If you still think that traveling around the Japan will cost you an arm, a leg and a kidney, then you’re not looking hard enough. There are free tours available in the country, most of which will give you a taste of Japanese culture–which can be in a glass of whisky.
Located in the outskirts of Kyoto, the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery holds guided tours within their facilities without charge. The tour provides an hour-long look into the process by which the “best whisky in the world” is distilled.
The tour is conducted in Japanese, but there are audio guides in English, Chinese, and French as you walk through different parts of the distillery–from the mash house and fermentation room, to the distillation room, and finally to the aging warehouse where the whisky in the casks “breathes and slumbers through the cycles of four seasons.” The maturation takes 10 to 20 years. It’s a painstaking process that has produced the world-renowned whisky, all thanks to its founder Shinjiro Torii who began building the distillery in 1923 in Yamazaki for its soft, natural spring water and damp climate.
At the end of the tour, the mostly Japanese group was led to a dining hall where different single malt whiskies were ready for tasting. I’m not much of a whisky drinker and my husband made reservations to the tour more out of curiosity (and the free whisky in the end), but I think he was also looking forward to repeating the line of comedy great Bill Murray: “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.”
To know more about the tour, visit the Suntory website. Tours are usually held daily unless there is a scheduled plant maintenance. Reservations are necessary and accepted up to the day before the tour. Reserve your place on a tour by calling +81-75-962-1423. It’s a Japanese number and we only had our hotel in Osaka make the reservations for us a few days before the tour date.
How to get to Suntory Yamazaki Distillery: Click here for the map. From Osaka: (1) JR Osaka Station to JR Yamazaki Station (of JR Kyoto Line), about 25 minutes; (2) Hankyu Umeda Station to Hankyu Oyamazaki Station, about 40 minutes. From Kyoto: JR Kyoto Station to JR Yamazaki Station (about 15 minutes)
About another free tour: There must be something in the water of Kyoto. The ancient capital of Japan is home to many sake breweries and we also took a free guided tour of the Yamamoto Honke Sake Brewery, which is located a few train stops away from Fushimi Inari Shrine. I wrote about it for in-flight magazine, Smile (link here). After the tour (yes, there was free sake sampling, too), have dinner in its restaurant, Torisei, which has some of the best chicken skewers you’ll get to taste. Just be ready for the long line of locals.