Nihonshu (Japanese Sake): Introduction and Guide to Bars and Shops

About This Page

The area centering on northern Kyushu (Fukuoka and Saga Prefectures, and also Yamaguchi Prefecture) is home to some of the best nihonshu (Japanese sake) around. The area tends to be underrated as a sake-producing region (most of the best things in Japan are underrated), but I promise you won’t be disappointed.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the drink, but I am a huge fan of nihonshu and I highly recommend trying some of the local labels while you are in Kyushu. A surprisingly large number of expats find themselves drawn to the drink despite its lack of popularity among young Japanese today.

One of my late 2011 posts describes the sake brewing process in simple terms, outlines the  characteristics of nihonshu as a drink, and lists some shops in town where you can purchase it. I have decided to make this information into a permanent page, revising previous information featured in the post and adding new details, including a list of bars in central Fukuoka City that serve quality nihonshu.

You’ll find that the best way to learn about local sake is to visit local bars and chat with the bartenders there, who usually have a wide range of expertise on the subject. These visits may even become great memories for you — something you can cherish for years to come.

This guide will be updated on occasion. If you have any information about shops or bars in the central Fukuoka City area, feel free to contact me.

Click on the following navigation list at the top of the page to browse the sections that interest you.

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Introduction to Nihonshu

When it comes to alcoholic beverages, most people associate Kyushu with shochu, a type of liquor widely produced in the region (especially in southern Kyushu). However, in Fukuoka Prefecture (and neighboring Saga and Yamaguchi Prefectures), nihonshu is widely produced and commands considerable popularity.

Nihonshu (日本酒, “sake of Japan”), usually known simply as sake (酒) in other countries, is a traditional rice-based liquor that has been brewed for more than 1,000 years in Japan. Notice I said “brewed” — despite the commonly used yet poor translation “rice wine,” nihonshu is made using a method that is more similar to that for making beer than it is to that for wine. Nihonshu generally has a 15%-20% alcohol content, yet it is surprisingly smooth and easy to drink.

The following is an overview of the brewing process, which requires immense amounts of skill and hard labor.

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The Nihonshu Brewing Process

It all starts with genmai, or unpolished, brown rice. Rice grown for use in sake is very different from that grown for consumption: the starches are concentrated in the center of the grain, and surrounding that are fats, minerals and proteins (in table rice, the elements are distributed more evenly throughout, giving the rice a more flavorful taste when consumed). Many people erroneously believe that sake from the Tohoku Region is delicious simply because Tohoku is also a major producer of high-quality rice for consumption, but rice that we eat and rice used to make sake are vastly different, and consumption of rice meant for sake brewing would not result in a very tasty meal.

Because the elements in the outer portion of rice grains may degrade the taste of the sake, they are milled away, leaving (ideally) the starchy center portions of the grains. (Note that not all of these elements are harmful, and leaving some of them in sometimes creates a unique and pleasing taste.) Milling is a difficult and time-consuming process, and modern machinery is sometimes adopted by today’s brewers to increase precision and efficiency during this step.

Next, the rice is washed to remove excess powder created during milling, and then soaked to prepare it for steaming. Using ultra-purified water meeting rigorous specifications is key here, as the water the rice is soaked in will affect how it turns out in previous steps of the brewing process — certain chemicals found in most water may adversely affect the taste of the sake. After this, the rice is steamed (not mixed with water, but blasted with high-temperature steam) in as evenly a manner as possible, and then it is cooled.

Then comes what many consider to be the most important step in the process: the creation of koji, which is steamed white rice onto which koji-kin (a type of mold) has been cultivated. Only a portion of the rice is made into koji, and the process requires carefully controlled temperatures (the koji is made in its own separate room) and great precision. There are many types of koji-kin available, and the creation of koji varies from brewery to brewery, but it is widely agreed that the best koji is that made by hand, using minimal automation.

The next step is the creation of moto, or a yeast starter, which protects the contents of the fermenting tank from being ruined by outside bacteria. This moto, which has a high concentration of yeast cells, is prepared separately and then mixed in stages with koji, rice and water in a larger vat to ferment — this mixture, or mash, is known as moromi, and its volume is gradually increased through additions of koji, rice and water over a four-day period.

After fermenting, the moromi is pressed through a mesh filter to separate the sake from the solid rice particles that remain — there are various methods of pressing, including traditional methods as well as machine-automated ones. Following pressing, some brewers filter their sake by adding powdered carbon and running the resulting mix through a filter, which removes the amber color that often occurs (making it clear) and also removes certain undesirable flavors. Many brewers of high-quality sake today skip this step, as it is unnecessary if high quality rice and water are used and the brewers possess sufficient skill. Filtering may also remove certain characteristics of the sake that some consumers prefer to preserve.

After water is added to lower the alcohol content (which naturally reaches a level of nearly 20%), most sake is pasteurized to prevent it from spoiling. Some sake is unpasteurized (namazake), which creates a different type of taste, but it must be stored at a cool temperature or its appearance and taste will change quickly for the worse. For most sake, pasteurization is usually performed once before storage (for aging) and once again before bottling, although namachozo sake is only pasteurized once (before bottling).

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Basic Sake Categories and Terms

The amount of low-quality nihonshu on the market is staggering, and most anything you find in the supermarket or convenience store is a nightmarish hangover-inducing mix of ingredients that I recommend you stay far away from. About 75% of nihonshu in Japan falls under the lowest category, futsushu (普通酒, “ordinary sake”), which is essentially sake that fails to meet minimal quality standards (although there some passable futsushu). In other words, futsushu is the boxed wine of the nihonshu world. (Note: the Nada and Fushimi sake regions of Kyoto and Hyogo Prefectures are famous because they account for a large portion of the country’s combined sake production, but what many people fail to mention is that much of this sake is low-quality stuff that any serious drinker would never touch–quantity does not necessarily equal quality.)

Junmaishu (純米酒) is pure rice sake made using only rice, water and koji-kin, whose rice grains (used in the brewing process) have been milled down to 70% of their original size or less to remove the potentially damaging outer layers (see above section). Honjozo (本醸造) is sake in which a very small amount (strictly limited) of other liquor is added to the moromi before it is pressed. Adding another type of liquor increases yields, and it can enhance or lighten the flavor in various ways — even though this is not “pure” rice sake, there are many types of delicious honjozo on the market. In addition, honjozo sake must meet the same milling requirement (70% or less of original rice grains remaining) as junmaishuGinjoshu (吟醸酒) is sake in which the rice grains are milled to 60% of their original size or less, and daiginjoshu (大吟醸酒) is sake in which rice grains are milled down to 50% of their original size or less (some are milled to as much as 35%) — these types of nihonshu are much more difficult to make, and they are also the most expensive to purchase. Junmai-ginjo (純米吟醸) and junmai-daiginjo (純米大吟醸) are ginjoshu and daiginjoshu made without the addition of other types of liquor — in other words, junmaishu that meets the milling requirements of ginjoshu and daiginjoshu.

Namazake (生酒) is nihonshu that has not been pasteurized, and namachozo (生貯蔵) is sake that has only been pasteurized once before bottling. Muroka (無濾過) refers to sake that is not filtered using carbon powder. Nigorizake (濁酒) is cloudy sake that has larger particles from the moromi remaining (by using a larger-holed mesh during pressing, or by adding some of the lees back into the sake after pressing), and it has a unique taste much different than that of regular sake. Genshu (原酒) is nihonshu into which water has not been added to reduce the alcohol content, making it a bit stronger than other types of nihonshu and giving its flavor more impact. Finally, koshu (古酒, lit. “old sake”) is aged sake, which has a darker color and a strong and unusual taste that many people have a hard time drinking.

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Benefits of Nihonshu

Japanese sake has a great range of tastes that varies depending on the brewery, the year it was made, the type of sake (see categories and terms above), and the skill of the brewers  involved in making it. Drinking nihonshu and discovering which types fit you personally is enjoyable and rewarding, and it is a unique experience in today’s Japan where traditional alcoholic drinks have declined in popularity, replaced by cheap chu-hi cocktails and big-brand beers. Nihonshu can be enjoyed cold, at room temperature (for certain types), and even hot during the colder months of the year. One thing that differentiates nihonshu from other drinks such as wine and beer is its pricing: nihonshu is generally priced fairly based on the quality of ingredients and time spent making it, rather than being priced based on the fame of its maker, brand name or region.

Aside from enjoyment, there are many tangible advantages to drinking nihonshu. It contains a relatively high concentration of amino acids, which offer health benefits and also assist in protecting skin from aging. Quality nihonshu (generally anything that is junmaishu/honjozo or above) will not bring about bad hangovers. Like wine, nihonshu has health benefits if taken in moderation, and its highly purified water is said to be good for the body. Finally, some claim that it relaxes the body and mind more than other types of alcohol.

Nihonshu is one of Japan’s many traditions with deep historic roots that is being increasingly lost due to disinterest among younger generations. A recent boom in Fukuoka and other parts of Japan has caused a spike in the beverage’s popularity, but throughout Japan as a whole many people choose other types of drinks over nihonshu, and the ones who do drink nihonshu often drink low-quality concoctions that don’t do justice to the refinement and richness of the traditional beverage. The vessels used for drinking sake are often pieces of artwork themselves, as presentation and texture are just as important in drinking culture as they are in culinary culture in Japan. This is just one example of how nihonshu has deep connections with other aspects of Japanese traditional culture (in this case, pottery). An interest in nihonshu can lead to a deeper understanding of Japan as a whole.

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Sake Bars in Fukuoka

Bars are listed in alphabetical order by “common name,” which is the common shop name used when speaking (the long, official names are not generally used). Pluses” and “Minuses” list the strong and weak points of each bar. Hours and business holidays are subject to change. Click on the addresses to see their locations on Google Maps.

Jozo Sakaba Azyto (醸造酒場 アジート)
Area: Daimyo (Tenjin)
Common Name: Azyto (Ajito)
Pluses (+): Very friendly owner who knows a lot about nihonshu, rotating selection of sake, events are held often, great-quality food to accompany sake, laid-back and comfortable interior
Minuses (-): A bit on the expensive side, sake tends to cater to novices and not experienced drinkers
Hours: 6:00 p.m. to around 1:00 a.m. (around 3:00 a.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and days preceding national holidays)
Closest Station(s): Tenjin Station (Nishitetsu Omuta Line, Kuko Subway Line), Akasaka Station (Kuko Subway Line)
Address: AI Bldg. #A-302, 2-1-30 Daimyo, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka / 福岡市中央区大名2-1-30 AIビルA-302号室
Website: http://azy.to (Japanese only)

Shushi Chirori (酒肆ちろり)
Area: Yakuin
Common Name: Chirori
Pluses (+): Small bar with local feel and friendly customers, knowledgeable staff, good selection of sake from all over the country at moderate prices, live webcam feed of sake brewing at certain times of the year
Minuses (-): Hard to get a seat at times (very small), small service charge
Hours: 5:00 p.m. to midnight, closed on Sundays and national holidays
Closest Station(s): Yakuin Station (Nishitetsu Omuta Line, Nanakuma Subway Line), Watanabe-dori Station (Nanakuma Subway Line)
Address: Inside the Sankaku Market complex: 2-3-32 Watanabe-dori, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka / 福岡市中央区渡辺通2-3-32 三角市場内

Tanbi Sakaba Em’s Griller (炭火酒場エムズグリエ)
Area: Yakuin
Common Name: Em’s Griller (Japanese pronunciation is “Emuzu Gurie”)
Pluses (+): Great charcoal-grilled food (especially fish and vegetables), good spot for large gathering or date, friendly staff
Minuses (-): Small sake selection (only about six or so at a time), food is good but a bit pricey (low prices but small portions)
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. (lunch), 6:00 p.m. to midnight (dinner), irregular holidays
Closest Station(s): Yakuin Station (Nishitetsu Omuta Line, Nanakuma Subway Line), Watanabe-dori Station (Nanakuma Subway Line)
Address: 1-22-24 Takasago, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka / 福岡市中央区高砂1-22-24
Website: http://www.emsgriller.jp (Japanese only)

Koba Saketen (こば酒店)
Area: Yakuin (near Muttsukado Intersection)
Common Name: Koba (note: this is a liquor shop during the day, and the bar portion can be accessed at night via the back entrance (north side of the shop)
Pluses (+): Ultra-low prices for large glasses of good-quality sake from various regions (no service charge, glasses from 250 yen), great appetizers, good selection of shochu also available (as well as other drinks), casual atmosphere (kaku-uchi-style bar, meaning it’s operated out of a liquor shop), very easy to talk to and meet people, very “Japanese” atmosphere
Minuses (-): Somewhat limited selection of nihonshu (although all good quality), only standing spots available (no seats, so legs may get tired), closes fairly early
Hours: 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. (Mon.-Fri.),  5:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. (Sat.), closed on Sundays
Closest Station(s): Yakuin Station (Nishitetsu Omuta Line, Nanakuma Subway Line), Yakuin-odori Station (Nanakuma Subway Line)
Address: 1-12-18 Yakuin, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka / 福岡市中央区薬院1-12-18
Website: http://kobasaketen.boo.jp (Japanese only)

Isogiyoshi (磯ぎよし)
Area: Yakuin
Common Name: Isogiyoshi
Pluses (+): Good selection of nihonshu from around the country, “kikizake set” gives you a chance to try three different types of nihonshu for a reasonable price, classy atmosphere
Minuses (-): A bit on the expensive side, more of a restaurant/izakaya than a bar, location is somewhat inconvenient (halfway between Hirao and Yakuin)
Hours: 6:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. (last order: 12:30 am), open every day
Closest Station(s): Yakuin Station (Nishitetsu Omuta Line, Nanakuma Subway Line), Yakuin-odori (Nanakuma Subway Line)
Address: 3-7-1 Yakuin, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka / 福岡市中央区薬院3-7-1
Website: http://www.isogiyoshi.com (Japanese only)

Ponvino (ポンヴィーノ)
Area: Yakuin (near Muttsukado intersection)
Common Name: Ponvino
Pluses (+): Stylish and comfortable interior, sake sets for first-time drinkers (you choose the first sake, and the bartender chooses two more that match it), good for novices, welcoming and friendly staff
Minuses (-): Sake is not a main focus of the shop (it is an Italian dining bar, so there isn’t a huge selection of sake), the available sake and the bartender-led sake set may not be satisfying for experienced drinkers (but good for first-timers)
Hours: 1:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., closed on Mondays
Closest Station(s): Yakuin Station (Nishitetsu Omuta Line, Nanakuma Subway Line), Yakuin-odori Station (Nanakuma Subway Line)
Address: ADEKATZ Bldg. 1F, 2-14-28 Yakuin, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka / 福岡県福岡市中央区薬院2-14-28 ADEKATZビル1F

Sake Dining Sagakura (Sake Dining さが蔵)
Area: Haruyoshi (between Tenjin and Nakasu)
Common Name: Sagakura
Pluses (+): Specializes in Saga Prefecture sake (very wide selection), very low prices, friendly and knowledgeable staff, delicious appetizers
Minuses (-): Small service charge (includes complimentary appetizers), no Fukuoka or other Kyushu sake, you won’t want to leave
Hours: 6:00 p.m. to midnight (Mon.-Thu.), 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. (Fri.-Sat.), closed on Sundays and the first Monday of the month
Closest Station(s): Tenjin Station (Nishitetsu Omuta Line), Tenjin-minami Station (Nanakuma Subway Line)
Address: Panorama Square Bldg. Hakata 2F, 3-11-19 Haruyoshi, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka / 福岡市中央区春吉3-11-19 パノラマスクエアビル博多2F

Washudokoro Shuho (和酒処 酒峰)
Area: Haruyoshi (between Tenjin and Nakasu)
Common Name: Shuho
Pluses (+): Incredibly knowledgeable staff, welcoming atmosphere, wide and rotating selection of high-quality sake from around the country
Minuses (-): A bit on the expensive side (they seem to focus on high-quality sake — [junmai] ginjo/daiginjo)
Hours: 6:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. (Mon.-Thu.), open until 3:00 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and until midnight on national holidays, closed on Sundays
Closest Station(s): Tenjin Station (Nishitetsu Omuta Line), Tenjin-minami Station (Nanakuma Subway Line)
Address: Yayama Bldg. 2F, 5-1-22 Watanabe-dori, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka / 福岡市中央区渡辺通5-1-22 ヤヤマビル2F

Sugitama (すぎたま)
Area: Imaizumi/Kego (south Tenjin)
Common Name: Sugitama
Pluses (+): Same quality as Shuho (opened as branch shop run by Shuho (above) staff member) but with lower prices due to focus on more affordable sake (junmaishu, etc.), wide and varied selection of tasty nihonshu, comfortable atmosphere, very affordable (glasses starting at 350 yen), knowledgeable staff
Minuses (-): Small service charge, a bit far from the station
Hours: 5:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., irregular holidays
Closest Station(s): Tenjin Station (Nishitetsu Omuta Line), Tenjin-minami Station (Nanakuma Subway Line)
Address: TIO Imaizumi 5F, 2-4-36 Imaizumi, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka / 福岡市中央区今泉2-4-36 TIO今泉5F

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Sake Shops in Fukuoka

The following is a list of shops in central Fukuoka City where quality nihonshu can be purchased. I have ordered them based largely on my opinion of which stores offer the best selections. Hours and business holidays are subject to change. Click on the addresses to see their locations on Google Maps.

Sumiyoshi Shuhan
http://sumiyoshisyuhan.com (Japanese only)
To my knowledge, this is hands-down the best place to buy sake in central Fukuoka. A visit to Sumiyoshi Shuhan will meet almost any customer’s nihonshu needs.
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (closed on Sundays)
Address: 3-8-27 Sumiyoshi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka / 福岡市博多区住吉3-8-27

Hakata Hankyu Department Store
http://www.hankyu-dept.co.jp/hakata/english (English)
The basement-level liquor shop has a surprisingly good selection of nihonshu from regions throughout the country, with a larger selection from local makers.
Hours: 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Address: 1-1 Hakataeki-chuo, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka / 福岡市博多区博多駅中央1-1

Tomozoe Honten
http://www.tomozoe-honten.co.jp (Japanese only)
This shop is conveniently located near Haruyoshi (Fukuoka’s best nihonshu bar district), and its late hours combined with free sake samples make for a quality shop.
Hours: 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. (closed Sundays and public holidays)
Address: Haruyoshi 2-11-18, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka / 福岡市中央区春吉2-11-18

Liquor Shop Daito
http://www.daito-group.co.jp/ds (Japanese only)
This small liquor shop has a limited selection, but it is the best bet in the Yakuin area. It is also relatively close to Daimyo, where nihonshu is almost non-existent (except for a few bars).
Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (open until 9:00 p.m. on weekends and holidays)
Address: 2-4-5 Yakuin, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka / 福岡市中央区薬院2-4-5

Iwataya
http://www.i.iwataya-mitsukoshi.co.jp (Japanese only)
Surprisingly, there are no shops in Tenjin to buy good nihonshu, making Iwataya the best option available. You can buy some decent Fukuoka-brand nihonshu here if you are in need, although prices are a bit steeper than usual. Relatively late hours even on weekends is a plus.
Hours: 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Address: Tenjin 2-5-35, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka / 福岡市中央区天神2-5-35

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