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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.

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Mopheads

Ajisai at the Imperial Palace

Mophead hydrangea

Mophead hydrangea

Mophead hydrangea


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Lacecap hydrangea

Lacecap hydrangea

Lacecap hydrangea

Iris worker Meiji Shrine

Irises at Horikiri Shoubuen

Irises at Horikiri Shoubuen

Irises at Horikiri Shoubuen

Irises at Horikiri Shoubuen

Irises at Horikiri Shoubuen

Irises at Horikiri Shoubuen

Irises at Horikiri Shoubuen

I brought a yakitori shop sake to a moon-viewing party. Or at least it felt that way as I plunked down my giant 1.8 liter bottle on the table next to a gathering of elegant junmai ginjos. The members of the Tokyo Sake Meetup Group met last Saturday at Ichibee (near the Ogikubo Station), to taste 13 sakes brought by the group, including three mystery sakes (labels removed) from Robert-Gilles, the Shizuoka sake blogger.

March 1 Sake Meetup
Photo: Koshi no Yuki Tsubaki junmai ginjo from Niigata, and Aoi Me no Samurai junmai from Kanagawa.

Much like the enjoyment of wine, sake tasting is highly situational and is affected by many factors such as food, location, even the company with whom one drinks. At our local yakitori shop, while we eat grilled chicken, braised pork, and fried lotus root stuffed with shrimp, our local junmai, Aoi Me no Samurai (Blue-Eyed Samurai), is very easy to drink, and it supports the rough and filling food. But it was tough to taste my local tipple next to a bunch of lean ballerina ginjos. Poor little Dumbo.

March 1 Sake Meetup
Photo: Two favorites of the evening: Maboroshi-no-taki daiginjo from Toyama, and Chiyomusubi junmai ginjo shizuku nama from Tottori.

The reality is, however, we tasted a wide variety of sakes, the grades ranged from futsushu (2 3), honjozo (1), junmai (4), junmai ginjo (4), to daiginjo (1), and including a futsushu sake of unknown grade just pressed on 29 February. The sakes were brewed in Niigata (3), Shizuoka (3), Kumamoto (2), Toyama (1), Ishikawa (1), Kanagawa (1), Tottori (1), and Kyoto (1). So, we tasted sakes of highly variable grades from all over the country. The experience of shared discovery is what makes these sake meetups so worthwhile. We never know what we are going to get, and we can expect to be delighted by a new find.

Not surprisingly (or sadly predictably), my notes on the four junmai ginjos and the one daiginjo are splashed with words like: “yum, classic sake, soft classic, beautiful nose.” But the junmai sakes also made an impression: Kagotobi Gokkan junmai muroka nama was really drinkable, with sweet start and an almost effervescent mouth feel, and Zuiyou junmai from Kumamoto was rich and round, pleasantly funky.

The standout was Tsuki no Katsura Yanagi junmai ginjo from Kyoto: absolutely soft and delicious, so pristine and elegant that many of us went a bit quiet as we tasted it. I wrote, “Japan in a bottle.” I meant Heian Japan, old classic Japan, elegant dreams of refinement and cool discretion, with a hint of the passion one feels sitting under plum blossoms. This is sipping sake.

March 1 Sake Meetup

It certainly can’t represent all of sake culture in a bottle. How could it? Do I want to drink that delicate willowy sake from Kyoto as I eat yakitori? God no. I need a fat bottomed junmai or honjozo to grab onto. Our experience of sake can’t be separated from the context, the people we talk with, the boiling nabe or cool sashimi in front of us at the table. But I’m glad to have the chance to try all these sakes, to widen my experience of what sake can be.

March 1 Sake Meetup

At the end of the evening, I drunkenly splurged on glasses of Juyondai, a junmai ginjo from Yamagata. During his sake professional course in January, John Gauntner told us that Juyondai was so popular that it was virtually impossible to buy in a retail shop, and that we should try it when on offer in an izakaya. So, buzzed and greedy, I bought a round of six overly large glasses. This move promptly sent several of us over the edge.

After energetic doings at a karaoke bar with my husband and some of the ladies from the meetup, I conducted a complicated removal operation to get sleepy Carlos into a cab for a long ride back to our hotel. It’s delightful to bundle your man into a cab after midnight, watch the lights of Tokyo flash by the windows, and feel the warmth of sake in your belly.

Many thanks to Et-chan and Te-chan who put together an excellent evening, and to everyone at the meetup for making it memorable and fun.

Photo: A lantern at the August 2007 Kamakura Bonbori Matsuri.

As I previously posted, I’m reading The Bridge of the Brocade Sash, about Sacheverell Sitwell’s travels in Japan in the summer and autumn of 1958.

Sitwell is both a profound observer of Japan and a complete mess, stuck in his prejudices. So are we all. I have been using this book as a bell of mindfulness. What topics Sitwell focuses on and what he excludes remind me my own blinders in life. What he disdains with a reflexive sniff reminds me of what I react to with instant emotion, missing a chance to go deeper, to understand more.

Chapters Two and Three: Tokyo with side trips to Yokohama, Kamakura, and Enoshima

Sometimes Sitwell finds just the right description for the traveler’s moments of frisson:

But the bright lights are beckoning and it is proposed we should dine out in a Japanese restaurant, a sensation so unique that later you envy yourself your first experience of it. (p. 36)

I like the feeling in that sentence, the bittersweet passing of novelty. Later, when we see with more discerning (and sometimes jaded) eyes, do we not remember fondly our beginner’s gaze?

Sometimes, however, a passage makes me close the book for a while and mull over whether I think his writing is (a) descriptive language betraying biases that highlight how societal mores have changed over 50 years, or (b) the musings of a well-read asshole in a hostess bar:

[W]e were surrounded by young women. Four or five of them came and sat down at our table, most, if not all, of them, remarkably pretty, with one in particular wearing a scarlet kimono who was pointed out as being of Polynesian type. She had somewhat of the same looks as the young girls we were to see later in Honolulu, who are of mixed Hawaiian, Japanese and Hindu-Indian blood, as seductive of appearance as the capresses of Guadaloupe and Martinique with nectarine or coppery skins as described in Lafcadio Hearn’s West Indian Diary, the more alluring for having nothing of the African negress in them, and probably among the most attractive hybrids of the human race. (p. 73)

There is, of course, an option (c): Old Sach’el entranced you with his story of the exotic beauty. I took the liberty of looking her up for you. She just turned 70, but feels great for her age, runs her own flower shop, has a son in Fujisawa who doesn’t call as often as she would like, and—this is not personal, mind you—she no longer has any interest in lighting men’s cigarettes and telling them how funny their jokes are. She thanks you for asking after her.

Let’s see what Sitwell got up to in Tokyo: his tour started with the large department stores in Ginza (he calls them “big stores” and “emporiums”): Mitsukoshi, Takashimaya, Shirokiya, Matsuya, and Daimaru. Corporate Shirokiya was dissolved in 2001, but there is a branch in Honolulu. The rest are still in business. Some trivia: in 1958, while Sitwell was checking out the Takashimaya in Ginza, Takashimaya was busy opening a new store in New York City.

He certainly enjoyed Takashimaya’s kimono and obi department:

It was no less than an intoxication to take in all these patternings for the kimono, with only the Indian sari as a possible equal, is the most beautiful of all forms of women’s clothing. My memory of the big stores in Tokyo, as also in Osaka and Nagoya, is to have been quite dazzled by the dresses. Coming out again into street one had entirely forgotten it was Sunday afternoon. (p. 36)

He also visited the basement food department (depachika) and lets loose with the Sacheverell-speak:

Here, in the manner of a museum exhibit, is a special grouping of blunt objects looking like—what, exactly? Boomerangs? But they are not of wood or stone, as those of the ‘black fellows’ in the Australian desert, or high up north in Arnhem Land where they paint themselves all over in dots and stripes […]. Not boomerangs. Or could they be Stone Age implements? Or something of the same kind as the sceptres of the Maori chieftains, but they are not made of jade? Or Indian clubs, except that these are flatter and have no handle? But they are dried bonitos, that is the answer; bonitos being sea-fish, particularly esteemed in Japan, and emblems of good luck. A present of dried bonitos, therefore, is appropriate for a marriage, and these are wedding gifts. (p. 31)

The filleted bonito is not just dried; it is boiled, dried, smoked, and cured with a mold until it is as hard as wood. Dried bonito (katsuo-bushi) continues to be given as part of the traditional wedding gifts, but today no one shaves fresh bonito flakes for the morning miso soup. [Please indulge a digression.] The cook who makes fresh dashi (broth) from freshly shaved bonito flakes (and kombu) is either an award-winning chef or an old lady in Shikoku. Most Japanese buy bonito flakes in plastic bags at the supermarket, or (more likely) they make dashi out of instant granules. At Tsukiji Fish Market, one can buy freshly shaved flakes piled loosely in wooden bins according to the quality of the katsuo-bushi. The aroma surrounding these shops is powerful, smoky, and sexy. Please stay tuned for details of my Luddite experiment in home bonito shaving. [See? He just passes right by the bonito; I’m still standing there.]

Sitwell does a coy dance, as above, on certain topics, usually food or domestic items, not quite important enough to him for serious investigation. In a later chapter, he gives us more of the same with a description of a shop in Kyoto:

[H]ere is a shop with a quantity of fascinating bales or bundles, one cannot make out what they are, but they are melon-shaped and made of rope or straw and prove, eventually, to be sake, though I never discovered how the sake was contained within the bundle—that indeed being not at all the correct term or it for they are the neatest parcels ever seen. (p. 92)

Does this wealthy aristocrat not have a tour guide? Of course he does; he doggedly investigates the intricacies of obi designs and the history of gagaku music, but lets the sake casks remain mysterious. His book, his choice. I’m guessing he was looking at either a komokaburi (cedar sake cask wrapped with a rush mat) or a melon-shaped sake tsubo (ceramic sake transport jar), also wrapped in rush. [I would have hung about longer in the sake shop.]

He appreciates Tokyo’s energy and the secrets it holds, but he complains about the layout of the museums and the fact that every single item in the National Museum isn’t displayed at once [does any museum ever display everything all at once?]. He also highlights that Tokyo—destroyed by an earthquake in 1923 and firebombed in 1945—doesn’t have much in the way of interesting architecture:

So it comes about that in this chapter on Tokyo there is little said about works of art. No city of comparable size—and in this respect we know there is no town in the world with more inhabitants—has less to show in the sphere of architecture and of works of art. (p. 42)

This may have been a frigidly fair assessment of the situation in 1958. Certainly, even today, most people don’t describe Tokyo as charming. It’s dynamic, chaotic, evolving, constantly rebuilding itself, and now chock-full of art.

He is impatient to see the Japan he thinks is more authentic than Tokyo’s chaos:

Like all huge cities [Tokyo] is a place of mysteries. It could take all of a lifetime to understand even the most simple of them, but we leave because everything that in our hearts we have come to Japan to see begins tomorrow. All indeed is almost time wasted until you reach Kyoto. (p. 74)

The passage below is my bell of mindfulness. He looks but he does not see:

The afternoon wore on, and our road came down the hills to the sea, towards Enoshima. Once, and not long ago, this had been a sacred island, like Miyajima or Matsushima, but Enoshima is now a Coney Island or Atlantic City. Thousands of Japanese and their families come out here to spend the day from Tokyo. The shore is lined for miles on end with their bathing huts and bungalows. […] Passing through the towns, sometimes, but only once in a hundred persons, there would be an old man looking as, one had hoped, most Japanese would look. The first day in the country has been a disappointment with the long and endless miles of slums on either side of Yokohama. The Japanese at the seaside were worse still. […] Was Japan to be no more than this? We had journeyed a long way in order to be reminded of things one could see in Blackpool or in Brighton. (p. 50)

A recap from Sitwell’s brain: Tokyo is crappy looking, and instead of charming pagodas, there are annoying slums outside Yokohama. To make matters worse, Japanese people insist on escaping the heat of the slums by going to the beach. These people don’t even have the decency to be upper class.

I particularly like his beach town examples: Coney Island, Atlantic City, Blackpool, and Brighton. I wonder if he objected to sunbathing on the Cap d’Antibes or in Monaco.

One evening last summer, on a beach just east of Enoshima, I watched the Zushi fireworks with a friend and her daughter. We shared the beach with thousands of people, many of the young girls in yukata, and the air was charged with festival excitement and beer. Sitwell at least might have tried getting his toes in the sand.

The poor baronet had a tough time of it on the Kanto Plain. Check back to see how he fared in Kyoto. I think we’ll find him in better spirits and ready to share his enthusiasm for Japanese ceramics, screen paintings, and temple gardens.

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