In Kyushu, new sake brewed with rice harvested in the fall (between September and October) starts appearing on store shelves around November. Although there is a strong impression that Kyushu is only a shochu-drinking region, large quantities of sake are produced and consumed in Fukuoka, Saga, and other parts of northern Kyushu, where rice production flourishes and high-quality water sources are abundant.
For this trip, we decided to visit Hizen Hamashuku in Kashima City, Saga Prefecture, a town that flourished from the Edo period until the Showa period with its numerous sake and soy sauce brewers. This used to be an inn town on the old Nagasaki Highway, and as a port town overlooking the Ariake Sea, seafood processing flourished alongside sake brewing.
The nearest station is JR Hizenhama Station. The station is directly connected to a bar that serves local sake, which allows visitors to easily compare the local sake that Kashima has to offer. Recently, JR Kyushu’s sightseeing trains 36 + 3 and Futatsuboshi 4047 have added a stop at this unique station, so their passengers can enjoy a sake tasting and pick up souvenirs to take home.
Hama Bar Hizenhama Station
• Located inside JR Hizenhama Station, Kashima City, Saga Prefecture
• Open: 11:00-16:30, Fri., Sat., and Sun. evenings: 18:00-21:00
Tsukegura Tazo, the de facto symbol of the town’s history, is a long-standing pickle shop that has been in business for more than 120 years. It is a one-minute walk from Hizenhama Station. Its trademark is a sign reading “fish market” as it used to be a fishmonger. Pickles made from high-quality sake lees are still made by hand in areas where sake brewing is prevalent. The stunning 100-plus-year-old warehouse is both beautiful and sturdy, as it was built by a relative who was a temple carpenter using timber cut from a mountain purchased by the original owner.
• 1192 Hama-machi, Kashima City, Saga
• Closed: Irregular
A six-minute walk from the station takes you what the locals call Sakagura-dori (Sake Brewery Street), where many sake breweries with traditional white walls and baked clay storehouses remain. Hizen Hamashuku is home to three active sake breweries.
• 2421 Otsu, Hama-machi, Kashima City, Saga
Founded in 1688, this brewery has produced so many toji (master brewers) that throughout Saga Prefecture, they are referred to as belonging to the Mitsutake School. In addition to winning a gold medal at the International Wine Challenge IWC), Mitsutake also distills shochu and gin.
• 1254-1 Hama-machi, Kashima City, Saga
This brewery runs an inn called Oyado Fukuchiyo and a restaurant called Souan Nabeshima. It produces Nabeshima Daiginjo, which was named Champion Sake in the sake category at the International Wine Challenge (IWC) in 2011.
• 2761-2 Otsu, Hama-machi, Kashima City, Saga
This sake brewery, which has been in operation since 1916, merged with Mitsutake Brewery in 2019. It runs Hizenya, a tourist-oriented brewery that offers tastings and sightseeing tours in addition to selling sake. You can tour the brewery if you make a reservation in advance.
Finally, we made it to the destination for this trip, Akanesasu Hizen Hamashuku. Located on a corner of Sakagura-dori, this inn is a renovated Japanese-style house with a hip-and-gable roof, built around the middle of the Meiji period (1868-1912) as a villa for the owner of the Mitsutake Brewery. It is built in the typical clay brick townhouse style found in Hizen Hamashuku.
The building had been vacant for more than 30 years after being used as a villa. It was renovated in 2008 concurrent with the area’s designation as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings and used as a recreational facility for brewery employees. After that, JR Kyushu rented the building, renovated the entire interior and earthquake proofed it, before reopening it as an inn in January 2022. There are just two guest rooms in the inn. The first floor houses a common space which displays traditional crafts made in Saga and books on architecture and travel.
Akanesasu Hizen Hamashuku
• For reservations in English
• 2686 Otsu, Hiramatsu, Hama-machi, Kashima City, Saga
Being a traditional townhouse, the side facing the street is narrow, but the building extends deep into the lot.
The large bathtub made from Aomori hiba cypress is the definition of comfort— you can’t help but take a long hot soak.
Local sake and local sweets are included with your stay. The water from the tap is delicious groundwater, but bottles of brewing water, which is used to make sake at Mitsutake Brewery, are also offered.
Feel free to use the sake cups in the room to sample Saga sake from places like Kashima and Ureshino. When you’re in Saga, if you want to make sure you’re only drinking local sake, look for the label that says “The SAGA.”
Saga Sake Brewers Association: “The Saga” Certified Sake
The label is applied to junmai-shu and authentic shochu made only from Saga Prefecture ingredients and produced at a brewery within Saga Prefecture. Products that pass the taste and aroma evaluation are certified for a period of one year.
Breakfast is catered by Kappo Kiyokawa, a restaurant that has operated in Kashima since 1905. Enjoy Japanese cuisine made with local ingredients, including the local specialties of hot spring tofu and sake lees pickles, in the comfort of your room.
Take a morning walk to power spots
At the top of the tall stone steps behind Mitsutake Brewery, which can be seen from the Hamagawa River, sits Kotohira Shrine—a shrine that used to have a dedicated following of sailors who would pray for protection against maritime accidents. The shrine overlooks the Ariake Sea and the port town at the mouth of the Hamagawa River.
You can also visit Yutoku Inari Shrine, which is about a 30-minute walk from Sakagura-dori. Bicycles can be rented at Hizenhama Station (¥500/day).
Yutoku Inari Shrine
• 1855 Otsu, Furueda, Kashima City, Saga
Established in 1687, this shrine is where people go to pray for business prosperity, household prosperity and match-making. It is one of the most popular power spots in Japan, attracting 3 million worshippers a year. The main hall, built on a platform 18 meters above the ground accessible by 117 steps, is lavishly lacquered in a rich array of colors. After a 20-minute walk along a mountain path from the main shrine, you reach the inner sanctuary, which affords a panoramic view of the city and the Ariake Sea.
The Hamagawa River, which empties into the Ariake Sea, flows on the south side of Sakagura-dori. On the other side of the river, there is a neighborhood of traditional thatched-roof townhouses where many fishermen, merchants and sailors used to live. Together with Sakagura-dori, these two areas, where the beautiful traditional townscape remains, have been designated by the national government as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings.
Just off Sakagura-dori is the former Norita Family Residence, which used to be the home of a samurai who served the Kashima Nabeshima clan around the early 19th century. It features a thatched roof and kudo-zukuri, a style of architecture that Saga Prefecture is known for. When viewed from above, the residence looks like a kiln (or kudo in the local dialect). Despite being a samurai residence, the home features a large earthen floor and a field. It has been designated by the city as an important cultural property as it is an invaluable piece of remaining architecture that conveys the living conditions of the time.
Former Norita Family Residence
• 115 Furueda, Kashima City, Saga
• Open: 10:00~17:00
• Closed: Tue.
• Free viewing
Hizen Hamashuku is an easily walkable town. You can discover and notice many things by walking along the small roads that cannot be accessed by car, like the canals that draw water from the Hamagawa River, eaves hung with dried persimmons and signs explaining the old buildings in both English and Japanese.
Wake up in the morning and take a walk, and enjoy a glass of sake in the evening. Here you can relax and enjoy a leisurely stay in an Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings.