Only indicated by a small sign out the front of the premises, Bar Ikioi in Monbetsu specializes in sake - and lots of it. The bar stocks brews from all over the country, including from sources right there in Hokkaido itself.
The bar's owner, Kaoru Sasaki, informed me on my visit that for quite some time, Hokkaido's sake didn't have a great reputation. The rice produced in this part of Japan wasn't of the same caliber as other areas of the country, and thus the sake suffered too. All that has changed in recent years though, and sake breweries in Hokkaido have been growing in quality and prestige. On the evening that I visited the bar, I tried sake from three different parts of Japan - Miyagi, Hiroshima and Hokkaido. Perhaps tellingly, my favorite brew of the ones I enjoyed was the one from right there in Hokkaido, and after having lived in Niigata for the past few years I feel like I've tried many brews from many different breweries.
Sasaki-san also takes the time to explain the process of sampling sake to you. It's treated almost like a wine tasting - the different brews were paired with different snacks to really bring out certain flavor profiles, and factors like the sake clarity are emphasized. There are around seventy sake varieties available at the bar at any one time, so you're bound to come across something that you enjoy.
If you're looking for a way to warm up in this very chilly winter destination, a few sake samples will do the trick - and it's wonderful having them served by someone who has such a passion for the beverage.
Bar Ikioi is located in central Monbetsu, under fifteen minutes by car from the Okhotsk Monbetsu Airport. Rental vehicles and taxis are available from the airport itself.
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