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e-Magazine (For the Japanese version of this article)

Series: Growing Inbound Tourism (Part 9) The Tohoku Sake Brewery Road Project Experience Japanese culture and the four seasons of Tohoku Fujio Miyasaka Secretary-General Tohoku Yume no Sakura-kaido Promotion Council [Date of Issue: 29/September/2017 No.0271-1055]

Date of Issue: 29/September/2017

Series: Growing Inbound Tourism (Part 9)
The Tohoku Sake Brewery Road Project
Experience Japanese culture and the four seasons of Tohoku

Fujio Miyasaka
Secretary-General
Tohoku Yume no Sakura-kaido Promotion Council


The Tohoku Sake Brewery Road Project, launched as part of strengthening support for Tohoku’s recovery, utilizes a network of 100 brewers to contribute to region-wide recovery through sake brewery tourism.


Tohoku Yume no Sakura-kaido Promotion Council’s beginnings

Having suffered an unprecedented degree of damage in the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the whole Tohoku region, including areas unaffected by the disaster, suffered a double blow when tourist traffic subsequently dried up. In December 2011, the private sector spearheaded the establishment of the Tohoku Yume no Sakura-kaido Promotion Council as a public-private community-building partnership aimed at helping to speed Tohoku’s recovery. In an era when permanent populations are on the decline, we decided that the best way to revitalize the region was to boost the non-permanent population, setting up the Tohoku Yume no Sakura-kaido project to that end.

Taking as the symbol of the Tohoku recovery the beautiful cherry blossom beloved by the Japanese as well as a public resource found throughout the region, the Tohoku Yume no Sakura-kaido Promotion Council seeks to contribute to region-wide recovery through cherry blossom “pilgrimages,” whereby visitors travel around the newly selected circuit of 88 cherry blossom viewing spots, offering their prayers for the region’s recovery at each. This initiative has been warmly supported.

Around 1,000 cherry trees in bloom in Tsuruga Castle Park. The Yoshino cherry and various other types of cherry trees planted here bloom at slightly different times, allowing a long viewing season (Aizu-Wakamatsu City, Fukushima Prefecture).

Around 1,000 cherry trees in bloom in Tsuruga Castle Park. The Yoshino cherry and various other types of cherry trees planted here bloom at slightly different times, allowing a long viewing season (Aizu-Wakamatsu City, Fukushima Prefecture).

The Council began by creating a website and a mobile map to advertise Tohoku’s Sakura-kaido, or “cherry road,” as well as working to attract domestic tourists through sales of bus and train Sakura-kaido travel packages and holding cherry-related stamp rallies. Two years on, we have also begun targeting foreign tourists as an avenue with a strong economic impact. In 2014, part of the Tourism Agency’s spring Visit Japan promotion was a month-long campaign featuring a Sakura-kaido wrap ad around a six-carriage subway train in Taiwan, where many people are pro-Japan. This was very successful, with the number of Taiwanese tourists up 30 percent compared to the previous year.

Creation of the Tohoku Sake Brewery Road to bolster recovery support

With the Sakura-kaido campaign achieving such good results, the suggestion was made that perhaps the Tohoku recovery support project could be expanded to seasons other than spring when the cherry trees bloom, and this led to the launch of the Tohoku Sake Brewery Road in October 2015 with 80 sake breweries on board. Tohoku is one of Japan’s top sake regions. The idea is for visitors to travel around Tohoku’s various sake breweries during the new sake season in fall while also enjoying top autumn foliage-viewing spots and hot springs. Japanese sake has a close relationship to Japanese cuisine (which was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in December 2013) and is itself enjoying a major boom overseas, so we thought that a hot springs tour itinerary whereby tourists went around sake breweries and also indulged in delicious Japanese cuisine amidst the glorious autumn color of the deepening Tohoku autumn would be welcomed both at home and overseas.

Autumn leaves in Naruko Gorge. This V-shaped gorge, 100 meters deep, bursts with color from a rich variety of trees, with a nature-viewing path running right alongside (Osaki City, Miyagi Prefecture).

Autumn leaves in Naruko Gorge. This V-shaped gorge, 100 meters deep, bursts with color from a rich variety of trees, with a nature-viewing path running right alongside (Osaki City, Miyagi Prefecture).

The process of brewing sake from water and rice is quite unique. For example, the simultaneous saccharification/fermentation process, whereby saccharification (using koji mold to convert starch into sugar) and fermentation (using yeast to convert sugar into alcohol) are conducted at the same time in the same tank, is the only such fermentation technology in the world. There are also complex and time-consuming processes—“sandan-jikomi,” for example, which is the three-stage moromi (mash) preparation process designed to encourage gradual fermentation, and the rice-polishing technology that removes at least 50 percent of the brown rice husk before the brewing stage so as to create as refined and clean a flavor as possible—that produces sake’s unique depth of flavor. The more that foreign tourists learn about these brewing technologies through their brewery visits, the more they will appreciate the delicate and painstaking craftsmanship which master brewers employ to bring out such complex and subtle flavors and aromas.

Moromi-making is a critical process which is said to be the deciding factor in sake quality. Mold starter is sprinkled over steamed rice and cultured over several days. The koji mold propagation process requires delicate control.

Moromi-making is a critical process which is said to be the deciding factor in sake quality. Mold starter is sprinkled over steamed rice and cultured over several days. The koji mold propagation process requires delicate control.

Watching Japanese couples exchange nuptial cups of sake as a symbol of the exchange of their wedding vows (one of the rituals in the traditional wedding ceremony conducted at Japanese shrines), or the kagami-biraki custom practiced at weddings and other celebratory occasions whereby a wooden cask filled with sake is cracked open and a toast made with the sake, foreign visitors will also come to understand how deeply sake is rooted in Japanese culture.

Because sake brewers have traditionally been very conservative and individualistic, often struggling to work with other brewers, a lot of concern was initially expressed about the project’s feasibility. However, many brewers have said that the success of Tohoku Yume no Sakura-kaido convinced them to take the plunge and join the Tohoku Sake Brewery Road network, which has now grown into Japan’s largest wide-ranging sake tourism network.

The Council added the Tohoku Sake Brewery Road to the Tohoku Yume no Sakura-kaido website in April 2016, with the number of participating breweries reaching 100 a year later. Alongside this, we have developed a mobile map and a free smart phone guidance and navigation app to help visitors get around the breweries that includes live video messages from the various brewers. Sake brewery travel packages are also sold in conjunction with local transport agencies, and we are already seeing results.
https://www.tohoku-sakurakaido.jp (Japanese only)

A strategy targeting foreign visitors has also been launched. At a December 2016 Japan promotion event held in Taipei, we ran a Tohoku Sake Brewery Road booth complete with a tasting corner. With more than 110,000 visitors jostling for a taste, we were overwhelmed by the extent of Taiwanese interest in Japanese sake.

Booth thronged with visitors (Taipei, Taiwan)

Booth thronged with visitors (Taipei, Taiwan)

Development into an attractive “brewery road” that highlights Japan’s four seasons

Japan has four distinct and beautiful seasons. As we worked on supporting the Tohoku recovery, it occurred to us that we could provide year-round travel packages that include an experience of each of those seasons through the vehicle of Japanese sake.

In spring, the Japanese have “hanami-zake,” to be drunk beneath the glorious sight of cherry blossom in full bloom and then the petals falling from the trees. “Matsuri-zake” is drunk as an accompaniment to Japan’s vigorous summer festivals. Fall is the season for trying newly-brewed sake at the various breweries, while winter has “yukimi-zake” to be enjoyed while admiring a beautiful snowy landscape. We believe that not only Japanese tourists but also visitors from overseas will love these new brewery tourism packages and the opportunity they offer to enjoy delicious local Japanese sake at the same time as Japan’s nature and traditional culture through the four seasons along the Tohoku Sake Brewery Road. Highlighting the seasonal aspect should also entice repeat visitors back to try another season.

Frost-covered trees on Mt. Zao. Dubbed “snow monsters” for their unique shape, they are a natural artwork created through unique climatic conditions found almost nowhere else in the world (Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture).

Frost-covered trees on Mt. Zao. Dubbed “snow monsters” for their unique shape, they are a natural artwork created through unique climatic conditions found almost nowhere else in the world (Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture).

Tourism is often viewed through the narrow lens of a single tourism resource which the operator tries to differentiate from other sites. However, creating wide-spectrum tourism resources from the readily accessible elements of cherry blossom, festivals, sake brewing and snow produces not only an original product but also requires only a small budget.

The Council is currently looking at how to develop the Tohoku Sake Brewery Road from its roots in Tohoku recovery support into an attractive and sustainable tourism style. Japanese sake is rich in variation, and visitors can enjoy the whole range of sake culture—junmai and honjozo, for example, which have slightly different ingredients (distilled alcohol is added to honjozo); sweet and dry; tanrei (crisp and dry) or nojun (strong and rich); and even sake that is drunk hot and sake that is drunk cold. No wonder the sake accompanying Japanese meals is described as art! We look forward to visitors comparing the different types for themselves and finding their particular favorites, and plan to include a component in our tours that enables visitors to compare sake from multiple breweries in one sitting.

The Goshogawara Tachineputa Festival. Massive floats more than 20 meters high are pulled through the streets to the cry of “Yatte mare! Yatte mare!” (Goshogawara City, Aomori Prefecture).

The Goshogawara Tachineputa Festival. Massive floats more than 20 meters high are pulled through the streets to the cry of “Yatte mare! Yatte mare!” (Goshogawara City, Aomori Prefecture).

Our next steps will be to develop multilingual versions of our website, mobile map, guide app and other resources, as well as highlighting the need for intermodal passenger transport to be developed in Tohoku to improve access to the breweries. We will also work on improving the visitor environment at breweries, including teaching people about appropriate manners at breweries, so that visitors can enjoy their brewery experience to the utmost. This will mean creating support guides and manuals, for example, and standardizing brewery signage.

The Japan Brewery Tourism Promotion Council was launched on a nationwide basis in June 2017 as another public-private partnership. We too look forward to continuing our efforts to grow and spread brewery tourism on the basis of nationwide partnership and cooperation.


(For the Japanese version of this article)


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