Most readers will know Nara for its countless bowing deer, ancient temples and picturesque traditional streets. But did you also know Nara is famous for its local cuisine, in particular sake and some unique rice-based dishes? Well, let’s get acquainted with this side of Nara on a “culinary tour”!
Our first stop for this culinary tour of Nara brings us to Harushika Brewery in the picturesque Naramachi district south of Kofukuji. The brewery is a popular destination for many foreign and Japanese visitors alike who visit for a taste of its award-winning sake. The tasting session, which is expertly overseen by English-speaking staff, allows you to taste a variety of delicious sake as well as traditional Japanese pickles in sake lees for only a few hundred yen. The brewery is open from 8:15 to 17:15 —except for holidays and the 11th of each month— during which you can have a private tasting at any time. Before heading off to our next stop, you will receive a small cup as a memento and the option get some sake and food from the shop.
Next up is Umenoyado Brewery a bit south of Nara’s center. In its over-120-years history, this brewery has made it its mission to produce small-volume yet high-quality sake to this day. The brewery offers an English guided tour that allows you to witness the great care and uncompromising method it has maintained throughout these years for the production of its sake. Afterwards, it is of course hard to say no to yet another tasting session. Umenoyado is open from 8:30 to 17:30 throughout the week, except for Sundays and holidays. To find out more about tour times, give them a call +81-745-69-3550.
Nara cuisine at its finest
The restaurant Hiraso, located back in Naramachi, is a great place to try two traditional dishes: persimmon leaf sushi (kaki no ha) as well as rice porridge and tea. The restaurant is in an equally traditional building, which also houses their small shop where you can for example buy some kaki no ha sushi as a gift. Hiraso is open every day, except for Monday, from 10:00 to 20:30 with a last order at 8:00pm. During lunch you can order a delicious set menu that consists of both rice tea-porridge and kaki no ha sushi.
Cha gayu, as rice porridge and tea is referred to in Japanese, is made with rice, delicious roasted green tea and a bit of salt for taste. When your dish is served the rice and tea will be served separately as you can enjoy the dish either hot or cold depending on your own preference. It may seem as a very simple dish, but it is nicely moist with a golden color and truly rich in flavor of the tea. Once you pour as much or little as you wish your tea over the rice, a wonderful fragrance rises from the bowl.
Kaki no ha sushi (persimmon leaf sushi) on the other hand is a gastronomic potpourri of sea (fish), mountain (leafs) and land (rice) creating a harmonic dish. In general sushi is made by tightly pressing fine sushi rice in a square wooden mold. It is then covered by a fresh raw fish (often mackerel, salmon or trout) and pressed once more before the block of sushi is cut into individual bite-size pieces. In Nara, they carefully wrap each block in salted persimmon leafs and it is pressed once again. Although the leafs are not meant for eating they enhance the quality of the sushi with its medicinal quantities as well as flavor. As you unwrap the sushi you will notice the deep colors of the fish and a slight persimmon fragrance.
Apart from Hiraso there are various shops along Nara’s main street towards Nara Park that sell sets of kaki no ha sushi in case you would like to enjoy one or two along the way or want to bring some for friends and family.