15 May 2024

Finding An Hour's Peace in Roppongi with Japanese Sake

As I step out of the train car to transfer, I hear my name. It’s my coworker, and we were just meters from each other on the train. A good omen for our afternoon, I think, as Tokyo is such a sprawling metropolis that it’s rare to run into someone you know on public transit, even if you’re headed to the same place. Another short ride and we exit the Hibiya Line at Roppongi Station, then traverse a long series of underground tunnels. When we emerge into the sunshine and brisk spring wind, we approach a nondescript white facade with a beautiful off-white noren set in motion by the strong gusts. This is Hasegawa Eiga, our entertainment for the next hour. 


  • The Hasegawa Eiga Background
  • The Hasegawa Eiga Sake
  • The Hasegawa Eiga Experience

The Hasegawa Eiga Background 

The Hasegawa Eiga brand gets its name from the original sake producer whose history spans several generations over three centuries. Now known as Yaegaki, they make sake in a traditional manner at their brewery in Hyogo Prefecture, located in an ancient area formerly known as Banshu Hayashida, now called Himeji. Their sake brewery has been in the family since 1666, when Hasegawa Eiga, the patriarch who gave the company its name, opened the doors as a combination sake brewery and timber merchant. The timber business was split off, and following a strict set of edicts put forth by Eiga before he died in 1690, the sake business flourished.

They now have an outpost in Roppongi offering a sake pairing experience, which is exactly what we came for. My coworker reserved this on Wabunka, a service in Japan that helps international visitors access authentic and traditional cultural events. I've been on sake brewery tours before as a tourist, pretending like I understood every aspect of the process as it's explained in Japanese. But Wabunka offers experiences in English, making it easy to fully participate even if you don't know Japanese.

Ducking under the noren and out of the wind, we enter Hasegawa Eiga. The atmosphere inside is striking in its beauty but completely calm, instantly putting me at ease. We are greeted by our hosts for the session, Ohtani-san and Shishido-san, who will be guiding us through the history, the flavors, and the craft of sake pairing.

We sit in seiza at our respective honzens, the traditional short table used for service that is infrequently seen nowadays, instead giving way to the larger tables commonplace at ryokans for kaiseki services. There are five empty sake cups, and five small dishes. Everything looks so perfectly arranged, I hold my breath for a moment, afraid of sending even one thing askew.

I only made it through one course sitting in seiza, as I was trained to sit in criss-cross applesauce when seated on floor cushions as a child. Thankfully, Shishido-san offered me a low chair that allowed me to enjoy the rest of the experience in comfort. My coworker, however, sat in seiza the whole time. Her power.

The Hasegawa Eiga Sake 

Our hosts graciously guide us through the hour, explaining the unique sake manufacturing processes Hasegawa Eiga utilizes as we sip and snack. There are two lines, named for the man who founded the brewery: Eiga and Hasegawa.

Eiga sake begins with a more traditional method of making koji, the fermented rice that serves as the foundation. Unlike the usual process, wherein koji is made in large containers, Eiga’s koji process, known as futa-koji-ho, involves the rice being divided into small portions and layered in shallow wooden boxes. Throughout the night, the layers are rearranged every three hours. Koji is a delicate process that requires meticulous temperature management, so the brewery’s labor-intensive method of regularly rearranging the layers helps control the temperature more precisely.

In addition, they utilize a process for refining the sake known as fukuro shibori, or bag pressing. After the sake is brewed, the raw sake must be separated from the rice mash to create the clear liquid that is the sake we drink. The commonplace practice is using large machines to press out the liquid, but with the bag pressing method, the sake is filtered by gravity, drop by drop, capturing only the purest flavors. They use only the middle part of the press, known to be the best, but produces limited quantities—the Eiga line yields about half the amount of more commercial sake manufacturing. The second line, Hasegawa, incorporates modern machinery in its production, resulting in a different taste.

The rice they use is cultivated in limited quantities from a small area in Hyogo Prefecture, under an agreement with contracted farmers. This rice is larger than cultivars from other prefectures and is grown specifically for sake brewing.

The Hasegawa Eiga Experience

Every aspect of the tasting session is carefully considered to not only enhance the experience, but maximize the flavors and optimize the pairing—down to the flowers chosen to cast a beautiful shadow. The sake glasses were made by Osaka-based artist Iwasaki Ryuji, crafted specifically for each sake to optimize the flavor. This fact surprised me. Although I’ve noted the shapes of sake cups before, it was for their beautiful visual, without considering how the shape might contribute to the taste of the sake inside. But in the same way that a wine glass or a brandy snifter is made to enhance the flavor of the liquid it holds, sake cups can serve the same purpose.

With five sakes to taste in total, we are told we start with the Eiga series, which is more delicate than the Hasegawa series. In order to ensure we can taste each sake at its best, the stronger sakes are reserved for later so as to not overwhelm the flavors.

The first pairing is the elegant and fragrant Eiga Junmai Daiginjo. It’s served in a sake glass that narrows towards the top to amplify the fragrance of the sake as it’s sipped. Paired with a sake-steamed clam, canola flowers, and white asparagus, the flavors mingle in the mouth. Unconsciously, I let out a contented sigh. If this is only the first pairing, the next four will be a transcendent experience.

Second, we are served the Eiga Special Junmai. Delicious, dry, and with a delightful fragrance that wafts up into the drinker’s nose as they prepare to take a sip. The sake cup is tall, almost tumbler-shaped, sending the aroma upwards. All of my senses are delighted and the fragrant sake pairs perfectly with the salty yet light dish of sakura sea bream and salmon sashimi. The chef placed a small amount of sakura salt on the plate to dip the sashimi in. I dipped, I ate, I sipped, I delighted in the mingling of salty fish and smooth sake—the salt amplifying the flavor of the sake in my mouth.

Then, we move onto the Hasegawa series of sake. We’ve been prepared for a stronger taste, and although I love sake, I’m not one who appreciates a strong alcohol flavor. I braced myself, and was wholly mistaken. Although stronger, all three of these sakes were unbelievably smooth, too.

First, the Hasegawa Junmai Daiginjo 35%. A side note on the sake naming scheme: the percentage indicates how much of the surface of a grain of rice has been polished away—in this case it’s 65%. The polishing ratio, among other metrics, indicates what grade the sake is and that is where the name comes from. Junmai Daiginjo is sake made purely of rice, koji, and water, with a polishing ratio of 50% or less.

It’s sitting in a low and wide cup that envelops the aroma and intensifies the flavor. It has a perfect balance of umami and sweetness, which aligns with the umami and sweet dish of spring cabbage, boiled whitebait, and sakura shrimp. Sakura shrimp are an impossibly small variety of shrimp, at once firm and tender, savory and sweet in the way it’s cooked. I try to create the perfect bite, a bit of everything, then wash it down with a bit of sake to truly enjoy the pairing how it was envisioned.

Next, Hasegawa Junmai Daiginjo 50%. It’s poured into a cup with a wide opening that allows the drinker to fully appreciate the flavor in their mouth. This is paired with a sushi piece made of dried mullet roe and thick bamboo shoot atop a bed of steamed rice. Wrapped in a sakura leaf, it’s a fantastic combination of textures and flavors, subtle and bold.

We move onto the final pair—the one I’ve been waiting for, because I’d recognize a beautiful piece of wagyu steak anywhere. The last sake is described as a quintessential Japanese sake, embodying the strong characteristics of the rice. It’s a Hasegawa Special Junmai 60%, with more of the rice grain left after polishing, so I understand what they mean. It’s fresh and wholesome, like a hot bowl of rice straight from the rice cooker. The wagyu loin is roasted to perfection and paired with fuki-miso, something I’d never had before. It’s butterbur, cooked until softened and chopped finely, then mixed with miso. It’s a delightfully bitter flavor that contrasts the buttery wagyu, and the sweet heartiness of the sake washes it all down.

All the while, our hosts are showing us the tools they utilize to make the sake, the different results of rice after polishing, and beautiful photos of the surrounding area full of the natural resources that make Hasegawa Eiga’s sake so unparalleled. I’ve been to several sake brewery tours while visiting and living in Japan, and they all say the natural resources available to them makes their sake unique—and it’s true. Every sake I had this day had its own distinctive flavor, but there is a connection between them, a certain softness that we are told comes from the naturally sweet water found nearby the brewery.

As we stand to leave, I fully take in the warmth that’s spreading through my body. Is it the sake? The delicious food? The experience? All of the above? Yes. The Hasegawa Eiga sake experience is meant to demonstrate the richness of Japanese culture and its time-honored traditions to visitors, aligning with the seasons to provide a fresh atmosphere every time. I’m grateful to have been able to participate in this hour of pure bliss and flavor, and the glow I feel remains for hours after I step through the noren, once more entering the bustling metropolis that is Tokyo.

Hasegawa Eiga

7-6-20 Roppongi, 1F, Minato-ku, Tokyo

To book your experience, please visit the Wabunka website

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