Best in the world? Proceed to Japan's Tohoku for a tour


(CNN) – "There is no moon, it does not bloom, I only drink sake, completely alone."

This melancholic haiku was written by the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho in 1689, shortly before embarking on a 1,200-mile voyage through Tohoku, the vast northeastern Japan that reaches Hokkaido.

The trip remembers his famous journey, "The Narrow Road to the North", a classic Japanese literature.

A modern riff in the bard's journey can take the hundreds of local brewers – many of which produce some of the best performances in Japan.

Whether a chess tour will lead to the recording of timeless haiku is another matter.

Award-winning grace

The Tohoku region, led by sugar cane growers from Fukushima county, has accumulated gold medals at the Japan Sake Awards for several years.

"Tohoku has the greatest reputation for the country thanks to the people of the industry," says John Gauntner, expert and author of numerous books on Japan's national drink, including "Sake Confidential".

For 2018, judges awarded breweries from the six Prefectures of Tohoku a total of 69 gold medals from a total of 232 to 37 prefectures.

Melinda Joe, a Tokyo-based journalist and judge and member of the International Wine Appeal Committee – a special tasting contest – says the Tohoku charisma is characterized by a light, clean and elegant style.

"Tohoku Chaos has a little more intelligence – a little more to give," says Joe.

Research work by Sake and Shochu Makers Association of Japan.

Research work by Sake and Shochu Makers Association of Japan.

Photo courtesy of Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association

Part of what makes it so different for Tohoku is geography: Winter is severe with heavy snowfall and historically due to distance, agriculture has been the pivotal to Tohoku, explains Hiromi Iuchi, a Japanese Sake employee and the Shochu Makers Association.

The region has long produced huge quantities of sacks, says Iuchi, but in recent decades a shift has started to improve manufacturing techniques.

This has led a union of leading brewers called Nambu Toji, located around Tohoku's Iwate County.

This is the influence of this group that the toji (brewers) from western Japan note what their counterparts do in Tohoku, adds Iuchi.

Sake expert John Gauntner says the cooler temperatures in Tohoku affect production and taste.

"Tohoku brewers have always been cooler so they can knead, produce and store at lower temperatures that, among other things, give the gash a very light, slim, sophisticated and elegant flavor compared to the rest of Japan."

Kenichi Ohashi, one of Sake's leading experts in the world, and a co-chairman of the International Wine Challenge, says thanks from Tohoku is remarkable for its aromatic properties.

"Personally I like many sake makers in Tohoku – it's one of the things that makes Tohoku attractive to me".

Which bottles are the best?

Ohashi singles Mutsu Hassen from Hachinohe Shuzo Sake Brewery at Aomori, a winning trophy in the International Wine Program of 2016.

"It has a good middle palate, but it is very flavored," says Ohashi, while praising the beautiful label, which incorporates images of trawlers traversing the seas around Hachinohe at night looking for squid.

Another reason Ohashi recommends is the award winning Yamawa thanks to the Yamawa brewery. Although it sounds the opposite, Ohashi praises Yamawa's qualities like water.

"The Japanese tend to pay a lot of money for water-like flavors, as with fugu (pufferfish).

"This charisma is only about texture and not umami – it is very virgin and transparent, it is like high quality water".

How to Know Your Safari

For guests who make the trip to the north, many breweries offer English excursions as well as tasting, but you will need to book in advance through their websites.

The Daishichi Brewery, founded in 1752 in Fukushima, is unusual in that it still keeps the kimoto brewing method, a labor-intensive method largely abandoned in favor of modern technology.

"The reason Daishichi continued this kimoto method is that it leads to a particular type of bag," explains Ad Blankenstein, sales and marketing manager at Daishichi abroad.

"The saucer that has a body and rich flavor and which in fact looks more like red wine than white wine and which can be combined with creamy meat dishes, French dishes … a food with stronger tastes."

The high-intensity kimoto method practiced at Daishichi has been abandoned by many breweries.

The high-intensity kimoto method practiced at Daishichi has been abandoned by many breweries.

Photo courtesy Daishichi Brewery

The remote Senkin Shuzo, a family brewery in Iwate, has created a favor since 1854.

Yuri Yaegashi, half of the current owners of the ninth generation, is a brewery visit to the limestone-rich area early in the summer or autumn.

While Ryusen Yaezakura is the award-winning gift of Senkin Shuzo, Yaegashi also recommends Mori no Takara, which is made with matsutake mushrooms, a local delicacy grown in Iwaizumi.

"Matsutake is a very special mushroom for the Japanese that causes nostalgia," says Yaegashi. However, the fragrance may be a bit difficult.

"Some people said they smell like socks," adds Yaegashi.

The award-winning Takashimzu gift made at Goshono's brewery strikes a balance, offering both a gentle aroma and sophisticated flavor, according to Takashimizu's Yukiko Takahashi.

"It's the type of bag that can accompany almost any meal because of its slim but sophisticated character," adds Takahashi.

This article was originally published in 2016. It was updated in October 2018.