Nikko, Japan: Two Alluring Taste Attractions: Sake and Wagyu-Steak

Visitors to Japan are often surprised to discover that even outside the country’s major cities, there are gourmet delicacies to be discovered.

Towns and villages across the nation work hard to preserve what they uniquely raise, tend, or create. This is true in Nikko, an extremely popular getaway two hours by train from central Tokyo, in Tochigi prefecture. Aside from glorious autumnal leaves, elegant waterfalls, and fresh air, Nikko also has two alluring taste attractions: sake and steak.

The crucial ingredient for Japan’s delicious sake is pure water, free from chemicals. A glance at Nikko on any map shows an area surrounded by greenery and mountains, the perfect recipe for snow melt and good water. In Imaichi, one train stop before Nikko on the JR and Tobu lines, local brewery Watanabe Sahei Shoten takes brilliant advantage of Nikko’s pristine resource.

Watanabe Sahei Shoten

Watanabe Sahei’s storefront sits in a building architecturally evocative of its 110-year history. “But this is not the first building the brewery has inhabited,” company CEO Yasuhiro Watanabe says, “because we’ve been in business for 180 years, since 1842. I’m the seventh generation in my family to run the business.” Yasuhiro’s father and the company’s president, Mamoru Watanabe, grins and waves from behind a huge desk strewn in paperwork, clearly proud to see his son guiding people around the premises in perfect English.

Two kinds of tours can be reserved at the brewery, which is situated in buildings right behind the storefront. One tour is quick and free, and the other costs ¥5,000, but includes tastings and in-depth information.

Just outside the brewery buildings, Yasuhiro introduces the various styles of sake Watanabe Sahei produces, and explains how different kinds of rice, and different polishing degrees produce different flavors. For common food consumption, Yasuhiro explains, rice is usually milled to leave 90% of the grain intact, but for sake, completely different varieties of rice are used, and less than 70% of the grain can remain after milling. “The outer part of rice is protein and fat,” Yasuhiro says, “which is okay for eating, but not for sake. Ginjo-shu sake, in fact, uses only 60% of the grain, and Daiginjo-shu uses rice polished so that only 40-50% of the grain remains.” According to Yasuhiro, Watanabe Sahei’s sakes are brewed exclusively from rice. Only one-fourth of Japan’s sake is made that way; most includes distilled brewer’s alcohol for varied aroma and viscosity.

The brewery’s first room is where milled sake rice is washed, soaked, and then steamed in 900 kilogram batches. The softened grains are then spread flat, and sprinkled with koji powder, a diastatic enzyme mold (Aspergillus orysae). In a warm, super-clean room, the koji is allowed to grow on the rice.

Watanabe Sahei Shoten

Yasuhiro explains how sake brewing procedures compare to beer brewing and wine fermentation techniques as the tour moves to the next room. Here, in large vats, sake yeast, koji, and water are mixed to create a seed mash. Next, this seed, plus additional rice, water, and koji are mixed to accelerate fermentation and produce moromi, or sake mash.

Yasuhiro smiles, patting the side of one of the vats, because this is where sake is coming into its own. “In winter,” he says, putting his ear up to a vat, “you can hear the yeast working, and the sound of bubbles, peeshy peeshy peeshy!”

Watanabe Sahei brews about 25-30 tanks a year, and each tank needs to be stirred. Paying visitors are allowed entrance to a second-floor room, where from specially constructed holes in the floor, long stirring pools are lowered into the tanks for mixing.

The second floor also has a small Shinto shrine, because the production of sake is considered sacred. The Watanabe family, in fact, heads to the Nikko Futarasan Shrine to pray for a good sake season, and receive a bit of water to use in the first tank produced each year. Then each May, they bring some sake back to the shrine as thanks.

Watanabe Sahei Shoten saki in bottles

Once the sake is pressed, filtered, pasteurized, and matured, it finally gets bottled. Those who have ponied up for the extended tour now engage in what Yasuhiro jokingly calls “quality control.” Visitors get to sample Watanabe Sahei’s line-up, from the infinitely drinkable Junmai Ginjo Nikko Homare (or Honor of Nikko) to a cassis-like red sake made from black rice, to a 20-year aged Tokubetsu Honjozo. Guests will want to ask Yasuhiro about his whistling “nightingale” sake container and cup, and if the time of day suits, challenge him to a drinking dice game. On the roll of a die, you’ll have to sing a song, dance, or knock back one of several different-sized sake cups. Raucous fun! Before you get too tipsy, don’t forget to shop for a great bottle to take home.

Myogetsubo restaurant exterior

Nikko has a fair number of steakhouses, but none quite like Myogetsubo, a picturesque restaurant located within the boundaries of the Nikko’s UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site, which includes Toshogu Shrine, Nikko Futarasan Jinja Shrine, and Nikko-zan Rinno-ji Temple, among others. Myogetsubo’s main building was, in fact, the former lodging of a priest from a Nikko-zan Rinno-ji sub-temple. The “bo” at the end of the restaurant’s name means priest lodging, and Myogetsu means “exquisite moon.” Even before entering, guests will sense the sublimely calming atmosphere and refined history of this unusual steakhouse.

Myogetsubo restaurant interior

Myogetsubo’s interior features dark wood furnishings—many brought here from the private home of Myogetsubo’s owner, Shiro Wachi—and as one surveys the simple menu, the sound of running water from the garden outside adds to the atmosphere, as does a map on the wall of the rear dining room, showing Myogetsubo’s rarified location.

Tochigi Beef Sirloin is what puts Myogetsubo on the map, so to speak. This wagyu steak is grade 5, widely considered the best quality available in Japan, and features densely marbled fat. Myogetsubo’s cattle have the distinction of being rice-fed, which increases the flavor of the meat exponentially.

Myogetsubo restaurant steak

Myogetsubo restaurant wine

The wine list, naturally, leans toward full-bodied cabernets and pinot noirs, selected to mingle with the rich meat offerings, but the menu and wine list also offers a full array of side dishes such as thick juicy shiitake mushrooms with arugula and garlic, a bagna cauda, Caesar or yuba (tofu skin) salads, and several fish and shrimp dishes.

When the sirloin arrives, sizzling delectably on its iron plate, foreign guests familiar with thick cuts of steak might wonder at the slim slice, but wagyu is uniquely and completely filling. The knife melts through the meat, and each morsel bursts with extra-rich umami flavors, but like all truly fine delicacies, a little goes a long way.

Japanese dessert

But, as the Japanese say, there’s a separate stomach for dessert. In addition to the usual ice creams and such, Myogetsubo prides itself on two cakes: a baked cheesecake featuring Danish Arla Buko cream cheese, and a layered chocolate cake concocted with French couverture chocolate and cocoa. Both are subtle confections, and with coffee, the perfect end to an unforgettable meal. Off to one side of the restaurant, be sure to check out Myogetsubo’s gallery for its current show of intriguing works by local artists and craftsmen.

Article by Kit Pancoast Nagamura


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Trip Type

Culture, Wineries / Wine Tasting