The Noguchi Naohiko Sake Institute is not your usual sake brewery. There are no brewing tools or equipment to see upon entry, nor will you hear sake brewing songs chanted. None of the usual, retro atmosphere or wooden sliding doors are in sight.
What awaits you is a beautiful, minimalistic, state-of-the-art design overlooking immaculate rice fields in a serene setting. Situated in Ishikawa Prefecture’s Noto Peninsula, the institute is home to one of Japan’s most notable sake masters, Noguchi Naohiko.
Noguchi san is one of Japan’s living treasures. His vision of reviving traditional sake brewing methods and his passion for developing different kinds of sake are inspiring. Coming from a family of sake brewers, his connection with sake started at the age of 15. He retired three times before, once at 65, the second time at 80 and the last one was 83, but decided that he was not done yet! In 2017, this sake icon came out of retirement and spearheaded the creation of the Sake Institute that bears his name.
I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Noguchi San and with Michelin Star, Tokyo Chef Shiro Yamazaki, who has a renowned reputation for pairing sake perfectly with his cuisine. This Tokyo native raises sake gastronomy to a whole new level. He celebrates seasonal Japanese flavors and uses rice wine to bring out the beauty and excellence in every single dish that he prepares.During my tasting experience, this local crab was paired elegantly with Daiginjo 2018. Light and smooth in flavor, it brought out all the umami characteristics delighting the palate with delicious harmonies of taste. The rest of the dishes that were served were magical.
It was an afternoon showcasing the talent of Chef Yamazaki from his shirako and yuzu (milt and a winter citrus from Japan) in a light dashi soup, delectable sashimi with shredded bonito flakes, wild boar with persimmon all the way to the dessert of roasted soybean ice cream. The 10-course meal was a parade of extraordinary talent and unique flavors, each paired with fantastic sake, truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
My personal favorites from the sake line-up were the Yamahai Miyamanishiki 2018, the Honjozo and the Limited Edition Naohiko 01 – from 2017.
This level of excellence from Ishikawa’s new sake tourism focus raises the bar for sake experiences across Japan. From a region once known for its mining and gold leaf, Ishikawa now aims to attract more tourists and locals to celebrate the sake traditions and delicious food of the area.
The Noguchi Naohiko Brewery building was, surprisingly, once a Junior High School. As locals left the area over the years, the Junior High School and the nearby elementary school closed down. The structures are now undergoing a complete transformation with the aim of boosting sake tourism as per the Komatsu City Revitalization Plan.
In the future, the Elementary school will reopen, as a facility providing accommodation, restaurants, and local hands-on experiences. More people will be able to stay and “wine and dine” in Ishikawa. This is a great initiative to revitalize the spirit of Ishikawa and celebrate its local artisans and culinary superstars.
Trying some of Noguchi San’s best sake and Chef Yamazaki’s innovative approach to Japanese cuisine was exceptional. Under their direction, unparalleled creativity and craftsmanship, the future of sake tourism is looking bright and promising.
BONUS: During my meal, I had a chance for a short interview with Chef Yamazaki about his approach to cooking and sake gastronomy.
CHEF YAMAZAKI Interview
Why did you become a chef?
First of all, I wanted to be a sushi chef. One day I went to a luxurious sushi restaurant with my family when I was 9 years old. I was amazed at everything, the sushi, the hospitality at the same time. I thought that was the moment that I wanted to be a chef, but at that time specifically a sushi chef.
Are you from a family of sushi chefs?
No. In my family, I’m the only chef.
Did you go to a culinary school?
I went to a culinary school for one year. So I got the diploma within a year. There are 3 options like Japanese cuisine, French cuisine and Patisserie. I took a Japanese cuisine class and studied for a year.
What was your inspiration in making your menu for this experience?
Very difficult….The inspiration for today is of course sake. For today’s dishes, the positioning of the food was set. Sake is the main character and food is the supporting role today. I tried not to complicate the taste of the food yet bring out more of the original flavors of the ingredients and arrange them in that way.
What is your favorite ingredient from today’s menu?
I like “charcoal grilling cooking style, techniques ” and I am good at it. Charcoal grilling is my main sales point and there is no doubt that charcoal grilling is the centerpiece of my restaurant. However this time we don’t have a counter charcoal grilling here and we cannot do anything about it. In this case, there are 2 different items. First I like wild kamo (duck). Their season has just begun, and the other is wild unagi (freshwater eel). I love these two. Of course, I like chestnuts and crabs, bamboo shoots, etc., but I just love unagi and kamo.
What do you think of the future trends of sake and your cooking style?
In the future, the plain type sake, just ordinary sake, will be weeded out. In other words, demand will be less for that type of sake. I presume that people will become more interested in the flavorful ones, more characteristic ones, so I think the sake Noguchi san makes will be more treasured, and the demand will be concentrated on the lighter body sake or sweet-and-sour sake.
Are there any messages you would like to share for the foreigners who live in Japan? Or any foreigners who are interested in visiting Japan because of food and sake? You’re very young, and you already have your Michelin Star. What is the message you would like to share?
I’d say pay attention to the personality, the appearance of every dish. There is modesty, but still, there is a uniqueness in every dish. Don’t stop thinking every day and live your passion!
NOGUCHI NAOHIKO SAKE INSTITUTE
CHEF YAMAZAKI on Instagram
Featuring photo credit: Anne Kyle / Arigato Travel
You can learn more about Japanese Sake and cuisine on our Kyoto and Hiroshima Sake Brewery Tours, and you can read more about the Noguchi Naohiko Sake Institute and Brewery here. <