Take a Sake Journey Through Japan with NY-Based Sake Samurais

With a history of more than 1,200 years, sake is intensely woven into the fabric of Japanese culture. Breweries are passed down from generation to generation, keeping alive the tradition and craftsmanship synonymous with anything produced in Japan.

To share this tradition with travelers to Japan, New York-based sake samurais Chizuko Niikawa and Timothy Sullivan recently formed Sake Journeys. Niikawa and Sullivan will take a small group on a tour of sake breweries twice a year, coinciding with the nation’s sake brewing schedule.

Niikawa and Sullivan are well qualified to lead a group through such specialized territory; as sake samurais they exhibit a knowledge of and passion for sake and work tirelessly to promote it worldwide. Niikawa runs Sake Discoveries, providing public relations for breweries and hosting events, while Sullivan’s UrbanSake.com is one of the best resources on the Internet to learn about sake.

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Chizuko Niikawa and Timothy Sullivan discuss Sake Journeys at Azusa

The two developed Sake Journeys late last year because brewery owners asked their advice on how to get more Americans to tour their facilities. If you’ve ever been to a sake tasting in New York, chances are brewery representatives invited you over for a tour when you visit Japan. And they actually mean it. Due to language barriers and breweries’ remote locations, some Americans may be reluctant to add a brewery stop to their Japan travel itineraries. Sake Journeys takes care of your itinerary for you.

Their upcoming tour runs from October 31 until November 7 and will start in Tokyo and feature trips to Niigata, Ishikawa and Kyoto before returning to Tokyo to attend the Joy of Sake Festival. The cost is $3,980 per person, excluding airfare. Included are extensive tours of four breweries, upscale accommodations, a Japan Rail Pass for travel on the Shinkansen, fabulous traditional meals, and a day off to explore the city of Kyoto.

Niikawa says, “We want to keep it small, only eight to ten people,” because guests will have broad access to areas of the breweries that don’t accommodate large crowds.

Niikawa and Sullivan will introduce the group to micro-brewed sake at an izakaya in Tokyo, and they’ll tour Hakkaisan Sake Brewery in Niigata, Tedorigawa Brewing Company and Tengumai in Ishikawa, and Tsukinokatsura Brewery in Kyoto.

Aside from the actual tours of the facilities, highlights include traveling via bullet train, a stay at a ryokan – traditional Japanese inn – as well as one night at the Hakkaisan Guest House, and what Sullivan describes as a “REAL sushi dinner in Ishikawa.” Don’t expect to see any Philly Cream Cheese or dragon rolls there.

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Sake by Hakkaisan, one of the breweries on the Sake Journeys tour

“We care about sake so much, and we want to reintroduce it to Japan,” says Sullivan, speaking to the beverage’s decline in sales in the country that produces it.

But Sullivan knows that not only has interest in drinking sake increased in other countries, but interest in finding out how it’s made is on the rise as well. To that end, he and Niikawa are counting on escorting a savvy group of people who are already fairly knowledgeable about sake and are hungry – or, um, thirsty – to learn more.

Sullivan says that sake is an integral facet of the history and culture of Japan, and tour members will experience so much more than alcohol. Sake Journeys is a snapshot of the pleasures of Japan, from the modern bullet trains to the ancient onsen and ryokan.

“And we’ll be giving tips for getting along in Japan,” says Sullivan, “Like when to take your shoes off.”

For more information and to join Sake Journeys, please visit their website.