum-based cocktail that was very easy to knockback.
The final place of the night was Memory, a unique and stylish establishment with a bartender showing off his best Tom Cruise impression (from the movie Cocktail for those old enough to remember) before serving our drinks. He gave us a one-of-a-kind matcha-flavored cocktail poured from a shaker into a glass that was placed in a “masu” filled with sake. It was a nice combination to end the night. Bought as a package deal, the three cocktails (one at each bar) plus some snacks cost ¥3,000.
Where to Stay?
Once the drinking was over it was time to head to Kounkaku, a delightful Japanese-style hotel boasting spectacular views of the Abukuma mountain range. We stayed in a very spacious tatami room and woke up early the next morning to enjoy a therapeutic hot spring bath followed by an extensive breakfast. Unfortunately, time wasn’t on our side. Next time, it would be nice to spend a bit longer at the hotel to fully appreciate some of the other facilities.
All photos by @markoxley_photography unless otherwise stated.
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