Walking on Fire at Hakkaisan’s Hiwatari Festival

shintoAfter my arrival in Niigata, I was invited to visit the nearby Hakkaisan Son Jinja Shrine to join in a festival. The god of Hakkaisan Mountain is enshrined there and worshiped by locals. It sounded like a wonderful way to spend a fall afternoon. However, I started to worry a bit when I learned the festival was called “Hiwatari taisai “ or “walking on fire” festival.

After a bit of research, learned the festival has been going on yearly for over 200 years and that walking on the hot coals is an act to pray for wellbeing, protection and health in the coming year. I decided firmly that I would enjoy watching the action but would not be walking on hot coals myself. There was a large crowd gathered at the festival when I arrived.

feetI saw many festival goers walking around barefoot in preparation for the big event. After a beautiful procession of shinto priests, dignitaries and even an ogre (oni), the fire was lit. The flames were soon so high and the heat so intense that the crowd had to move back from the fence. When I saw the huge fire and billowing smoke, I began to question the sanity of the people lining up to walk on the coals, and I took a moment to re-confirm with myself that I would not be walking. When the fire died down, two paths were raked through the coals and sprinkled with salt to temper the heat.



Then it began – people, lots of people, started walking in two lines though what remained of the fire. Senior citizens, children and everyone in between was walking across a path through the hot embers. After a few minutes, a colleague simply took me by the arm and led me to a place in a long line of people. Before I could protest, my shoes were off and I knew there was no going back.


Soon I found myself face to face with the glowing embers. As we approached, each participant received a purification blessing above their head from an officiant waving an onusa (a paper streamer wand used in shinto ceremonies). Before I knew it, I was across and other than my toasty soles getting covered in ash, I was no worse for wear.

Even though I firmly decided just to observe, sometimes circumstances conspire to get you involved, and hopefully a year of wellbeing and health will be my reward!

Winter is Coming! Prepping for Snow at Hakkaisan

Hakkaisan Sake Brewery is located in Minami Uonuma, Niigata – one of the snowiest places in Japan. The snow can pile up to 8 feet or more during the depths of winter. As such, they take winter very seriously here. One sure sign that winter is coming is the appearance of “Yuki Gakoi” (雪囲い). Loosely translated as snow enclosure, Yuki Gakoi is mostly seen around trees and bushes. Using rope and stakes, support structures are built to protect branches and whole trees from being crushed or damaged from the weight of heavy snow.

The finished Yuki Gakoi enclosures have a sculptural quality to them and a beauty in their own right. The attention to aesthetic details for work-a-day objects is something you see often in traditional Japanese culture, and Yuki Gakoi is not different. Check out these pictures below to get an idea of traditional Yuki Gakoi here is snow country.

Now, all we need is a little snow…







A Very Good Place to Start: Rice Milling at Hakkaisan

Vertical Rice Milling machine.

Vertical Rice Milling machine.

When you learn something as complex as sake brewing as I am, it’s good to start at the very beginning. For me, that means my time with Hakkaisan starts with sake rice milling. To understand why sake rice is milled at all, it is important to know that sake rice is somewhat different from eating rice. The outer layers of the sake rice grain contain more of the fats and proteins, while the starch is more concentrated in the core of the grain. The starch is what can be converted to sugars and subsequently to delicious sake. Rice milling or polishing allows us to isolate the starch. This starchy core of the rice grain is called shinpaku, which means “white heart”.

The percentage to which the rice is milled is called seimaibuai and this percentage is also a factor in the sake classification system. More milling to a smaller size can qualify as a more premium grade of sake. Rice is milled in the “Seimaikoujo” or Rice Milling Facility. Hakkaisan has 6 rice milling machines which run pretty much 24/7 and each machine holds just under 2 tons of genmai (whole grain sake rice).

Before and after rice milling.

Before and after rice milling.

How does it work? Fed by gravity from above, the sake rice grains cascade over the sides of the spinning wheel where the friction scrapes a bit of the outer rice layer away. The rice grains are transported back to the top and cascade over the wheel again and again until the desired rice milling rate is achieved.

One of the most striking things about our rice milling machines is how tall they are… about 3 stories high! The constant hum of the machines can be heard in the background. Rice arrives from the farmers to the milling facility in heavy 30 kilo (66lbs bags). These bags are untied and poured into the milling machine grain feeder. The rice is then processed in the mill for various lengths of time depending on the desired final milling rate. For example, a milling rate of 50% rice grain remaining takes approximately 48 hours.

After milling rice is bagged up, stacked and is ready for resting.

After milling rice is bagged up, stacked and is ready for resting.

When the rice is milled to a smaller size, it naturally takes a longer time, but one reason for this is that the milling wheel is changed to a lower speed. As the rice grain gets smaller and smaller, it becomes more fragile and more prone to cracking, so it must be handled more delicately.

Immediately after milling, the rice is re-bagged into 30 kilo bags and allowed to rest and cool slowly. The friction from the milling process leaves rice noticeably warm to the touch. From this point on, cooling the rice slowly is very important as rapid chilling at this stage can crack the rice. After up to two weeks of resting, the milled rice is ready to head into the kura for processing. Last but not least, each batch of rice is always tested for rice grain moisture content and individual rice grain average weight both before and after milling.

My big takeaway is that although the actual milling is done by a machine, there is a lot of testing and hands-on attention to detail and coordination that is needed to successfully manage this process and produce the best milled sake rice!

30339051502_53dc4e8eb3_oTimothy Sullivan, Hakkaisan Brand Ambassador

Season of Greetings


Its almost the time of seasonal greetings!
Festive and tasteful gift suggestion from Hakkaisan.
These are Hyotan bottled Junmaiginjo and Ginjo sake. Hakkaisan sake is very elegant and clean, it goes wonderfully with roasted meat and savory vegetable dish of this season.
A Hyotan bottle contains 180ml of sake, and if you like, you can make the sake warm after take off the wrap. Bathe the bottle directly in a pot with hot water for few minutes. The warmth takes the edges off of sake and make round flavor, also warmth allows you to tastes the sweetness of sake.
The beautiful color of ultramarine bottle would be a nice accent at party table.

A Year at Hakkaisan Brewery

My first glimpse of Hakkaisan Mountain (back right) as I arrive for a year at Hakkaisan Brewery.

My first glimpse of Hakkaisan Mountain (back right) as I arrive for a year at Hakkaisan Brewery.

It’s been over three years since I started as Hakkaisan Brand Ambassador.  My work in this role has been to travel all around the world to introduce Hakkaisan Brewery, it’s products and company culture as well as to do all manner of sake education.  

To deepen my understanding of all these things even more, I’m spending one year away from travel to live at Hakkaisan Sake Brewery in Minami Uonuma City, Niigata Prefecture.  

My Year at Hakkaisan is all about cultural activities.  Primarily, I’ll be learning the art and science of sake brewing from the Hakkaisan Kurabito (sake brewers).  Every few weeks, I’ll move to a new department in the brewery to study a step in the sake production process.  From rice milling all the way through sake mash pressing, I’ll get hands-on experience and learn from the experts.

Inside Hakkaisan Sake Brewery

Inside Hakkaisan Sake Brewery

In addition to my time in the brewery,  I’ll be exploring the local community of Minami Uonuma, Niigata – about 90 mins from Tokyo.  I will visit local festivals and shrines and all kinds of community events.  This area is perhaps most famous for receiving vast amounts of snow in the wintertime – sometimes up to 8 feet of snow on the ground at any one time! Needless to say, I’m sure I’ll be in for some fun new experiences.  

If you’d like to follow along on my adventure, visit Hakkaisan.com every week to see a new blog update and check our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!

30339051502_53dc4e8eb3_oTimothy Sullivan, Hakkaisan Brand Ambassador

Joy of Sake ~ Gold Award for Tokubetsu Junmai ~


We are proudly announcing that our Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Junmai sake awarded GOLD AWARD in 2016 U.S. National Sake Appraisal Sake Competition.

U.S. National Sake Appraisal conducts annual sake competition in Hawaii where every level of Junmai and fortification of alcohol sake which are ranked into Gold, Silver, and Bronze Awards.
The Joy of Sake, a tasting event, exhibit about 400 kinds of sake which entered to the sake competition. The Joy of Sake is coming to Tokyo in November 2nd!! This is an incredible opportunity for sake lovers to try out many different sake at once and experience diversity of sake.

Joy of Sake Tokyo

Find Hakkaisan Sake, and let us know your thoughts!


A Night of Sake ~Enjoy the finest Japanese sake from top brewers in support of charity~

Canadian, Danish, German, and South African Chamber of Commerce in Japan are going to held special charity sake tasting night.

“Come and join a fantastic Japanese-themed event with an interesting network of people from all over the world, and support NADIA, a charity helping those in the affected earthquake regions of northern Honshu, Japan. There will be door prizes including sake-related products and Japanese Inn ryokan stays. A buffet will be served.”

Location: Tokyo American Club
Date: Friday, September 16, 2016
Time: 19:00 ~ 21:30
Dress: Business Casual (Cool Biz)
Price for participating Chamber Members: JPY 8,500
Price for non-members: JPY 9,500

Please register from http://www.cccj.or.jp/en/event/night-sake


2016 Fall/Winter Trade Shows and Tasting Events

We are about to getting into Sake brewing season this year, so do trade shows and tasting events. Fall is busy time for Hakkaisan International Team!! Hakkaisan will travel the world to make appearances in trade shows and tasting events this fall as well.  We are looking forward to see you out there! Join us for experiencing the world of sake! KANPAI!

September 17th – 18th : Atlanta Japan Fest –  Duluth, GA, USA  http://www.japanfest.org/

October 2nd : Wine House Los Angels in-store sake sampling – Los Angels, CA, USA https://www.winehouse.com/result.php?s=nw,CLASSES%2FEVENTS&d=CLASSES/EVENTS       The event information should be updated soon

October 8th and 9th : Milano Sake Fest – Milano, Italy https://laviadelsake.it/sake-festival/

October 22nd to 24th : Salon du Sake – Paris, France http://salon-du-sake.fr/

November 2nd : Joy of Sake in Japan (sake exhibit only) – Tokyo, Japan https://www.joyofsake.com/tokyo.html

November 3rd – 4th :  Grand Wine Experience Philipines https://www.facebook.com/events/314298245403440/                                                                    The event information should be updated soon

November  :  Niigata Sake no Jin in Hong Kong

Salon du Sake 2015



Sake tasting session at CIA sommelier summit

Hakkaisan was invited to the sommelier summit held on April 25th and 26th at Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, CA, USA. Over 100 sommeliers were attended.

This is an annual wine event focuses on one country and its traditional alcohol beverage. This year was Japan and Japanese sake and shochu (spirit). Educational tasting session was held with eight Japanese sake breweries and each brought one kind of sake for tasting. It was a great opportunity to introduce sake world to the wine world, and was interesting to see how wine professionals percept and accept Japanese sake. This opportunity to meet many wine professionals, and see how Japanese sake was taken positively by them left us a great challenge; how can we introduce the wonderful world of sake the way we did here in Napa?

It’s a big challenge, but we are inspired and want to conquer the challenge!

IMG_3432 IMG_3434


Announcement from Hakkaisan

Announcement from Hakkaisan (download PDF)

Ladies and Gentlemen,
I hope this letter finds you well. We have an exciting announcement to make!
Hakkaian Brewery is supporting marine adventurer, Mr. Kojiro Shiraishi, who challenges VENDEE GLOBE 2016. We are inspired by his passion and detennination toward the race and are fully supporting his challenge. VENDEE GLOBE is the one of the toughest yacht race in the world that held once every four years. This solitary yacht race goes around the world without stopping and without refilling of any material. Mr. Shiraishi once completed the race with the record of the youngest racer at the age of 26. He has been challenging in different solitary yacht races after his record braking VENDEE GLOBE, and Hakkaisan continuously stay by his side to support.

On May 29, 2016, he will take off the TRANSAT NEW YORK – VENDEE which is preliminary skirmish of VENDEE GLOBE. We would be extremely appreciated your warm applause on his Journey.

Preliminary skirmish of VENDEE GLOBE 2016 – 2017, it is a solitary yacht race across the Atlantic Ocean without stopping or refilling of any material. The race starts from New York, USA and reaches Les Sables-d’Olonne, FRANCE by June 11, 2016, and that is the qualification to the VENDEE GLOBE.
• Take off from North Cove Marina (385 South End Ave #7G, New York, NY 10280)
• Race starts May 29, 2016 at 11 :00 in Eastern Standard Time
• GOAL is Les Sables-d’Olonne, FRANCE
• Time limit is June 11, 2016 in France time
• Distance is about 3100 miles (appx. 5,000km)


VENDEE GLOBE is designed by Philippe Jeantot, the champion of BOC Challenge for two consecutive years. First race was held in 1989, and it will be the eighth race this year. Yachts starts from Les Sables-d’Olonne, FRANCE on June 6, 2016 and will take about 80 days (appx. 2,000hours) to race around the world in solidary and come back to the starting harbor in Les Sables-d’Olonne, FRANCE.
Yacht is about 60 feet (appx. 18m) and a lonely race that goes around southern hemisphere which is about 26,000 mile (appx. 48,000km).
Designed course starts Les Sables-d’Olonne, FRANCE, go south in Atlantic Ocean and through the Cape of Good Hope, then come out to Indian Ocean and through south side of Australia/New Zealand, and out to South Pacific Ocean, then through in between the Drake Passage and Cape Hom, and come back up North in Atlantic Ocean to aim the goal of Les Sables-d’Olonne, FRANCE.



Hakkaisan Brewery Co., Ltd