Japan is an island country comprising a vast archipelago of over 6,000 islands extending across 3,000 kilometres. Stretching from North to South, the country hosts a wide range of climates where temperature differences can reach up to 50°C at locations on either end of the country.
The land of the rising sun is blessed with varied mountains and coastal landscapes. The country also belongs to the temperate monsoon region and experiences four very distinct seasons.
Mt Aso, Kumamoto, Japan
The food culture, as a result, is vibrant and diverse. The drinking culture is no exception, and it is responsible for the incredible range of sake made available across the country.
While food from across the islands is now available to anyone, it was custom for the Japanese to eat local dishes cooked with local produce using local recipes. It is a historical practice that has dramatically enriched Japan's cuisine and its sake heritage.
It is no surprise that the coastline towns on the Sea of Japan and Pacific coasts have a diet rich in seafood. Sake in these regions tends to be lighter and drier to match their local diet, heavily based on marine products. On the other hand, the inland areas far from the coasts are less abundant in seafood. Soy sauce and salt were used heavily to preserve and keep fresh produce, giving the local cuisine a salty character. The sakes brewed there were made richer, more complex, and slightly sweet to match this particular diet.
Because yeasts are incredibly temperature-sensitive, brewing sake is all about temperature control. A difference of only a few degrees would alter the flavour and the colour of the sake as it matures. It is why "nihonshu" from colder regions taste different from those brewed in warmer parts of the country.
The coast of Nagasaki
For example, brewers in the snowy North can store ("age") their sake at low temperatures to produce a delicate and fine-line type of sake. However, brewers in more moderate climates make richer and deeper styles of sake. It is due to the maturation happening at higher temperatures during hot summers.
Japan is culturally sensitive to seasons, with different sakes available throughout the year.
After the start of the brewing season in October, "shinshu", or the "season's new sake", is released. As it is not aged in tanks, the flavours are wild and fresh.
In summer, refreshing and invigorating "namazake" (unpasteurised) is released and enjoyed. Although it is possible to find "namazake" all year round, its qualities are best suited for hot summers.
Autumn colours in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture
In autumn, sake called "hiyaoroshi" is released. It is a sake that matured throughout the summer for about six months. As a result, Hiyaoroshi has more complex aromas and flavours than winter's "shinshu".
Depending on which season you travel to Japan, make sure you try one of the seasonal sakes; it is a unique experience not to be missed!