It bring us at Japan Cheapo much sadness and wallet-ache to announce that one of the best free tours in Japan is no longer free. The Suntory Yamazaki Distillery has reopened after extensive renovations, and added a price tag of 1,000 yen to its previous free tours. An updated version of a 2015 post follows:

Nestled into the base of historic Mount Tenno, where pristine water filters through the bamboo forests, is the Yamazaki Whisky Distillery owned by Suntory. This distillery, opened in 1923 by Shinjiro Torii, is the birthplace of commercial whisky in Japan. There are a number of reasons to visit this distillery on the border of Kyoto and Osaka prefectures. The scenery is picturesque, and the tasting bar has a number of whiskies on offer that aren’t available anywhere else, for example. But for cheapos, undoubtedly the main reason to go is to take part in a free 1,000 yen guided tour of the factory.

The factory tours run every day (except for maintenance days and the New Year shutdown period) and are extremely popular. It’s a good idea to book well in advance, especially on weekends, when there are fewer tours run. The tours are given in Japanese, but English, French, and Chinese audio guides are available. Many of the staff also speak basic English. Be aware that some of the tours start as early as 10 am, which may not be your preferred time to enjoy whisky.

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After signing in, you’ll join the rest of the Suntory whisky tour and hear about the history of the distillery. Then, the tour walks through the fermentation, distillation and aging areas of the factory. Since whisky distillation relies on the changing seasons and temperatures, be sure to dress warmly in winter, or bring a hand fan in summer, as there is no climate control in the factory. During weekdays, you can see the staff scurry around tending to the tremendous mash tuns and gleaming copper stills.

Next is the aging warehouse, which is filled with a gorgeous whisky scent that, apparently, studies have shown make people feel happy and relaxed. Here, among the long rows of oak barrels, you’ll see one filled with single malt that has been aging since 1924! After exiting the aging warehouse, you’ll see a gorgeous landscaped pond that showcases the most important ingredient of the whisky—Yamazaki’s delicious water.

The factory walk takes around 25 minutes, and really does offer plenty of information, but now that we’ve feigned enough interest in whisky production comes the part that everyone is really here for: whisky tastings! The last part of the tour is in a guest room where everyone (over the age of twenty, of course) is given three glasses to enjoy. The whiskies on offer may change, but typically include The Yamazaki Single Malt and a Suntory Kakubin. All the drinks are offered with soda but can also be drank straight, on ice, with water, or if you want to mix yourself a highball, with the green tea or juice provided. Be sure to also enjoy the nut mix and chocolates provided at the tables too. They’re delicious (and the illustrations on the chocolate wrappers are super cute)!

Sadly, despite the drinks and snacks and great jazz soundtrack, you won’t be able to stay long in the guest room chatting and making Bill Murray impersonations (“For relaxing times…make it Suntory times”). The next tour group will come along soon to have their own tastings. In that case, it’s time to head to the gift shop where Suntory products from around the world can be purchased (including, interestingly, Jack Daniels Bourbon), alongside whisky glasses, wooden pieces made from old oak barrels, snacks and omiyage souvenir gifts.

The same building that houses the gift shop also has a small museum talking about the history of Japanese whisky. If the tastings weren’t enough, then head to the ground floor where over 100 varieties can be purchased at the Whisky Library. You’ll again see long rows of aging whisky at the Library, but this time in backlit-bottles, rather than oak barrels. The Library is freely accessible even if you are not part of a tour, but now reservations must be made in advance. While you enjoy your limited edition tasting, be sure to raise your glass to the statue of Shinjiro Torii, who made this all possible.

The Suntory Yamazaki Distillery is about a ten-minute walk from the JR Yamazaki or Hankyu Oyamazaki stations. Drunk driving is a serious offence in Japan (as is drunk cycling!), so taking public transport is recommended. The tour can be booked over the phone or online in English.

Is it still worth going now that it costs money?

The Suntory Yamazaki Distillery may have been a victim of its own success. In the last decade, Japanese whisky’s popularity has grown around the world, and the number of visitors to the distillery, both local and global, reflected that. The distillery shut down for the entire month of December in 2015 for renovations ad upgrades to its facilities. The new 1,000-yen price tag for the previously free tour may be due to the costs of these renovations.

The other major change since this post was first published, is that reservations are now required even to visit the museum, library and gift shop on site. This part is still free to visit (although tastings at the library are paid), and fortunately part of Suntory’s upgrades included its website, so it is now possible to make online reservations in English.

1,000 yen for 3 whisky tastings and a tour is still good value. There are other distilleries around Japan that offer free tours, but probably none that offer free tastings. If you are a whisky aficionado, you’re probably more interested in visiting the Library where the limited edition whiskies are—and you would need to pay for those tastings anyway. At any rate, the new price tag hasn’t dampened the popularity of the tour, with weekends booked out solidly for months in advance. And the rest of the Yamazaki area is beautiful and worth a day trip. So we at Japan Cheapo still say: sure, go to Yamazaki!

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