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NYC Sake Meetup
Photo: Friends sharing sake at Aburiya Kinnosuke in New York City.

As the cup was raised to meet the bottle, I realized what I had been missing, what had kept me from really enjoying sake in Washington, D.C.—sharing it with old friends and fellow sake lovers.

But I get ahead of myself…

I hadn’t been drinking much sake since I returned to the States. I wanted to taste and enjoy it, but something limbic just wasn’t happening. I drank a decent junmai ginjo one day at home, but it felt off. Had I fallen out of love? The air was different, the food was different. Perhaps I was different. I began to think that all those sake memories were only dreams. Perhaps I really didn’t like sake as much as I had thought. I glanced sadly at my tea tansu filled with guinomi (sake cups), each seasonally appropriate, pink hand-blown glass in summer, an autumn Kutani porcelain, winter Bizen-style—a bit of earth and fire. No, this neglect would not do.

And then my pal Etsuko (Tokyofoodcast) wrote: she and Ted were coming to New York after New Year’s. Would we like to meet the NYC sake gang? Choo-choo, all aboard, we were going to New York!

Sakaya NYC
Photo: Sake otaku. Rick, Hiroko, Etsuko, me, and Ted.

Etsuko, Ted, Carlos, and I started the sake evening by visiting the New York Church of Sake: Sakaya NYC. Rick and Hiroko must have been bemused as we gushed about the beautiful shop and as we cooed over many favorites from Japan, now dressed in new import labels. We made off with a modest haul. The big mail order is to come. Needless to say, if you are into sake and live somewhere near New York, you need to get to this shop sugu ni.

Sakaya NYC
Photo: Sakaya NYC.

Then we moved on to Aburiya Kinnosuke to meet old and new friends and their significant others. What joy to reunite with Kazuko from the Tokyo Sake Meetup Group and finally to meet Tim from UrbanSake.com. Later Rick and Hiroko arrived to complete the table.

NYC Sake Meetup
Photo: Sake convo at Aburiya Kinnosuke.

NYC Sake Meetup
Photo: Kokuryu junmai ginjo.

NYC Sake Meetup
Photo: Tokyofoodcast and UrbanSake.com. In my mind’s eye, I always see Etsuko laughing.

NYC Sake Meetup
Photo: Homemade oboro dofu (soft “cloud” tofu).

Yes, the sake was delicious, but I was suffering from an extremely rare bug that kept me from eating and drinking with my normal gusto. I had tofu, some chazuke (green tea and dashi on rice), and sipped demurely the sakes on offer. Tim has a good recap of the tastings on his blog. Nevertheless, demure or not, I was sipping and tasting a renewal of my enthusiasm for sake and especially for the people who promote it in the States and who just love this mysterious beverage.

NYC Sake Meetup
Photo: Chazuke garnishes, baby sardines, parsley (why—I don’t know), some nori, and a lovely, fat, salty umeboshi.

I write this at home, between greeting the dishwasher repairman and taking down the Christmas decorations—mostly thinking of sake in 2009. Thank you otaku for helping me back to the sake fountain of happiness. Onward!

For our dear friends, M and I. A million thanks would not be enough.

Wrap me up in my oilskin and blanket,
No more ’round the docks I’ll be seen,
Just tell me olde shipmates,
I’m takin’ a trip mates,
and I’ll see ya some day in Fiddler’s Green.

—English nautical song

My first impression on my first trip to Western Australia was dust and unfinished roads.

We stepped outside the Perth airport and our friend, M, loaded our bags into his Mercedes-Benz. M’s otherwise elegant car was covered, caked really, in orange dust. I found this exciting, the promise of an adventure, but a comfortable one—how much trouble could one get in sitting in cream-colored leather seats? M told us we would have a two-and-a-half hour trip to the house. When I got into the backseat, the windows were smeared on the inside. M said, “Ah, don’t mind the doggie nose prints on the windows.” I knew we had several hours in the car, but I had no idea where I was going.

M is retired from the Australian Navy; we met our Australian friends, M and his wife, I, in San Diego when M was an exchange officer on Carlos’s ship. I had developed an intense fondness for M because he would whisk Carlos off for masculine adventures involving rugby and beer, but would always return him safe. M was a wonderful guitar player who would transform a party, and most notably, a wine connoisseur. But it had been years since I saw our friends.

During one of his recent ship deployments from Japan, Carlos had visited M and I at their previous home in the suburbs of Perth. He told me stories of dinner parties with urbane friends and lots of excellent wine. We knew they had since moved to the country and had a vineyard: M’s newsletters kept us up on the progress of the grapes. Due to some quirk in my husband’s personality, however, he refused to ask M more details about where exactly the new property was located. And I refused to get involved in the planning of this trip. I had fretted over the details of so many trips; this time it was Carlos’s turn. So, because of this ridiculous marital standoff, I knew only that they lived in the “country” southeast of Perth. The word “country” meant little to me. I grew up in the country in New York State, but we could be in Manhattan in two hours and at the local mall in 30 minutes. How country was country?

Track

The car rolled along, raising dust, and we would occasionally rumble onto unpaved gravel, as if all of Western Australia were unfinished (somewhat true, actually). Our car journey felt like the pleasant unraveling of civilization; we left behind the paved world and soon saw only the varieties of the genus Eucalyptus that makes Australia so unique. Carlos and M were chatting, and I sat up and made childish farm animal sounds as we passed horses and cows and sheep. The landscape started to undulate and ripen into farms and vineyards and streams. It started to look like a gourmand paradise, promising wine, meat, and cheese.

M asks me, “So, what do you want to eat while you are here?”

I don’t hesitate: “Lamb.” Soon we are in a tiny town, a town that could almost be a set for a Western, parked outside an unambiguous sign: BUTCHER.

Butcher

We are introduced to the owner (bit of local interest to have Yanks in town). I explain I must eat lamb in great quantities because I am jonesing. The crazy Japanese don’t like it, except in Hokkaido, and even there only as thin strips of meat on a Mongolian grill—I need rare lamb chops and I need them soon.

Lamb loin chops

We leave with more meat than is strictly necessary, lamb chops, Scotch fillets of beef, sausages, bones for the dogs. The shop gives a stronger sense that, despite the pioneer feel of the town, this is a land of plenty. And our dusty rumble towards Fiddler’s Green continues.

Our friends have called their property Fiddler’s Green after the old Irish? English? nautical legend. An old salt tired of seagoing walks inland with a oar over his shoulder. When he comes to a pretty village, and the people ask him what he is carrying, he will know he has found Fiddler’s Green, a lazy paradise of music and dancing maidens, grog and fragrant tobacco.

We make final turn into the driveway, which is no more than a track to the house, and I gasp at the vines, the lovely house. M says, “Be careful with the dogs, they are huge guard dogs and might attack if you aren’t very still.” I have a sick feeling in my stomach as I open the car door. But instead of huge mastiffs, two mutts—a Laurel and Hardy team of a slim, all black, Australian cattle dog mix (wagging his tail so hard he can’t walk straight) and a Jack Russell/Fox terrier mix (who pops up on his back legs in a little dance)—come dashing out to lick us into shape.

Fiddler's Green

The air is clean, the soil that strange orange color, and the birds sound bizarre, but as I hug our hostess hello, and we roll our overstuffed bags towards the house (I hope the three bottles of sake made it ok), I have a feeling of returning home.

Lunch is a buffet of wine, cheese, green onions, cured salmon, and bread. We take a nap and then have a tour of property: we learn new words like “Jarrah” (a hardwood tree that is prized for construction and furniture). M feels lucky to have some old Jarrah trees on the property. A Snottygobble tree looks like something out of Dr. Seuss. The Peppermint Tree, with its wiry, weeping branches, has leaves that smell of mint when you crush them. The Red Gum oozes a blood-red sap. A huge kangaroo leaps effortlessly over a fence and the dish ran away with the spoon. Where am I? What is this wonderful place?

Cabernet grapes

We eat grilled lamb chops, beef, and sausage with salad for dinner. We drink M’s grenache that has aged for a few months in an oak barrel. We chat chat chat, stay up very late, and then lay outside on the grass gazing at the night sky. Here away from the banal lights of civilization, the Milky Way pours forth as generously as the wine. This is indeed a land of plenty.

Roo crossing sign

We’ve been away for two weeks in a sunny, warm, and strange land, with hyper-friendly people, excellent wine, and exotic creatures and plants. Saw a giant ‘roo, I did, leaping over a fence on our friends’ farm/vineyard. We were in Lowden (near Donnybrook and Balingup), Western Australia, about three hours south of Perth. We just got back on Saturday; I’m a bit shocked at the transition back into winter, back into the Japanese language, and wondering what Banjo and Henry are doing (woof, woof).

Grenache leaf and view

Drank our friends’ wine (the 2007 Grenache) and got to see it finally bottled after some time in French oak. More to come on that.

Balingup gourmet

Ate a lot of really great cheese and grilled lamb and bread and olives and beetroot pickles and homemade jam. My face is flaming up with rosacea from all the meat and cheese and wine. Carlos is drinking cranberry juice and eating dried cherries in hope of avoiding a flare-up of The Gout. Worth it, all very much worth it. I hope to blather on about my first trip to Australia once I get all the laundry done and make my to do list for the week.

Totally off topic:

Today, we wandered up to Yokohama Chinatown hoping to eat at a great noodle place I know (a cut noodle place where they slice the bits off the dough right into the boiling water). It was closed, but we ended up at a Sichuan place called Kyokarou Honkan and ate stir-fried soybean shoots with garlic, “homestyle” spicy tofu (jia chang dou fu), and chicken with chilies (la zi ji—that amazing dish that always stuns me, the gorgeous red chilies, the crispy chicken, the Sichuan pepper). The Chinese food jones came from our being on a Fuschia Dunlop kick (we bought her Hunan and Sichuan cookbooks with some Christmas gift certificates). We needed some ingredients to get going on the Sichuan Home Cooking Experience and had a good time showing shopkeepers (some Japanese, some Chinese) my approximation of the characters for fermented black beans and ya cai (preserved mustard greens).

After that super lunch and shopping for Chinese ingredients, we came home to wander the streets of Taura looking for an open barbershop. Carlos needs a haircut after all that hard yakka of bottling wine and grilling meat and checking the marron traps in the dam. Two salons were too busy (people in all the chairs, getting perms), one beautician said she doesn’t cut men’s hair, one guy was in his shop, but apologized profusely that he was closed and that he was only there to do laundry (the place was piled high with white towels), and eight, no kidding, eight other barbershops—just in our little town—were all closed. From the barbershop signs, we’ve learned that “the third Monday of the month” is a bad day for a man to try to get a haircut in Taura. Just FYI.

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