Welcome to Hama-cho, a quiet town with a laidback vibe and a history of sake brewing situated close to the city of Kashima in Saga Prefecture.
During the Edo period the area was home to several wealthy samurai families, whose beautiful white-terraced period homes still line the main street of the town to this day. During the Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods the area then went on to become well known for its production of high-quality sake (Nihonshu), at its peak there were more than ten sake breweries in Hama-cho, although the majority of these have long since closed their doors. Due to its somewhat out-of-the-way location, and decline in sake brewing, Hama-cho is often overlooked as a travel destination for both domestic and international tourists alike, but a handful of dedicated and creative locals are now working hard to put the town firmly back on the map. In this article we will meet these people and discover the ways in which they are contributing to their community and the town of Hama-cho today.
The main street through Hama-cho, also known as Brewery Street due to its long history with local Sake Breweries
An Edo period farmhouse in Hama-cho
A Soy Sauce Brewery set iside the house of a former Samurai family
With a history of roughly one hundred years, Nabeshima Brewery is a family business currently in its third generation. While many of the towns other sake breweries that prospered in times-past, fell by the wayside for one reason or another, Nabeshima seems to have gone from strength to strength maintaining the towns image of the home of high-quality sake brewing, picking up a host of international awards along the way. The current owner of the business, Mr Iimori is gradually transforming the business into much more than just a brewery, with visions of how to not only attract visitors to the town but also keep them entertained and comfortable.
Nabeshima Brewery is situated at the entrance of the town
Hayato Hyuga, one of the brewers at Nabeshima
Although we didn’t get to chat with Mr. Iimori himself, upon a recent visit to Nabeshima brewery we met with Hayato, one of his top brewers, who talked us through the process of brewing and introduced us to their range of drinks that currently numbers at over twenty different varieties. His passion for his job and for the town was glaringly obvious as he guided through the premises, showed us some of the drinks he is currently brewing and explained Nabeshima’s vision for the future.
Hayato explains the various stages of the brewing process at Nabeshima
Samples of some of Nabeshima’s most popular drinks, the one on the right being one of their award-winning efforts
We were also treated to a quick peep at the Nabeshima Gallery (showroom) which houses a collection of sake drinks produced by Nabeshima over the decades. Staff are available to answer any questions you may have regarding the drinks on display, should you want to learn more or buy some in the future. As a general rule, Nabeshima sake is not available to buy from the brewery direct, but there are plenty of places around that do sell it.
Sakiho Zenigami talks us through some of the drinks brewed at Nabeshima, before offering a tasting of her recommended lines
We were accompanied to the gallery by Sakiho, who is available to guide visitors around and give explanations in English. She suggests emailing, through the Nabeshima website, ahead of time to ensure availability of such services when you plan to visit, as generally speaking the brewery is closed to the general public during work hours as the staff are busy brewing! Having said that though, they are willing to make special exceptions for overseas visitors who are in town and want to learn more about Nabeshima.
Sakiho is also heavily involved in another project Nabeshima are currently working on, which will see one of the old brew houses in the town transformed into a guesthouse for out-of-towners who are looking to stay in the area. The guesthouse will allow people to stay in an Edo period house right in the heart of the old town, surrounded by traditional buildings and lots of other interesting independent projects, some of which are mentioned later in this article.
Sakiho will also be running the Nabeshima Guesthouse which is due to open in the Autumn of 2020
The site of the Nabeshima Guesthouse – a former brewhouse in the heart of the old town
Matatabi (Yua Candles)
Located just minutes from the planned guesthouse mentioned above is what looks like an unassuming bar from the outside, but is actually a cove of creativity once you step foot inside. Matatabi doubles up as a café-bar and studio for candle maker and artist Yuki Ura.
Yuki Ura outside her studio in Hama-cho
Yuki has been hand crafting candles for years and she is now offering workshops teaching others how to do the same
Yuki’s studio space in Hama-cho
Some of Yuki’s candles, all of which are available to buy at her studio in Hama-cho or online
Yuki who has a background in creating décor for events with handmade candles and dry-flowers decided to open a studio in Hama-cho in 2015. Visitors are invited to come inside, sit down, relax and enjoy a drink right where she works at crafting her art. She also offers workshops teaching the art of candle making to anyone who is interested in learning. The space also doubles as a gallery.
Yuki offers freshly made food for visitors with a heavy focus on locally sourced, organic produce. The majority of drinks on offer are also organic and where possible come from local outfits. Her whole approach to the business is local, ethical and natural.
Most of what Yuki sells is organic and/or locally sourced
The space is a hive of interesting and creative activity, decorated from floor to ceiling with handmade candles and dry flowers
Inside the café-bar, surrounded by Yuki’s candles and other handmade crafts
Two doors down from Matatabi, and run by a good friend of Yuki the candle maker, is Iroha.
Iroha is a community space operated by Hide Kinoshita, it is essentially a free space that members of the community can use to gather, share ideas, put on events, exhibit work and listen to good music. Hide also sells drinks at his events, but he is quick to say that Iroha isn’t simply another bar – as mentioned above it’s a space for the community, and that’s where the focus of the place should remain.
Hide Kinoshita at the door of Iroha community event space in Hama-cho
The interior of Iroha feels a lot like the inside of a local’s living room, and that’s no great surprise as that’s exactly what this place is! Hide moved into this nearly-century-old former Geta shop (traditional Japanese footware) a few years ago, leaving behind his former life as a hair stylist in the neighboring prefecture of Fukuoka. He now works nearby to Hama-cho as an organic farmer, growing a wealth of vegetables. When evening falls, he heads back home and puts on events at Iroha, mostly on weekend nights. These events include DJ nights, live music and the “Hama-cho sake hashigo” - a bar crawl event taking place on every fourth Saturday of the month, allowing punters to sample a range of locally produced sakes. Other establishments involved in the bar crawl event are Matatabi (mentioned above) and Kurabito (mentioned below).
Inside Iroha, a burning stove keeps the water boiling and patrons feeling nice and cozy to a soundtrack of live music as records spin
Iroha doesn’t put events on according to a regular schedule, but if you’re in Hama-cho its well swinging by to see if Hide has anything planned during your stay, it’s a great way to meet other locals in a relaxed and comfortable setting. Events are set to increase from 2020.
Hide says events at Iroha are set to increase during the year 2020, make sure you swing past when you’re in town, if you’re lucky you may catch a live show or even the local bar crawl event!
Our final stop in Hama-cho today is at Hamashuko Kurabito, or simply Kurabito, as the locals like to call it. Established in 2015, Kurabito is a café and art gallery run by ceramic artist Yasuhito Kawasaki. He makes sculptures in the morning alongside his wife who is also a potter, and then operates a café/bar in the afternoon into the evening.
Yasuhito and his wife, artists and owners of Kurabito gallery and café
Yasuhito hard at work on one of his sculptures
A finished piece by Yasuhito on display inside the gallery
The gallery at Kurabito
Yasuhito’s wife is also an accomplished potter making a range of cups, bowls and other items, all on site at Kurabito
The atmosphere inside both the gallery and café space is very informal but has an air of sophistication, making for a great place to enjoy one of the many Japanese sakes they have on offer courtesy of the Nabeshima Brewery. Teas, coffees and soft drinks are also served alongside a menu of simple dishes including homemade pizza and sashimi salads.
In order tyo reach the bar you must walk through Yasuhito’s creative workspace, giving the place the atmosphere of a real artist’s studio.
The workspaces at Kurabito are open for all to see, giving the place a very homely and personal feel
This also allows you to see what projects are being worked on at any one time
Coffee is served!
The atmosphere at Kurabito is simple, yet stylish