Road Trip: Oita’s sake, shochu & wine country


There are many producers of alcoholic beverages dotted throughout Oita Prefecture, a result of the qualities of spring and well waters found here. Its is particularly famed for its mugi-jochu wheat shochu, but also has some great nihonshu sake breweries, a couple of wineries, and a Sapporo beer brewery. This open-ended tour leads you to some of Oita’s top and some lesser known kuramoto brewers and distillers. But first a word of warning.

The Japanese take their alcoholic beverages very seriously and combine this with a pleasant, inclusive and lenient drinking culture. However, the nation also has a strict and firmly enforced zero-tolerance law with heavy penalties for driving a vehicle under the influence of alcohol and accompanying passengers are also subject to criminal prosecution. There is zero tolerance to drinking any amount of alcohol and being in charge of a vehicle. So, either hire a taxi, have a friend be the ‘handle keeper’ driver who stays absolutely alcohol free, or take public transport where available. As the Oita Police encourage all locals and visitors ‘Nondara, noren’ - If you drink don’t drive!

Duration: Open-ended beginning in Usa and ending on the Kunisaki Peninsula.

This tour can be started anywhere but perhaps we should begin it at Usa Jingu for sake is a libation to the Shinto gods. It is also conveniently close to Yotsuya Shuzou, a small-scale shochu brewer known for its acclaimed Kanehachi brand. Just a few hundred metres along the street is Kubo Shuzou known for its eponymous shochu, and also Komatsu Shuzou, the brewer of Hojun sake.

It is only a few kilometres distance from here, but a very large leap in scale, to Sanwa Shurui and the home of Iichiko, which is perhaps the best-known and most widely drunk mugi-jochu in Japan. Amongst Sanwa Shuzo’s many shochu look out for its premium brands Iichiko Special and Iichiko Flask Bottle.

Sanwa Shurui also owns nearby Ajimu Budoshu Koubou, a winery that produces a sparkling wine that won Silver at the The Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships in 2021, the first time any Japanese wine had been entered into the competition.

Time to relax for awhile enjoying the rural journey through Yabakei to Hita, which, like Usa, is a hot spot of kuramoto establishments including Inoue Shuzou, which produces both sake and shochu, and Kuncho, a popular sake brewer found in the town centre. On the outskirts of town is the Sapporo Hita Brewery and also Iichiko Hita Joryujo, another Sanwa Shurui facility producing the company’s Wakabotan sake brand.

For a change of flavour head south into the countryside to Umeshu-gura Oyama for its superb ume plum wines. Immediately next door is the wonderfully conceived and executed Ume-hibiki onsen hot spring hotel, which may prove to be the ideal spot to stay overnight and recoup.

Off to neighbouring Kokonoe and Yatsushika Shuzou known for its sake and Suzume shochu. The towering Kuju Renzan mountains now lie between you and your next destination, the Kuju Winery. Enjoy its wines in spectacular scenery, which becomes less expansive in scale but no less beautiful as you move onto Bungo-Ono. Here, Hamasaki Shuzou brews its famed Takakiya sake, and Taimei-fujii Jouzou distills its Taimei shochu.

Head onto Hiji, the southern gateway to the Kunisaki Peninsula, for Nikaido Shuzou, to pay homage to Oita’s grandaddy of shochu brewers with a history going back to 1670. It does not have a visitor centre but its art gallery makes a pleasant, albeit drink-free, substitute. Neighbouring Kitsuki is the home to Nakano Shuzou and its acclaimed Chiebijin, which garnered top prize at the Le Grand Concurs des Saké Japonais in Paris in 2018. If you are visiting in the middle of October, drop by the doburoku sake festival held each year in nearby Ota village.

Journey along Kunisaki’s coast to Minami Shuzou, the distiller of Toppai a rare shochu little-known outside of Oita. Our tour’s final destination is Kayashima Shuzou, which produces the Nishi-no-Seki range of sakes.

Oita has other boutique sake and shochu companies that are also well-worth searching out.

If you have no time to take this tour visit Tashibunosho in Bungo-Takada instead. Definitely one of the best liquor stores in the Japan, it has a great range of sakes and shochu from around Oita and across the nation. Tsuda san, the amiable owner, is a sake and wine sommelier and a fount of knowledge about both of these drinks and also shochu. Alternatively, Oita Airport’s gift shop also has a good range of Oita sakes and shochu.

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