There are three things to see at the Kametaya Sake Brewery. One is the brewery itself. Another is the old traditional home of the former owner of the operation. The third – and dare I say just as interesting as the first two things – is Mr. Oka, the fluent-in-French, entertaining-in-English gentleman who showed me around. If you’re lucky, your visit to Kametaya will include all three.
Kametaya was established in 1869, one year after Japan’s last shogun handed power back to the Emperor. The founders of this 150-year-old sake brewery (Kamei-san and Tanaka-san, Oka-san will claim unassuredly) began their operation by drawing spring water from a source 62 meters below ground. Since that time they have updated some of their machinery, but they continue their traditional methods of producing small batches of sake with a level of quality only time and close attention can produce.
Another source of Kametaya Sake quality comes from the rice they use. Called “hitogokochi” (ひとごこち), this particular kind of rice is well-suited for cultivation in the relatively cool Nagano climate. It is said to dissolve easily in the “moromi” stage of sake production when fermentation takes place, and (as I can attest) delivers a crisp, clean taste.
At Kametaya they’ll let you see certain phases of sake production up close – the hand-washing and the steaming of the rice, to name a couple. Other parts of the process are off-limits. The room where koji-kin mold is sprinkled over the steamed rice to convert its starch to sugar must be kept at a constant 33 degrees Celcius. This “Muro” is the heart of the Kametaya Brewery, but sadly, common folk are not allowed to enter.
Once your sense of smell has been thoroughly ravaged by the various stages of sake production, grab some fresh air and head over to the 150-year-old home hiding behind the dark wooden fence. From the walkway leading through the garden to the tatami mat floors of the old residence, you’ll feel like you’ve traveled back in time to Meiji-era Japan.
If you are fortunate enough to have Oka-san showing you around, he might tell you of how this old home, after Kamei-san and Tanaka-san sold their business, was emptied of many of its most valuable items. He may give you a piece of “sake-no-kasu” (filtered-out rice residue) to try. (Spoiler: It tastes a lot like solid sake that has been sitting around a while.) And he will most assuredly make you smile.
A visit to the Kametaya Sake Brewery is a glimpse into a piece of Matsumoto’s history that many people never see. If you have a few extra hours after getting your fill of downtown, jump on the Kamikochi Rail Line from Matsumoto Station and get off at Shimonii Station (下新駅 / AK-06), five stops and ten minutes down the tracks. From there it’s an easy five-minute walk to the Kametaya Sake Brewery.
If you’d prefer a guided tour to the Kametaya Sake Brewery, complete with transportation and a sake tasting session, check out this offer by Matsumoto Experience. (You can tell them Kevin sent you!)
And in case you were wondering, yes, you can absolutely take some of Japan’s best sake home with you!