Best sake breweries in Kyoto
We are visiting Kyoto in November and would like to tour a few sake breweries in the area. From what I read, it seems most of them are in the Fushimi area. I found the following so far, but it's difficult to figure out which ones are the best to try. We would prefer a place that's not too touristy and serves sake for serious drinkers. It would be great to get your insight and recommendations. Thanks!
-Kizaru Kappa Country
I'd suggest going to a brewery or two to see how the sake is made, but go to a nice sake bar like Asakura (http://www.bento.com/kansai/rev/7125.html ) or Yoram (http://www.bento.com/kansai/rev/7016.html ) if you want to try "sake for serious drinkers." (Of the ones you list I've only been to Gekkaikan, and I can say it's pretty good.)
And if you have time (72 minutes one-way from Kyoto station), I'd highly recommend the Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum (http://www.bento.com/phgal-sake1.html ) in nearby Kobe.
I agree that you should try to get to a brewery where you can see it being made - especially as you will be in Kyoto just as the sake brewing season gets underway.
Gekkeikan and Kizakura are geared towards the tourist market, but don't dismiss them as they have information in English - very useful if you are not overly familiar with sake and how it is produced. Gekkeikan is one of Japan's largest sake breweries, and mostly produces futsu-shu (cheap, non-premium grade sake - though they do have a ginjō grade range too); and the selection at Kizakura is not one I would go out of my way for IMHO. Better to go to either of those places first for some history on the area, then head to a kura with a stronger premium sake range for tasting/shopping: Saito Shuzō (famous for having the longest winning streak at the national sake competition - 14 golds), Matsumoto, Tamanohikari, or Fujioka - my fav in the area.
I've posted on Fujioka Shuzō in the past: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/911243
..."Fujioka Shuzo is the brewer of the "Sōkū" label. They've set up a small tasting bar in the kura (Sakagura Bar En), where you can sample their junmai focused sake. Tastings are pretty reasonable: ¥420~ for a glass.
One of the young toji's innovations is the use of 500ml Venican glass bottles for their premium grade sake, which he has designed to work in with modern lifestyles - and tiny Japanese refrigerators. Definitely worth picking up a bottle, as its hard to find outside of Kansai. (Closed Wednesday)
I second Robb's Yoramu suggestion; the staff are knowledgeable and friendly, and the tasting flights are reasonably priced.
If you are a 'serious drinker' with some Japanese ability, you might want to try Zen, too.
I prefer my sake with food, so I always make a reservation at Agiyao when in town.
If you're don't mind a bit of travel (1hr from Kyoto station), I'd recommend heading to Daimon Shuzō, in Ōsaka. The master brewer is a mentor to John Gauntner and many of the other foreigners involved in the local sake trade. It's worth staying for dinner at their restaurant, Mukune - the food is fantastic.
For Gekkeikan, does the 300 Yen museum admission include the tour and tasting?
Also, what's the best way of making reservations at the breweries for a tour? Based on your description, we would be interested in Saito Shuzo and Fujioka Shuzo. Are these within walking distance from the train station?
I tried emailing the breweries but I have only heard from Yamamote Honke so far. They seem flexible. Any thoughts on their restaurant - Torisei?
Yes, the admission charge includes a tasting of three sake, and gift: a tiny bottle of sake.
Most of the shuzo I have mentioned can be accessed from Fushimi-Momoyama Station, on the Keihan Main Line.
With small breweries you would be best advised to contact them directly to enquire if they are available to show you around the kura. This might not be possible because of lack of English speaking staff or because they will be busy with production - but it is worth trying.
I haven't been to Yamamote Honke nor Torisei, so am unable to give you any feedback there, unfortunately.
Fujioka is so small that you can see the production room from the tatami seat at the bar - probably no need for a tour.
I enjoyed the selection of sake from Higashiyama Shuzo (which brews Konteki) at Kizakura, although the selection they had for tasting (which I don't believe was from Higashiyama Shuzo) did not suit my tastes. Plus they had a one cup fuka hire sake which was unusual and well received as omiyage.
What about Masuda Tokubee Shoten, makers of Tsuki no Katsura?
Thanks for the other recommendations which I will check out on my next visit to Kyoto.