I wrote this last year and originally posted it on another blog.

December 2, 2006

Once outside the local train station, I turn right to start the climb up the hill to my house. It is very late at night and I’ve caught the train back from Tokyo to the southern suburbs. The road is almost silent. The sidewalk is clean and long, neatly marking the landscaped hill, winding past the comfortable, bourgeois, modern Japanese family homes. The night is clear and crisp, and I walk slowly up the hill. My skin is cool under the full moon, but my belly is warm. Tonight was the bonenkai for my sake tasting group.

A bonenkai is a “forget the year party,” where everyone lets their hair down, reflects on the past year, and gets stinking drunk. Every group in Japan has one in December. Work for a large corporation? Bonenkai. Have a ballroom dancing club? Bonenkai. Attend a sake tasting and lecture once a month at a sake bar in Tokyo? Bonenkai.

The entrance to the bar has a display of sake casks. These traditional symbols of plenty and spiritual blessing contrast with the hyper-modern wood and stainless steel interior of the bar. As we turn the corner and see the casks with their festive kanji and artwork, my friend girlishly exclaims, “Ah! Look at this one!” I am delighted with her delight. After admiring a tiny figure of a deer on one of the small casks, we enter the familiar modern and welcoming space.

Directly ahead is a huge arrangement of bare tree branches and fall flowers. The glass vase itself is three-feet tall. Beside the massive arrangement is Mori-san, the bar’s handsome young sake sommelier, who takes our names and our money for the tasting and dinner. He hunches over the list in the happy-to-be-organized manner of some Japanese men. But Mori-san is unusually tall for a Japanese man, and has the build of a wide-receiver. I wonder at this while he marks down our payment. Then, I am distracted by the display of the treasures: the brown sake bottles lined up behind the bar, dressed in labels of shiny gold and silver kanji, or in simple black ink calligraphy on buff, hand-made washi paper with ragged edges. Above the bar is a cool swath of white, back-lit, semi-transparent panels, like the cool light of joy glowing over my upcoming inebriation.

We greet John, the American sake expert who holds the sake tasting dinners each month. John has been given awards from the Japanese Central Brewer’s Union for promotion and knowledge of sake. He has the sturdy, reassuring build of a comfortable, satisfied middle-age; it is a body well-loved by a fellow human being, well-fed by decades of Thanksgivings and bonenkai, and a body which moves with the confidence of a man who knows what he wants and does what he loves.

My friend and I sit down and greet others we have met here before. I am thrilled to see Patricia, an attractively mussed and casual woman who always has an interesting story to tell. John leans over our table and tells us about a tasting game where we must try three sakes and answer questions about their provenance and characteristics. Patricia and I jump up to drink.

The sakes are in katakuchi, or oversized red lacquerware pouring bowls. I pick up the first bowl to pour for Patricia and my hands feel electrified and my mouth is watering. There’s a particularly Japanese delight in reminding one of the touch of material to skin, the intimacy of hand-drawn ink on paper, the thumbprint pressed into rough clay, the warmth of lacquerware in the hand and on the lips. We taste the three sakes one by one; I furiously write some notes. Which is a junmai daiginjo? Which was made from the softest water? Which is the most expensive/least expensive? The paper lists ten impenetrable questions. I sit down with a small kikijoko (tasting cup), of mystery sake B and mull it over. The genius of this game is we are forced to be in our mouths for a moment. There’s only the sake and me.

Patricia shows me some photos off her digital camera. She has been taking photos of old wooden signs and has some shots of a trip today to Kamakura to see the Great Buddha. One of her photos was taken inside the body of the huge bronze sculpture. In the photo, two lovely Japanese girls look up at light pouring in from a hole in the side of the Buddha. Their cheekbones are round and pink with youth. Patricia is telling me some stories about her collections of photos, of aprons, of classic Japanese literature, of trips to sake breweries. I suggest I might be a good luggage porter on her next trip and she laughs. As she looks me over, I realize that I have been collected.

Tonight John is not lecturing about sake; tonight we gather to celebrate. Our group is half Japanese and half ex-pats, mostly Americans. We fall on each other’s company like long-lost friends, even though most of us are strangers. Japanese etiquette requires one to pour from small pitchers for other people; this has the effect of an introduction. The first of tonight’s six tasting sakes (the high-class escorts to our happiness) is placed on the table. I hold up the tokkuri of sake, turn to a young man near me, and say, “Ready?” Like most young men I meet now, at first his eyes elide right over me. I see myself in his eyes: I am unremarkable and nearing an overripe middle-age. But later he will find himself laughing with me; he will see past my outside. He will have the dawning of an individual on his consciousness. What is first another animal, a challenge to one’s space, can become, with sake, the sudden light of the familiar, the recognizable.

Mori-san, with his shock of a young body, brings the second, then the third sake along with each course of dinner. On one of his visits to our table, Patricia teases him about his blue denim apron wondering if she can buy one like it. He smiles briefly, but moves on. “You sure it’s the apron you want?” I mutter, and Patricia laughs out loud. When Mori-san returns with the fourth sake, Patricia says to Mori-san in Japanese, “She really likes you.” He glances at me, lets his mouth curve up only enough to be polite, and pulls some bottles off the table. I scold her, “Now you’ve embarrassed him.” She just gives me a rumpled and wanton laugh and doesn’t apologize; this pleases me.

John grades our scrawled answers to the test. I am delighted to have five correct answers. I glow knowing I am beginning to understand the pleasure of sake. Pleasures must be known with knowledge and history. As one ages, one loses some of the body’s acute awareness, but the mind fills in the present with the delights of what has come before. The mind feels the warm alcohol and whispers to me of every drink I’ve had before. My mind tells my body how it is alive and reminds my body of every place it was ever touched. I have learned to taste the sake with memory.

Once we have eaten the dinner and have tasted most of the sakes–with refills–John comes and sits with us. We discuss the current market for sake, which is dwindling in Japan. The Japanese youth see sake as an old man’s drink; whereas for all of us ex-pats, finely made sake is a new and exciting pleasure. I keep pouring. They keep pouring. Our hands are a little shaky now. John is talking in semi-mournful tones about the state of the sake industry. He loves his sake and the brewers he knows as friends. I look up at the rows of the brown bottles. These are not industrial sakes, churned out with mechanization. John serves us the sixth sake made with the shizuku technique, which requires the patience and expense of allowing the fermented rice and water to drip through cloth, instead of pressing it quickly. The slow drip of the sake preserves more of its flavor and essence. We drink this and wonder at the goodness of art.

And then it is time to go. I feel the inebriation passing from pleasant glow to sloppy fatigue. My friend and I walk to the train, follow the patterns of stairways at station changes. The fluorescent lights and the train’s movements do not seem real. In my mind, I am still back beneath the flower arrangement with Mori-san bringing sake. At my stop, I say goodnight to my friend, and step off the red train.

Now I am half-way up the hill, and my sake level is back to a pleasant buzz. I pass a neighbor’s house with bonsai trees in the front yard. He has them arranged in three rows of six, perfectly manicured and tended. I crave more wildness than those cambium sculptures. They strain at their little pots and urge against the wires that bind their branches into accepted aesthetic forms. Finally, I reach the street light nearest my house, the one to whose public light I must close my bedroom curtains. I stand beneath the light and look up at my house. My husband will be home soon from his voyages at sea. I have so many things I want to do. I will have so many things to tell him behind the curtains.

But I won’t sleep tonight; I’ll probably check the computer in our home office. I’ll probably find a newly released acoustic version of a song by a musician that I enjoy. I’ll listen to the song, an old protest song first recorded the year I was born: this birth song will be transformed by his familiar voice. And like the sake and the friends in the bar, my pleasure will be compounded by the new sensations becoming familiar and amalgamating with what I have felt before in the washi-paper blues texture of this stranger-friend’s voice. I’ll have six different dai-ginjo sakes in my blood. I’ll have my familiar things about me and my familiar body and my familiar thoughts. And the peaceful suburban night will pass into the day. The Japanese call it the breaking of the night. I shall not be broken, but something will be glowing, circling the Earth to greet me, to dawn on my extraordinary happiness.