Experience: Sake Tour with JD Kai (Kyoto)

Confession time. I’m a wine girl. A good glass of not-too-dry chardonnay will do it for me every time. Chalk it up to the year and a half I spent living in France in my 20s but a nice white wine is always my drink of choice at a restaurant. I’m also a fan of beer, the “big guys” not withstanding. Budweiser, Coors, Asahi … they can all kindly keep away from my fridge. I have learned to love a good craft beer, especially the nice dark ones, though I’m usually up for no more than a half pint and much prefer to just sip my husband’s. 🙂

Sake? Well now … that’s pretty far down on my list. Despite over half a decade in Japan, I’ve never really imbibed in the national drink and when I did, I kinda thought it tasted like vodka.

I am NOT a fan of vodka.

We’ll just leave it at that.

But the consumption of sake – and craft sake, to be more specific – is on the rise here in Japan and I thought it might prove worthwhile to maybe actually start to learn a little bit about what I should be drinking during all my izakaya adventures. So I booked my husband and I onto a JD Kai sake tour (“For research, sweetheart, for research!” 🙂 ) during our weekend in Kyoto the other month.

Sake for sale in Fushimi
Sake for sale in Fushimi

JD Kai is run by Jason Davidson, a Minnesotan who has lived in Japan for a number of years and has settled down with his family in the Fushimi area, a neighborhood south of Kyoto’s main city sprawl. Fushimi is a heaven for sake brewers mostly due to the exceptionally clear and delicious fresh water sources located there. (I can say delicious because we did indeed get to drink straight from the source … and water never tasted so smooth.) Jason’s interest in sake led him to become more and more involved with Fushimi’s breweries over the years and his involvement in the neighborhood community is evident from the number of people we stopped to say hello to as we ambled through the streets.

The water source at the Gekkeikan Brewery in Fushimi
The water source at the Gekkeikan Brewery in Fushimi

Our sake tour had three main stops, each of which included tastings. It’s possible that the itinerary could be changed up a bit from group to group but we began our tour at the Gekkeikan Sake Brewery, one of the largest breweries in Fushimi. They boast an interesting museum on the history of the sake brewing process. You can visit it on your own, as the signage is bilingual, but Jason’s explanations really helped make the process come alive for me. We ended our time there with a quick tasting before popping over a few streets to a family-run liquor store with a tasting bar in the back. Here we were treated to homemade tofu and miso along with tastes of six different sakes. Our final stop was at a nearby family-run brewery, where the tasting room in the front boasted windows that looked into the small factory itself. I wish I could remember much about the specifics of the final sake I tasted but let’s just say that my notes were getting a little illegible. 🙂 Still, what I can recall is that I walked (weaved, stumbled …) away with a much better grounding in sake and its different types thanks to Jason’s extremely patient explanations.

Tasting cups at our second stop
Tasting cups at our second stop

Not only was Jason’s information thorough and detailed, he was also incredibly flexible with our scheduling. As we had a reservation at Torisei, a succulent yakitori joint in the middle of the Fushimi neighborhood, right before our tour, he actually agreed to meet us outside the eatery instead of the station so we wouldn’t have to backtrack at all and even pushed our tour time to accommodate our lunch. And when I mentioned we’d be toting along a two-year-old as well, he didn’t bat an eye and emailed me back immediately to say that would be fine.

I’m still not a sake connoisseur but any stretch of the imagination but I’m incredibly glad I stumbled across this tour. If you have even a passing interest in sake, spending an afternoon with Jason would be well worth your time.

You can reach Jason directly through his website, JD Kai.

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