Kochi Prefecture is, first of all, not one of the more well-known sake regions among aficionados outside of Japan. Before I moved here in 2010, I had to check that it was indeed on the island of Shikoku, and not Kyushu. Densely forested and sparsely populated, even Japanese people struggle to remember that this place exists. There is no Shinkansen (bullet train) here in Shikoku, and the plodding local lines don’t even make it all the way to the far-flung capes on the east and west ends of the prefecture. Driving from one end to the other can take about 5 hours. A car-free lifestyle is generally not a realistic option.
However, what it lacks in accessibility, it more than makes up for in natural beauty and local culture. Clinging to the south side of the Shikoku mountain range, and opening straight south to the wide expanse of the Pacific, Kochi’s landscape is rich and beautiful. Its climate is warmer and wetter than the north side of the island, with so much rainfall that it typically gets 1st or 2nd place for most precipitation in Japan. Its summers have a nearly tropical feel, seeing some of the highest temperatures in the nation. Winters are cold enough to make proper sake, but much shorter and milder than other parts of Japan. The local culture reflects this climate and geography, and Kochi has a reputation for being a relaxed, easygoing, “slow life” oasis. It’s beautiful here, and it’s difficult to get anywhere else. Why not stop and enjoy life for a while?
Kochi boasts 18 sake breweries, and while that’s not a big number, it is a steady one. It has been lucky to see none close in the last several years, which is rare these days, with breweries closing every year nationwide. While Kochi ranks 45th out of 47 for population, it ranks 36th for number of sake breweries. Many of these are very small operations, but two – Tosa-Tsuru and Kikusui – take the top spots for production quantity in Shikoku.
So what classifies a quintessential Kochi brew? In a word, dryness, but that doesn’t begin to explain the whole picture. As the locals will gladly tell you, what Kochi people long for in a sake is, above all else, quaffability. Something that won’t get in the way of all the fresh seafood, sure. But also something you can drink in large quantities, over a long period of time, without getting sick of. They’ll tell you point-blank, “We like to drink a lot.” The numbers back them up most of the time, with extremely high per-capita quantities of alcohol consumed each year.
When they aren’t number 1 for quantity, though, they certainly always get high marks for enthusiasm. It’s not hard to find people playing traditional Kochi drinking games, and a few popular festivals center on drinking with a lot of people, or just drinking a lot, period. Kochi takes the idea of alcohol as social lubricant to the next level, with its own special etiquette and customs for drinking. You can’t talk about food, life, or anything else that matters in Kochi, without mentioning the pleasure and gusto with which people here drink.
But back to the brews themselves. The quintessential Kochi brew is dry in a way that doesn’t always show itself in the numbers. It doesn’t always have an ostentatiously high sake meter value, and it’s not overly acidic or astringent. It certainly doesn’t have that burning, rubbing-alcohol quality to it. The object is to create a sake that is so unassuming it could be mistaken for water, that goes down so easily that a person could drink a liter of it in one sitting. Niigata? Never heard of it. This is an exaggeration, but not a big one. Almost anything from out of the prefecture tastes too sweet or too strong to a palate acclimatized to Kochi sake.
Dry and unassuming doesn’t describe every Kochi brew, and in fact some are thought to be sweet enough to be from somewhere else. But if you’re looking for the driest of the dry, check out some classic Kochi names like Suigei, Tsukasa Botan, and Tosa-Tsuru. For somewhat harder to find gems, keep an eye out for Minami, Takiarashi, and Bunkajin. And if you’ve had enough of dry and want something with a little more to chew on, look for Akitora, Toyo no Ume, and Kameizumi.
For best results, come visit Kochi and try these along with the foods they were meant for, in the drinking scene they were made for. Until then, happy shopping, and kampai!