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Nishi no Seki Junmai
Photo: Nishi no Seki Junmai, made from Hattan Nishiki rice at 60% seimai buai.

Last chance at the Takara corral to unholster the six sakes John Gauntner chose for the evening. Last sips of life in Japan. Doreen, a veteran of 35 years in Japan and a part-time NHK sumo announcer, presides over the table in her plummy British accent. Patricia, my familiar drinking buddy, and I relax into tipsy companionship. John talks about sakamai (sake rice) varieties. He plants images in my mind of tall stalks straining to stay upright. After harvest, the toji (brew master) coaxes the extra-large rice grains to dissolve and ferment with the yeast and mold.

Thank you Yamada Nishiki, Gohyakumangoku, Omachi, Dewasansan…

Sea bream salad
Photo: Sea bream salad with miso dressing, cucumber, and mixed sprouts.

Rob Yellin gives a lecture about chawan (tea bowls). He instructs us to take off our jewelry when handling the irreplaceable bowls at the head table. We look for spontaneity in the carving of the bowl’s foot, for the irregular beauty that holds one’s interest so much longer than perfect machine-made soulless crockery.

Rob wants us to ask one question when selecting our household ceramics: “Do I want to be intimate with this?”

The pour

Refills of favorites and I am pain-free. Some of the gang of ex-pats pity me for having to leave Japan. I feel a mixture of envy that they get to stay in Japan and a primal urge to go home. I gotta see about a house and a job and the rest of my life. But this life is so very very tasty.

Pork belly braise
Photo: Pork belly braise with carrots, snap peas, and potatoes.

Six dinner courses, six sakes, a few hours of varied pleasure. Kaika Junmai Nama (Gohyakumangoku rice) had a deep floral nose, almost like a chrysanthemum, with a fat body and a long sweet finish. Nishi no Seki Junmai (Hattan Nishiki rice) was crisp with high alcohol, and a tight, clean, almost wheaty taste that faded quickly. Dewazakura Ginjo (Dewasansan rice) had a spice nose with a hint of peppermint, a light body, and a fruit aftertaste, almost effervescent on the tongue. Toyo Bijin Junmai Ginjo (Akaiwa Omachi rice) was delicate and elegant with a silky texture. Hitakami Junmai (Yamada Nishiki rice) was clean and fresh with a black pepper edge, a tidy sake. Hitakami Junmai Ginjo (Watabibune rice) had a rose nose, but the taste was wide, strong, and bold.

Toyo Bijin Junmai Ginjo
Photo: Toyo Bijin Junmai, made from Akaiwa Omachi rice at 50% seimai buai.

Goodnight junmai and ginjo and nama. Goodnight sake bar and Mori-san the sommelier. Goodnight John, goodnight Rob, goodnight Patricia. Goodnight cultural inebriation. Goodnight nihonshu in Japan.

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John Gauntner Sake Dinner
Photo: John Gauntner at his June 14 sake dinner.

Ted and Etsuko
Photo: Ted and Etsuko from the Tokyo Sake Meetup Group.

See those people above? Those three have been my sake sensei over these past two-and-a-half years. I’ve attended ten of his John Gauntner’s sake dinners and his annual week-long sake course last January. I gathered all my notes together; I’ve tasted about 160 sakes (minus a few repeats) with him.

Ted and Etsuko are the leaders of the Tokyo Sake Meetup Group, a monthly gathering of sake otaku. I’ve attended five of the meetups (including a trip to a sake brewery and the Niigata Sake no Jin). I’ve sampled at least 50 sakes (including 25 in a crazy day at the Niigata Sake no Jin) with them.

Of course, I can’t even count the sakes my husband and I tasted on our trips around Japan, in restaurants, and at home savoring a bottle. If you live near Yokosuka and want excellent sake, check out Kakeda Shoten near the Oppama station on the Keikyu line. It would help if you spoke Japanese, but if you know some sake terms and what you are looking for, they will find you something fabulous to drink.

When I leave Japan I will miss reasonably priced and easily obtained premium sake. I know I can find some of these sakes in the States—thanks to pioneers like True Sake in San Francisco and Sakaya in New York City—but at more than twice the price in Japan. Boo freakin’ hoo.

My two favorites (out of six) from John’s June 14, 2008 sake dinner:

Kokken Junmai
Photo: Kokken Junmai-shu from Fukushima Prefecture. Big fruit and melon nose, hint of dates and ginger on the palate, nice coating on the tongue, perhaps even a “squeeze of lime” (thanks Jarred).

Hiroki Ginjo
Photo: Hiroki Ginjo-shu from Fukushima Prefecture. Papaya nose, toasted sugar taste with a blast of alcohol, delicious.

If you are in the Tokyo area (I make the trek from Yokosuka) and want to learn more about premium sake, find these people and drink! John’s dinners are structured with a lecture and six sakes to taste during a multi-course dinner (always at the Takara Sake Pub in Yurakucho). Sign up for his monthly newsletter for more information. Unless he does a dinner in July, I’ve attended my last one. The Tokyo Sake Meetup Group schedules more relaxed evenings in various sake pubs, usually with dinner, but no lecture. We learn by sharing and comparing our opinions. The tastings are sometimes thematic (such as the last Shimane sake tasting) and sometimes BYOB to taste what others love to drink. I’m hoping they squeeze in one more meetup before I leave Japan.

I’ve made close friends at these dinners (in both human and bottle forms). My favorite sake? I really couldn’t say. I’m convinced that, like wine, the most delicious sake depends on the food, the company, the season, the weather, the city or the country, and my mood. I can say I love good sake made well by true craftsmen (mostly men, but more and more women). It’s been a real joy to share these tastes with my husband and my fellow sake geeks here in Japan.

In any case: So long, and thanks for all the fish sake.

Day 1, dinner at Sasagin
Photo: Day 1, dinner at Sasagin, my tasting notes on the evening’s five featured sakes.

The John Gauntner Sake Professional Course experience: 70 sakes to taste over three days in the classroom, about 20 more to drink at dinners over four nights, and another 10 or so to try at four breweries and at the fifth and final dinner of the course. I tasted about 100 sakes in five days in Tokyo, Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto.

Day 3, classroom tasting, regionality in sake
Photo: Day 3, classroom tasting, regionality in sake.

In a hot room that was almost silent, I watched a brewer sprinkle mold over rice and toss it gently by hand to begin the process of converting starch to sugar. At another brewery, a deafeningly noisy machine steamed rice and then quickly cooled it on a conveyor belt. I watched a brewery worker with beet-red hands (from the cold water) wash 10 kilograms of rice, drain it, soak it in fresh water, and remove it—all completed with precision in exactly 6 minutes and 30 seconds. I learned about every step, every ingredient, and almost every exception to every rule about making sake. I met a great group of fellow sake lovers. It was a damn fine week.

Day 5, Daimon Shuzo
Photo: Day 5, Daimon-san of Daimon Shuzo takes the temperature of the rice and breaks up the clumps before applying the koji-kin (mold spores).

If you’ve read either Real Food by Nina Planck or The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, you are familiar with the grass-fed beef industry in the U.S. In both books, one reads that the grass-fed beef ranchers say they are “grass farmers” rather than beef ranchers—pointing out that keeping the environment of the pasture is their main challenge. The cows want to eat the grass; their bodies naturally know how to process it into flavorful and omega-3 rich beef. The point is to keep the cows happy and let them do the rest.

I was reminded of the ranchers last week when we visited four breweries in Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe on the last two days of the course. We talked with the brewers and had access to the intimate details of their work. Over and over it was impressed on us that the sake brewing process depends on the action of a mold (Aspergillus Oryzae) and a strain of yeast (depending on the brewery).

Day 4, Matsumoto Shuzo
Photo: Day 4, one tank of moromi (the fermenting mold, yeast, rice, and water) at Matsumoto Shuzo.

The two living entities know what to do with the rice and water provided to them. The brewer (part microbiologist, part Shinto priest) concentrates his or her energy on maintaining the proper environment for the mold and yeast to do the work of making sake. The mold starts the process by breaking down rice starch into sugars, then the yeast cells convert the sugars to alcohol. After the mold-covered rice is added to the tanks with the yeast, both organisms do their work in parallel, and after 18 to 30 days, the sake is ready to press.

Of course, the above is a gross oversimplification of sake brewing, and John’s course covers the intricacies and problems of: rice, what kinds and how to mill it, water, which is best for making sake, the many strains of molds and yeasts, the maintenance of the fermentation environment, and the pressing and pasteurization (or lack thereof). All of these steps are performed with endless variations among the approximately 1400 sake brewers in Japan.

Day 3, classroom lecture
Photo: Day 3, classroom lecture. John describes the sakes we will try in various tasting vessels.

We tasted a lot of sake. We learned about the state of the industry and the export market. But there’s something intangible that John’s course conveys: culture.

At the Matsumoto brewery in Kyoto, one of our group asked Matsumoto-san what distinguishes his sake from others. Perhaps the questioner wanted a technical answer: what kind of rice, what strain of yeast, dryness/sweetness, pasteurized/unpasteurized. Matsumoto-san gazed out on the gorgeous Japanese garden that his grandfather had created at the brewery, the same one that Matsumoto-san and his wife maintain in pristine condition as a way of showing the workers the health and cleanliness of spirit required of them as they work in the brewery. As he looked at the garden, he said (as translated by John), “I don’t consider myself a sake seller, but someone who conveys culture through sake.”

Day 2, dinner at Shinbashi Kohju
Photo: Day 2, dinner at Shinbashi Kohju, the nabe course.

John conveyed Japanese culture at the dinners each night at four izakaya and the last night at the restaurant at the Daimon brewery. We ate well from a range of Japanese food, including the memorable octopus dinner featuring moving tentacles and ink sacs that burst open in the mouth. We drank well, moving beyond the classroom into what is ultimately the great pleasure of sake, drinking it while eating and enjoying the company of fellow sake lovers.

Watching John transform himself during these dinners was a reflection of our own journey, the sake getting into our blood. Our teacher left behind the lecturer with an engineer’s precision and joined the epicure’s world of pleasure and delight in the drink. We all had a very, very good time.

If you are wondering whether to go to John’s course next year, if you wonder if it’s worth the price, the answer is yes. Go. As John says, “Ninety percent of sake gives excellent value for money.” In this case, John gives 100% value for money.

Hida no Kuni Takayama
Photo: Hida no Kuni Takayama

If you want to learn more about sake (and you aren’t fluent in Japanese), the name to know is John Gauntner. His Web site, Sake World, is the on-line encyclopedia of sake. Dive into his newsletter archives, everything you need is there. John shares his profound knowledge and love of sake at monthly sake seminars in Tokyo and each January during a week-long Sake Professional Course in Tokyo and Osaka. Last August, he taught his professional course in New York. I am lucky enough to be participating in John’s course this week.

Check out sake blogs by people promoting fine sake in the United States and notice how John’s name seems to pop up everywhere. For example:

—Beau Timkin, who opened True Sake, the first sake-only shop in the United States, attended John’s week-long course. I met Beau in Tokyo at one of John’s monthly tasting dinners after he had given a testimonial about what he had learned from John.

—Timothy on UrbanSake.com wrote this: “On August 27, 28 and 29, 2007, Mr. John Gaunter—the world famous ‘sake guy’—brought the sake seminar he usually teaches in Japan each year to New York! The first Stateside Sake Professional Course was an event I couldn’t miss!”

—Rick and Hiroko, the founders of Sakaya NYC wrote: “We’ve sought to expand our knowledge under the tutelage of Sake Samurai John Gauntner at his Professional Sake Course in Tokyo, and visited sake breweries, numerous izakaya (sake pubs) and sake shops throughout Japan.”

Mansaku no Hana
Photo: Mansaku no Hana “Manabito”

Over the past year and a half, I have attended nine of John’s monthly sake seminars at Takara sake pub in Yurakucho. Each seminar includes a short lecture on one aspect of sake making, sometimes an additional lecture by Rob Yellin about Japanese ceramics, six amazing sakes to taste/abuse, and a six or seven course gourmet Japanese meal.

At the end of the evening, John asks you to pick your favorite two out of the six sakes, and the group votes. The following were my favorites for each of the sake tastings I attended, with some boozy notes. If you want to know more about the terms used in sake descriptions, get right over to John’s Web site.

June 3, 2006
Lecture: Basics of sake
Nanbu Bijin [Junmai Ginjo] from Iwate: “Custardy and smooth, full mouth feel, vanilla”
Hakurei [Junmai Nama] from Kyoto: “Mellow but fruity, round on tongue, herbal aroma, astringent”

September 9, 2006
Lecture: Nama-zake
Nishi no Seki [Nama Tokubetsu Junmai] from Oita: “Fruit aroma, heavy palate, sweet caramel.”
Daishichi [Kimoto Nama Genshu Junmai] from Fukushima: “Powerful, tangy, high-alcohol after-bite, not much nose, rich flavor, chewable. Goes well with miso dish.”

October 22, 2006
Lecture: Sake rice
Kaika [Tobin-dori Shizuku Genshu Daiginjo] from Tochigi: “Tobin dori being only the top class bottles sent out. Fabulous fruit nose, smooth yet tart, not too rich, a little undertone of smoke?”
Tsukasa Botan [“Senchu Hassasku” Tokubetsu Junmai] from Kochi: “Tasty, tart, dry, yummy, banana, sweet aroma”

November 4, 2006
Lecture: Sake regionality and appellation
Kikuhima [Yamahai Junmai] from Ishikawa: “Rich taste, classic rice nose, not acidic, clean but flavorful”
Urakasumi [Hiyaoroshi Tokubetsu Junmai] from Miyagi: “Rice nose, fresh fall release, some alcohol bite but light, easy, quaffable”

December 2, 2006
No lecture, sake bonenkai
Jokigen [Daiginjo] from Yamagata: “Banana, almost rotten banana (in a good way), some apple, medium body.”
Nishi no Seki [Shizuku Daiginjo] from Oita: “Body, rice nose, delicious fullness, sake love!”

April 7, 2007
Lecture: Sake rice
Hareruya (Hallelujah) [Junmai Ginjo] from Kanagawa: “Matured for 2 years. Rice nose, alcohol nose, subtle taste, smoky undertone.”
Tsukasa Botan [Junmai] from Kochi: “Banana flavor but boozy undertone, sharp first bite but easy to drink”

May 26, 2007
Lecture: Sake brewing process
Kenkon Ichi [Tokubetsu Junmai Genshu] from Miyagi: “Rice nose, strong alcohol in mouth, almost a mushroom and marshmallow taste?” [Sounds weird but it was great]
Mansaku no Hana [“Manabito” Kimoto Junmai] from Akita: “Rice nose with good alcohol mouth feel, an undertone of butter (umami)”

September 22, 2007
Lecture: Koji
Kamikokoro [“Aki-agari” Junmai] from Okayama: “Great nose, banana with a bit of acid, fat, fat, fat and rich”
Tengumai [Yamahai Junmai] from Ishikawa: “Funky, flavorful, delicious”

November 17, 2007
Lecture: Toji, Toji Ryuha, and Kurabito
Kaika [Junmai Ginjo, Hiyaoroshi, Yamahai] from Tochigi: “Creamy rice nose, alcohol bite with funky undertone” [I drew a smiley face.]
Onna Nakase [Junmai Daiginjo] from Shizuoka: “Pepper?! Truffles, bold, fat, growing on me.” [It grew on me so much I voted it my favorite.]

Hmm, I dig those yamahai/kimotos. Give me wild sake! I’ll be back asap with tasting notes from the week and a report about the course.

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.

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