When you visit Japan and look for some good sake to bring back to your home country (or to drink in your hotel room–we surely won’t dissuade you), choosing a single place to buy premium sake from the ridiculous number of quality options can be a daunting task. For this issue we wanted to give you a little assistance by introducing a few sake shops in the Tokyo metropolitan area that our managing editor, Mr. John Gauntner, personally recommends.
All the selections concentrate on stocks of premium sake and they all have highly educated staff that can help you find that special bottle you are searching for. Most of them are relatively small and also will likely require the assistance of Google Maps for navigation, but we don’t suspect this will deter any of our dedicated readers. Meandering around the backstreets of Tokyo is hardly an off-putting activity.
www.hasegawasaketen.com (Website has an English page)
Tokyo Sky Tree Town
1F 1-1-2 Oshiage, Sumida-ku
Tokyo Station Gransta (inside Tokyo Station gates)
B1 1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku
Azabu Juban, Omotesando Hills, Palace Hotel Tokyo, Futagotamagawa, Kameido
Credit cards accepted at all locations.
Hasegawa Saketen opened its first store in 1960 and has been championing the cause of premium sake ever since. Company president Kôichi Hasegawa is highly respected in sake circles and is known to be quite critical of breweries that are willing to sacrifice quality for profit.
Expect to find the best of the big names as well as the small kura. They also have a good amount of sake that is produced by breweries exclusively for them. The Omotesando Hills, Palace Hotel, and Futagotamagawa shops have reasonably priced bars for tasting. With seven locations in central Tokyo, you should be able to find your way to one of them easily enough. The English page of their website indicates specifically at which shop you can expect English-speaking staff, but in general, all the stores should have someone with enough English ability to help you.
1-6-1 Ebisu Minami, Shibuya-ku
Atre Ebisu West 4F
Credit cards accepted
1-2-1 Ginza, Chiyoda-ku
Credit cards accepted for take-out over ¥1000 only. In-store consumption is cash only.
The original shop is located in Yokohama, but the two Tokyo locations are where to go for tasting both sake and food to pair with it. They usually have ten or more sake available for in-store consumption (90ml glass, some as low as ¥300) and a recommended flight (3X45ml in the ¥600 range). Attempting to leave after one glass will be an exercise in futility. Special sake made only for Kimijimaya and other hard to find limited releases are regularly in stock. The stores also have a wide selection of wine and Japanese shochu. Both locations are well-staffed and have employees that can speak English. Major train stations are close so access is easy.
Interesting side note: Company president Satoshi Kimijima is not only a sake sommelier, but also the frontman of a rock group (Mystic Waters) and regularly holds a “Sake Rock Fest” event in Yokohama. Only ¥3000 to get in, multiple bands performing and ¥300/cup to try sake from eight or so breweries make it a party well worth attending.
2-18-5 Akasaka, Minato-ku
Credit cards accepted.
While the shop isn’t large, Suzuki Mikawaya stocks many select premium sake from smaller kura and others you aren’t likely to find elsewhere. Fukushima’s Niida Honke (makers of Kinpou Shizenshu and Tamura, an organic sake), Classic Omachi Senkin (from Tochigi) and a special yamahai usunigori junmaishu made specially for them by Nara’s Hanatomoe (Miyoshino Shuzô) are among the finds. The shop manager, Yamada Yûsuke, can speak English and help with recommendations. Foreign visitors are not an uncommon sight. A short walk from Tameike-Sanno Station (exit 12), the shop is down a side street without an English sign, but trust your Google Maps app to guide you and you will find it easily.
Sakaya Kurihara in Moto Azabu
3-6-17 Motoazabu, Minato-ku
Credit cards accepted.
The shop is located on a backstreet in the Moto Azabu area and is quite small, but there is no lack of sake. There is only one staff member that speaks some English, but they are used to having many foreign visitors due to the number of embassies in the area. They have a little translated chart by the register to help facilitate communication. Some of the sake they sell that may be harder to find elsewhere include special or limited brews of Azakura, Itaru, Masuizumi, Shizengô and Kihôtsuru. Also available at the store are some interesting varieties of Japanese craft fruit liqueurs that might make good souvenirs for friends and family that have sweeter tastes or aren’t into sake (the horror!). Sakaya Kurihara is about a ten-minute walk from the nearest stations. Note that their main store is located at the edge of Tokyo in Machida City, a bit of a trip from downtown.
5-29-2 Shimbashi, Minato-ku
TEL : 03-6809-2334
Off one of the backstreets in Shimbashi, an area with a staggering number of sake bars, you can find Oboro Saketen. They stock sake almost entirely from smaller kura including one from a small batch of Daina made just for them by Kikunosato Shuzô (Tochigi), which deals only with select specialty stores that have earned their trust. A small selection of ceramic guinomi are available for purchase as well. The store hosts a popular monthly tasting event at which you can try many premium sake at a cheaper than normal price (¥500~¥600 range). Participants can also join in a blind tasting contest that challenges your taste buds to match the four sake you try to the correct bottles. Identifying all four correctly will earn you a gift certificate. 40~50 people commonly attend the event.
The shop regularly has foreign visitors and a couple of the staff speak some English, including friendly and talkative owner Jun Okuma. Oboro Saketen is less than a ten-minute walk from Shimbashi Station.
Anyone familiar with Japan knows that major department stores often have extensive food and beverage shops in their basements. The sheer variety of things being sold is mind-boggling and one could easily spend an hour wandering around with mouth watering fits. Most of these department stores also have excellent sake selections. While the smaller kura may not be well represented, premium sake abounds. Here are some of the stores that we recommend exploring:
Daimaru in Tokyo Station
Matsuya and Mitsukoshi in Ginza
Seibu and Tokyu in Shibuya
Keio and Isetan in Shinjuku
Tobu and Seibu in Ikebukuro