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Sake is often referred to as “rice wine.” Some would argue the term is misleading, since unlike wine, sake is brewed, but Japan’s traditional spirit does have something in common with the world’s favorite grape-based alcoholic beverage. As with wine, depending on the ingredients and exact production process, two different types of sake can have very different flavors.

This can make searching for one that suits your palate a complex, if not unpleasant, task. There’s also the fact that most of Japan’s best-tasting sake is produced far outside of its major urban centers, which is why we were surprised and thrilled to find a restaurant in downtown Tokyo offering a sampler of sake from distant Akita Prefecture for just 500 yen (US$4.90). Our excitement only grew when we found out that the deal is also all you can drink.

Just like how you can’t make good wine without good grapes, a tasty sake needs equally delicious rice. Akita is largely considered to grow some of Japan’s finest grain, and as such the northern prefecture is also home to a number of respected sake breweries.

Unfortunately a trip from Tokyo up to Akita takes close to four hours and 20,000 yen, which is time and money we’d rather spend drinking. Thankfully, right across the street from Shingawa Station, one Tokyo’s major transportation hubs, you can find the Akita Bisaikan, a building selling crafts and agricultural products from Akita.

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The Akita Bisaikan also has an attached restaurant, which serves the sake sampler we’d come for.

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Yet another characteristic shared by wine and sake is that both work best as an accompaniment to food. Also, taking advantage of an all-you-can-drink deal on an empty stomach is about as certain a recipe for a hangover as we’ve ever found (ranking just slightly lower in potency than the combination of being told “I think we should see other people” and “Let’s stay friends!”), so we decided to order a few plates of food too, most of which were representatives of Akita’s local cuisine.

We started off with skewers of hinaidori, Akita’s regional variety of chicken praised nationwide for its juicy sweetness, plus some hinaidori chicken soup.

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Also on the menu is field caviar, the seeds of the herb bassia scoparia.

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We also got an order of sushi. Akita isn’t particularly famous for it, but we’ve found very few situations in life that aren’t tremendously improved by having a plate of sushi.

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The 500-yen sampler gives you access to a bottomless cup of three types of Akita-produced sake, with the standard two hour time limit for all-you-can-drink systems in Japan. Sadly the offer isn’t on the table every day, as it’s only available on the first Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of each month. On the plus side, the types of sake included in the set change every month, so there’s plenty of reason to make repeated visits.

You’re given a glass set in a small box called a masu. This make it easier to fill the glass to the very top, plus helps catch any run off so that you can enjoy it later, kind of like the aluminum cup with a little extra malt in it at 1950s-style diners.

▼ Before

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▼ And after

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Instead of having to flag down a waiter and lose valuable drinking time while they wait for him to refill their glass, customers instead serve themselves by ladling out whichever type of sake they want from the wooden vats they’re stored in.

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When we stopped by, we were able to try Hiraizumi, Ryozeki Shumon, and Chokaizan, brewed in the Akita towns of Nikaho, Yuzawa, and Yurihonjo, respectively. All were dry, in keeping with the popular trend in sake, and while we enjoyed each one, our favorite of the bunch was Chokaizan.

▼ Chokaizan

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Crisp and refreshing, there’s also a detectable sweetness to it. Chokaizan was so smooth that we had to make a conscious effort to pace ourselves, since before we knew it we were on our third refill of it.

The next dates for the Akita Bisaikan’s sake sampler will be May 5-7. There’s one important thing to remember, though, which is that it’s available by reservation only, so you’ll need to make a reservation.

We realize it’s a little bit of a pain, but it’s still a heck of a lot less hassle than going all the way up to Akita.

Restaurant information
Akita Bisaikan / あきた美彩館
Address: Tokyo-to, Minato-ku, Takanawa 4-10-8, Keikyu Dai 7 Building, Wing Takanawa West 3, 1st floor
東京都港区高輪4-10-8 京急第7ビル ウィング高輪WEST-3 1F
Telephone 03-6450-3030
Open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (lunch), 5 p.m.-11 p.m. (dinner)

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