Thursday, November 29, 2007

11/9/07: Day 8 in Japan Part III - Ryokan Experience

I spent this evening in a ryokan (旅館) in Kyoto. Ryokan translates as "traveler's lodge," and is different from your Marriots and Hiltons in several aspects. First, ryokan is very traditional in appearance, having tatami mats and traditional bedding. Secondly, the rates are based mostly on "hospitality" at ryokan instead of "by rooms." This means that at ryokan, meal(s) are included, and rates are assessed per capita.

I stayed at Kagihei (加ぎ平) located on the easter part of Kyoto, adjacent to the famed Nishiki Ichiba (錦市場), the covered street ("arcade") full of markets and stores. Arriving after the nightfall, the lit entrance offered relaxing sense of tradition in the middle of a busy city.

For this evening, I bought two bottles of "Koto Sen-nen" (古都千年), made under Eikun (英勲) label by Saito Brewery (齊藤酒造). The "Koto Sen-nen" ("thousand years of old city") series commemorates Kyoto, established over 1,200 years ago in 794 A.D.

The first bottle is the Junmai Daiginjo (SMV: +3.5, Acidity: 1.2, Rice: Iwai & Yamadanishiki, Seimaibuai: 45%) Iwai is used for Koji(麹), and Yamadanishiki is used for kaké (掛), the non-Koji part of the mash. Fruity, deep, some grain, spices, somewhat like Omachi. This paired well with mild dishes, such as the soft Yuba (湯葉).

Next, I tried the Junmai Ginjo (SMV: +4, Acidity: 1.3, Rice: Iwai, Seimaibuai:55%) Using 100% Iwai rice, indigenous to Kyoto, the saké had mild nose, clean flavors grain, fruit, and spices. This paired very well with whatever they call this particular fish.

The breakfast was just as exquisite, and I can only imagine how well Koto Sen-nen would have paired with these traditional dishes.

I would definitely pair Junmai Daiginjo with this tofu...

An evening stay was about $200, but considering the dinner, breakfast, accomodations, and hospitaliy, was definitely worth it. If you have the luxury of time, do go north to Lake Biwa area of Shiga Prefecture, where there are numerous onsen ryokan (温泉旅館), featuring natural hot springs...

Friday, November 23, 2007

11/9/07: Day 8 in Japan Part II - Tasting Rare Sakés of Shichi Hon Yari

After the tour of the brewery, Mr. Tomita was generous enough to offer me a tasting of some very rare sakés. For the second time in my trip, I had a chance to try muroka nama genshu (無濾過生原酒- unfiltered, unpasteurized and undiluted) sakés that brewers use to monitor and evaluate the quality of their sakés. (The first time was for Dassai.)

In all, I got to try 11 sakés. Since they are high in alcohol and it was only around noon time, we used the spitoon (fashinable curvey white object to the right.) It's important to note that Tomita Shuzo makes all their sakés using one type of rice for each bottle, as opposed to using one kind for yeast starter and another for the mash. Ultimately, Mr. Tomita's goal is to produce sakés that are deep and structured, with clean and sharp acidity, rich in umami on the finish.

Here is the list:
  • Daiginjo (Yamadanishiki): Polished down to 40%, using #14 yeast. A quintessential Yamadanishiki with very fruity melon and Japanese pears.

  • Junmai Daiginjo (Tamazakaé): Polished down to 45%, using #14 yeast. Fruity, with flavors of red apples.

  • Junmai Ginjo (Tamazakaé): Polished down to 50%, using #14 yeast. Mild nose, flavors of Japanese pear and apples. Slight nuttiness and long umami on the finish.

  • Junmai Ginjo (Tamazakaé): Polished down to 55%, using #14 yeast. Similar to 50%, but sharper and more liveliness of the namazaké.

  • Junmai (Tamazakaé): Polished down to 60%, using #14 yeast. This was very sharp and vibrant.

  • Junmai (Tamazakaé): Polished down to 60%, using #7 yeast. Soft, mellow, and balanced. Mr. Tomita noted that #7 seems to age faster, as it shows definitive signs of ripening.

  • Junmai (Ginfubuki): Polished down to 60%, using #14 yeast. Earthier style, with hints of mushrooms. Deep acidity with good structure. The progression of tasting is proving to be a very educational exercise in polishing ratio and use of yeast.

  • Tokubetsu Junmai (organic Tamazakaé): Polished down to 60%, using #1701 yeast. The balanced flavors of citrus, melon, and fresh mushrooms provides complexity and interesting structure.

  • Teiseihaku Junmai (Tamazakaé): Polished down to 80%, using #7. This is the most popular saké sold locally. Mildly creamy aroma followed by soft creamy palate. Less complex, but brings out umami on the finish.

The last two sakés were different style:

  • Kodaimai Red Saké: using old saké rice (古代米), the red saké possessed notes of cream, vanillam nuts, red beans, and deep minerals on a dry finish.

  • Junmai Ginjo (Ginfubuki): Pasteurized. Polished down to 55%, using #14 yeast. Had a muscat grape-like aroma and flavor.

    • Huge thanks go to Henry Sidel for arranging my visit, and Mr. Tomita for his incredible hospitality!

      11/9/07: Day 8 in Japan Part I - Tomita Shuzo (Shichi Hon Yari) Photo Essay

      Today's journey took me about 2hours away from Osaka to Shiga Prefecture in the north. Shiga is notable for being home of the largest lake in Japan, Lake Biwa (琵琶湖). Located in the northeastern side of Lake Biwa in town of Ki No Moto (木の本) is Tomita Shuzo, maker of the Shichi Hon Yari label (七本槍) also known as "Seven Spears Men" in the States. Mr. Tomita greeted me at the the train station on a glorious autumn day, where the first thing that hit me was the organic bouquet of the country-side air.

      This visit was made possible by last minute arrangement through Henry Sidel of Joto Saké in New York, meaning that the communication went from Osaka to Shiga via New York (note the store front of Tomita Shuzo featured on the main page of Joto Saké website). Mr. Tomita was gracious enough to host me in a very short notice, even though the Kura was busy getting ready for first day of brewing. Here is what I got to see:

      Tomita Shuzo uses 3 types of rice. From left to right, Yamadanishiki, Ginfubuki, and Tamazakaé. Many of their sakés are made using Tamazakaé.

      The rice washer, which is similar to the one used at Asahi Shuzo.

      Mr. Tomita holds the Shikomi-Mizu (仕込み水), water used for brewing. This comes straight from the well on the premises.

      Steamer and conveyer with the cooling mechanism.

      Tanks at Tomita Shuzo. Tall ones have the capacity of 4,843L.

      "KC wuz here." I signed my name underneath Miho-san's from Joto Saké

      Tomita Shuzo uses old fashioned Funé. The interior is made of wood.

      The bottling machine. Compare to the one used by Asahi Shuzo. This style is manual, and at the busiest, Tomita Shuzo bottles about 1,500 bottles.

      As the bottling process indicate, many of their operations are conducted manually, even carrying steamed rice from the conveyer belt to the tanks and fetching water from the reserve tanks. The terms "boutique operation" and "artisinal saké truly applies to Tomita Shuzo. Walking around the brewery, I was absolutely awed and grateful that us New Yorkers have the luxury of enjoying very high-quality sakés from such a small operation...

      Coming up in Part II: Tasting of rare sakés of Tomita Shuzo.

      Saturday, November 17, 2007

      11/8/07: Day 7 in Japan Part III - Evening in Osaka

      After a long day, there was nothing better than getting back to Osaka for a relaxing evening. I was lucky to have dinner with some of my very favorite people in Osaka at a very nice restaurant called Tamba de Samba serving new and traditional Japanese dishes in Tapas style. Some of the interesting dishes were Japanese favorites croquettes served in four different ways, including parmigiana-like stuffing. Needless to say, this was a type of evening that was much needed after a hectic day!

      How do Osaka women keep themselves beautiful? By using soap made of Dassai saké kasu (lees)!

      Dinner at Tamba de Samba featuring amazing "Wa-shokki" (和食器) or Japanese table wares that surely added to the enjoyment of the dishes.

      My saké of choice: "Maboroshi No Taki" Ginjo (SMV: +4, Acidity: 1.4, Rice: Oyamanishiki, Seimaibuai: 58%). From Toyama, brewed using wellwater from 150 m below ground. Quiet nose, slightly creamy on the palate without the fruitiness one would typically expect from a Ginjo class. While unspectacular, it was unobtrusive when pairing with the meal.

      Wednesday, November 14, 2007

      11/8/07: Day 7 in Japan Part II - Harushika Brewery Photo Essay

      I was pleasantly surprised when Mr. Takano knew someone in Harushika Brewery; even more pleased when Mr. Sakurai of the brewery was able to take time out of his busy schedule to meet with me and provide tour of the premises on less than one day notice. Mr. Sakurai has worked in many capacity of the brewery, and he is currently focusing his efforts on marketing and logistics. While he was working on production side, he was involved in product development, including the sparkling Tokimeki. I couldn't have been blessed with a better guide!

      Harushika is located in the heart of Nara

      Innovative Mr. Sakurai with one of his creations

      Machine used to polish rice. The rice is sent up by a belt to the top, and it falls down towards the bottom to be milled by two milling stones. It's a slow process - to polish down to Daiginjo-class, it takes 48 hours.

      Harushika's steaming facility (left) and cooler/conveyer (right)

      This is a four-level machine used to maintain Koji Rice.

      Day 1 of Shubo, the saké starter. Note the very chunky nature.

      Shubo, Day 2.

      Tanks in Harushika. They are about twice the size of Dassai, over 9,500L.

      This is a coil used to help maintain temperature of the tank. Cold water passes through the coil to lower temperature.

      Most of the sakés are pressed using Yabuta.

      Some of the higher quality selections are pressed using Funé. Yaegaki "Mu" Junmai Daiginjo uses this Funé as well.

      This old cask was purchased in order to produce saké in the style made several hundred years ago. If it didn't go well, it would have been used as a bath tub... More on this later.

      Storage area. At Harushika, they bottle about 8,000 bottles on a busy day. The biggest surprise was that with their brand recognition in the States, I actually expected a much larger operation!

      After the grand tour, it was time to try some selections. Mr. Sakurai brought out four selections, which were diverse in style. First selection was the familiar "Chokara" (SMV: +12, Rice: Yamadanishiki/Shinriki, Seimaibuai: 58%) What was different was that Japanese bottling is milder than the US version, to accomodate for taste preference of each countries. Second was the "Hiyaoroshi" Junmai Ginjo Nama (SMV: +2, Rice: Gohyakumangoku, Seimaiuai: 60%) with its liveliness and balanced Ginjo flavor and mild earthiness.

      The next selection was the rare Kioké-Saké "Yamahai Junmai Nama Genshu" (SMV: -9, Rice: Hinohikari, Seimaibuai: 70%), created in traditional method and aged in the wooden cask noted earlier. This had rich and sweet approach somewhat like Umé-shu, before taking on the flavor of fresh mushrooms. Mr. Sakurai was rather philosophical when it came to coming up with the label for this saké. He believed that by studying tradition, we can learn something new; thus, he wanted the label to reflect "modernness." The label notes website for this particular saké, and the center design is like a UPC code, where consumer can scan it with their cellphone and receive all the information about the saké. (Yes, our cell phone technology is in Stone Ages...)

      Lastly, Mr.Sakurai poured Junmai Daiginjo Nigori (SMV: +2, Rice: Yamadanishiki, Seimaibuai: 50%), which was light, lightly effervescent, and pleasantly dry.

      At this point, the President of the Brewery Mr. Imanishi joined us, and we talked saké, covering global marketing, future of saké, and saké and dining in the New York market. He also mentioned one hat-wearing American saké enthusiast, who is everywhere in New York saké scene, and even visited Harushika riding his folding bicycle. Mike C, Mr. Imanishi sends his best regards!

      For further information about Harushika, please visit:

      Harushika (English)
      Harushika (Japanese)
      Harushika Event Blog (Japanese)
      Harushika Gourmet Blog (Japanese)
      Kioké Saké

      A BIG thank you goes to Mr. Imanishi, Mr. Sakurai, and staff at Harushika Brewery!!!

      11/8/07: Day 7 in Japan Part I: Kobé Shushinkan, Wrap on Nada

      It's safe to say that Kobé Shushinkan (神戸 酒心館) played a very important role in formation of this blog. Thus, I was very happy to return to Shushinkan two years later. My visit this time was far shorter, as Mr. Takano arranged a visit to Harushika Brewery in Nara (奈良), not to be confused with Nada (灘). My lunch appointment was at 12:15, and I have to be in Nara by 3:30. Factoring in about 2 hours of travel, time was very precious.

      First order of the business was to visit their Sakabayashi restaurant, and have their tremendous hand-made soba and yuba (湯葉, tofu skin).

      Of course, nothing tastes better than having a fresh saké straight from the brewery. Here is their Hiyaoroshi, a Junmai Ginjo Genshu (but not nama). This was bold and intense, really showing the character of hard water of the Miyamizu.

      Afterwards, I viewed DVD on Shushinkan, had few sakés to taste, and browsed their showroom. Here are some of their selecions, under the "Fukuju" (福寿) label.


      Having visited Sakura Masamuné, Kiku Masamuné, and Kobé Shushinkan, I learned a lot about Nada and their terroir.

      Here are what makes Nada ideal place to brew saké:

      • Climate: The great disparaty between low and high temperatures are ideal in producing fantastic Yamadanishiki rice, with rich starch content and low proteins and minerals.

      • Miyamizu (宮水): While most of Hyogo Prefecture has soft water, it was discovered that the very small area in Rokko Mountain (六甲山) flowed hard water rich in minerals and low in iron, allowing for vigorous fermentation. Sakés made using such water will have highly expressive saké with clean finish.

      • Rokko Draft (六甲降し): The cool draft of Rokko Mountain is ideal in controlling the temperature of the brewery. This greatly affected how breweries are built; as an example, the side of Sakura Masamuné Brewery that faces Rokko Mountain has a huge door that opens to allow Rokko Draft to blow in.

      • Proximity to the Port: Kobe is right by the water. Sakura Masamuné was built right by the waterfront, before development pushed it inland. Port is important, as it encourages and facilitates trade, and by extention, saké production.

      • Rokko Current: The location, between mountain and ocean, meant that there is a strong current in the rivers. Fast currents play integral role in milling, allowing for highly polished rice to make high quality saké. While the above reasons are predominantly cited as virtues of Nada, Mr. Yamamura of Sakura Masamune feels that Rokko Current is perhaps the biggest reason why Nada rose to prominence.

      Tuesday, November 13, 2007

      11/7/07: Day 6 in Japan - Evening around Osaka

      Today was supposed to be a quiet, lazy day. (Note the existence of the phrase, "supposed to be"). I was returning to Osaka, with nothing on schedule. I would have been perfectly content walking around the vicinity of the hotel, then totally vegging out in the evening decompressing. But, apparently, there seems to be a nation-wide conspiracy to enfatten (is that even a word?!) me in Japan. Let me explain.

      After returning from Hiroshima, I visit the office of Motohiko to say thanks and give his office a little gift from Hiroshima as a token of my appreciation. He introduces me to some of his associates, and before you know it, Mr. Takano asks my evening plans. Upon hearing it's open, he says, "well, we must go out for dinner!"

      Mercifully, Mr. Takano understood that I could do without carbohydrates, so he suggested going to Amou (天羽), a local small sushi/sashimi joint. We sat at the counter, bantering with the chef, and ordering today's specials:

      Fugu, with some type of dry nama (unobtrusive, good match with the food)

      Sashimi set

      Fresh Kinki fish

      Kinki, cooked

      Fresh crab

      Cooked crab

      After the evening of fine local cuisine, we were introduced to Magari, a wine bar inspired by the Super Tuscan bottling by famed Gaja winery. (While Gaja is known in Piedmont for their Barolo and Barbaresco, Magari is one of the bottling for their second estate in Tuscany...)

      As added bonus to Nihonshudo, here we have the rare wine-tasting notes:

      2004 Lyonnat (St. Emilion). Typical merlot-dominated style - young yet soft, fruity, and approachable with soft and short finish.

      2003 Ch. Les Graves de Bammau (Graves). Features the typically earthy, sticks and gravel notes known from 2003. Pretty balanced considering the challenging vintage. Noticably more firm on the mineral-laden finish.

      My friend Motohiko, looking very happy with the lovely proprietor