One of the best ways to experience Japanese culture, food, and more is through it's festivals. Matsuri, as they are called, will vary across Japan. Many of which are local to each region or town. Some are larger and more festive, some are more entertaining, and some will challenge your cultural sensitivity. No matter which festival you find yourself at, its definitely a great chance to get to know the area, its people and culture. That being said, lets take a closer look at one of these Japanese festivals that is held in a small town in Hiroshima Prefecture.
Welcome to Saijo
About an hour ride on the local train or bus from Hiroshima city lies the small town of Saijo. This town is known for its sake breweries and it borders the Hiroshima University campus. While exploring the area can easily be done by a decent bus system, I would recommend exploring by bicycle. There are a few restaurants scattered throughout the town, a movie theater located at the local Fuji Grand shopping mall, and Kagamiyama park where the ruins of what once a castle still lie on top of the hill overlooking the area.
Once a year, on the first weekend in October, in the town of Saijo in Hiroshima prefecture, one of my favorite matsuri takes place. Sake Matsuri is a full weekend event where the whole town is flooded with people to enjoy the food, music, culture, shopping and of course the alcohol. Local shops and craftsmen will line the streets to sell their goods. There is food at every turn, and the smells sweep the area. In Another area, there is a stage set up for music, dancing and more. The local sake breweries open their doors so you can hop from one to the next as you tour each one and sample their products. But the main attraction lies in a walled of area off to the side. Its a place where you can drink all the sake you want from all over Japan.
Inside the All-You-Can-Drink Area
It's easy to get lost in the crowds and zig zag your way from brewery to brewery for free tours and drinks. As a matter of fact, I recommend it. The main street is lined with vendors selling typical festival foods, the side streets have vendors selling food and many more random things, and the breweries will often give a free sample of their sake, but there is one walled off area you will find just off the main street. Not far from the city hall and on the other side of the road is an area that has been walled off and you have to purchase a ticket to enter. This is the main lure of the festival. It's the all you can drink area with sake from all over Japan.
Buying a ticket in advance will often save you a little money. You can usually do this at a convenience store, but honestly its not too bad if you just buy your ticket on the day of. Since this festival runs all weekend, I would suggest not waiting too long to visit this area. Often the better sake will tend to run out pretty quick. Another point to remember is that once you leave, you will have to buy another ticket to re-enter the area.
Upon purchasing a ticket and entering, you will be given a typical sake cup and a guide that tells you where each type of sake is from as well as which tents they are at. If you haven't seen a sake cup, they are pretty small and all drinks in this area can only be poured into this cup. I know it sounds like it would be a lot of work to get and try a decent amount of sake with such a small cup, but there are ways. see the "My Advise" section for more.
Once you enter you will find tents all along the outside wall with an open area in the middle. Each tent will have sake from a different prefecture in Japan. They will also have a long list of types and different quality sake that they offer. Just wait in line, put your sake cup on the table and ask for or point to the number on your guide for the one you want to try. get your drink and enjoy your time with friends or make new friends. And yes, there are bathrooms inside the area so stay as long as you want. Or as long as you can.
There is a lot going on all weekend and if you are like me, you want to experience as much as you can. After having been to this festival three times and about to go yet again this year, I will share some of the things I have learned to give you the best time.
Arrive early. Most of the cultural events and music will occur earlier in the day. Most will be on Saturday. Get some food and enjoy the traditional aspects of the festival. You will need the food before you go drinking anyway.
Take advantage of the brewery tours. These are often free and will give you a chance to sample some of their products. When you exit one, you are guaranteed to be not far from the entrance to another.
Ask for junmai. When in the all you can drink area, it can be difficult to decide which sake to drink. There are a lot to choose from. The best piece of advise I ever received was to just ask for junmai, pronounced like "June my". This term refers to a specific quality of sake and is not actually a name. This means you can be sure to get a good quality drink at any tent without knowing or being able to read the Japanese. Just say "junmai kudasai" and hand them your cup.
Put your sake cup in a cup. Last year I was tapped on the shoulder by an old Japanese woman who handed me a cup and told me to place my sake cup inside. The cup she gave me was a clear plastic cup about the size of a whiskey tumbler. This was the absolute best advise I was ever given. Early on, they would only "spill" a little extra into the cup after filling my sake cup. But by the end, they would consistently fill my sake cup, then keep pouring until the larger cup was full as well. It was simply amazing.
Drink responsibly, don't drive and maybe get a hotel or stay with a friend. Sake matsuri is a fantastic event, so keep it that way. You can absolutely enjoy the events without drinking any alcohol, but if you do, please be sure you can make it home or to a hotel safely. If you drive in Japan, you can be arrested for even taking a sip of alcohol before driving. Don't do it. This also applies to bicycles too. Either walk, take the train, a taxi, a bus or have a designated driver. If you book a hotel far enough in advance, then you are probably in the best situation.
If you are in Japan during the first full weekend of October, be sure to visit Saijo in Hiroshima prefecture for Sake Matsuri. There are tons of ways to experience Japanese culture and more. If you only want to go for one day, then use the next as a great opportunity to visit Hiroshima city. It's only about an hour by train or bus to get to the heart of Hiroshima city and visit the Peace Park or Hiroshima Castle. And a short ride from there you can catch a ferry to the world heritage site, Miyajima. Be sure to find me and say hello at the Sake Matsuri, I guarantee I will be there.