Secrets of sake Japan’s national drink

sake

Secrets of sake Japan’s national drink

  We head to Tokyo to uncover the secrets of Japan’s national drink, and seek out the very best places to drink it.
  Sake is, essentially, rice and water, with an alcohol content of around 15%. It’s brewed  like beer, rather than distilled like a spirit, and there are five major types, ranging from ‘ginjo’, which is smooth and fruity, to the unpasteurised ‘namazake’, which is fresh and sweet and only available in Japan.
  I set out on my quest to find the perfect sake,everything i knew about the drink could be written onto the sie of a chopstick. at best, the sake selection on a drinks menu in japanese restaurants at home in london provided a brief distraction from the more important business of summoning chicken katsu. i knew it was made with rice,but howwas i meant to drink it? like a shot? ice cold like vodka? at the end of the meal like a digestivo?.
  Clearly let loose on the streets of tokyo, a crass amateur like myself would need some guidance. i enlisted the help f daniela baggio morano. a half japanese , half italian guide with a particular mission to help visitors make sense of the city's sometimes baffling food and drink scene.
  We meet in the district of Shinjuku on a rainy night, when all of Tokyo seems on the move, scurrying through the splashy streets under transparent plastic umbrellas like a sea of giant, misplaced jellyfish. The wet streets reflect the neon signs fixed to every bit of building, flashing advertising slogans or the latest J-pop video. Promoters stand in the doorways of shops, bars and strip clubs, their sales pitches lost on the sodden, preoccupied passersby.
  Resisting their calls, too, Daniela leads me into a modest basement shopping centre and into an equally modest izakaya, or pub: Nihonshu Stand Moto. Eight customers stand at the horseshoe-shaped bar, bags and briefcases neatly stacked into baskets at their feet. We take our places beside them, and conical glasses promptly appears in front us.
  'So,' says Daniela, studying the menu, 'perhaps something fruity and easy to drink for your first sake.' The bartender produces a large brown bottle from the fridge, its label a swirl of elegant calligraphy, and fills my glass to the brim. 'You drink it little by little,' says Daniela, raising her own glass. The sake, a Jikon 2017, has a rich and developing flavour, raisiny to start with but developing into something a little harsher. It is a bit like a dry sherry. Delicate little dishes of mountain vegetables, seaweed and sesame seeds arrive as we sip. 'You must always eat something with your sake,' says Daniela. 'It is like the way they serve tapas in Spain, really.'
  customers shuffling around the horseshoe to make room for new arrivals. All 'salarymen' pulling off their ties, businesswomen putting their phones into bags, old friends and young couples are welcomed with a smile and a greeting as they enter. The merry hubbub soon drowns out the Japanese vocalist crooning on the stereo. When Daniela shares news of my quest, everyone leaps in with an opinion where we should head next. 'People in this bar know about their sake,' says Daniela. "They want to compare drinks and talk about them. In a big city, you need to find little pearls like this.'
Maybe it's the sake, maybe it's the cheerful atmosphere, but I feel a warm glow spread through my stoma chand out into my limbs, and Imomentarily forget the rain falling relentlessly on the streets above.
  Amore formal education is A needed, though I could quite happily return to Nihonshu Stand Moto every night to continue my sake appreciation. I make an appointment at the Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center, an association representing Japan's 1,700 sake breweries. My teacher is Shuso Imada, the general manager. 'Sake has a history going back 2,000 years,' he says as we take our seats in a bright, modern room lined with shelves of old sake bottles, cups and grains. 'It was traditionally used to connect people to god, so it is a holy drink in a way. It is still important in Shinto ceremonies. Even today, a Shinto priest will come and purify the  ground with sake before anyone  builds in Tokyo.’
  As he talks me through the process, MrImada pours samples,  ranging from a light unpasteurised version that tastes of very little, to a creamy, mature sake with a good whack. ‘Sake is a drink to have  with a meal or with cheese,’ he says. ‘You enjoy it as you would enjoy  wine.It is more egalitarian, though; it doesn’t have the element  of snobbery that wine has.’
  Consumption of sake in Japan had been declining since the 1970s, but has recently been seeing something of a revival. ‘Many  breweries were destroyed by the 2011 tsunami in northeast Japan,’  says MrImada.‘People found out that drinking sake from that area would help the people there. It started out as sympathy, but then they discovered that sake is far betterthan they thought. Before, it was only forthe grandfather. Afterthe earthquake, young people enjoyit, too.It has been a generational change.’ To see how  the sake revolution has taken hold with Tokyo’s younger residents, I head to Ebisu, a district packed with bars and izakayas, and home to buri, a definitive stop on a ny self respecting sake hunter’s pub crawl. Buri is something of an east west hybrid, with dried ray's fin and leek yakitori on the menu, along with serrano ham and home made  potato crisps. Its love of fusion is not the most striking thing about it,  though that honour belongs to the glass sake jars that fill  cubbyholes on one wall of the tiny bar. There are hundreds, collected from all over Japan, each with a distinctive label bright orange koi carp, Mount Fuji  and cartoon monsters among them.
  ‘This is how young people drink sake,’ says barman Mr Tanaka, taking a couple of jars from the freezer, their sides dripping condensation. ‘On weekend nights, there are 50 people  squashed around the bar until 4am.’
  The vessels are Buri’s unique calling card there are no bottles or  cups here. I choose one with a cat on the label, pull off its metal lid and drink straight from the jar. It has a slightly sharp taste, and the chill is welcome on a clammy day. Mr Tanaka tells me to take the empty glass away with me, as all customers do, and I think this is my favourite thing about the experience. The little jar with its graphic label will jog memories of the  bar, and of Tokyo, long afterthe taste  of sake has left my mouth.
  My final planned stop takes me from downtown Tokyo,where locals bar crawl until dawn, to the 40th floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel and the rarefied environment of Kozue. The restaurant is regularly named as one of Tokyo's best, with diners flocking to experience the seasonal tasting menus created by chef Kenichiro Oe.
  From my table by one of the floorto ceiling windows, the colossal size of the city overwhelms. Tokyo is massive. A forest of skyscrapers stretches for unfathomable distances in each direction, Mount Fuji a faint outline on the horizon. Far below. artificial football pitches seem the size of my fingernail, and multi lane roads no wider than a shoelace.
  My slack-jawed gawping is  interrupted by the soft jingle of  ceramic bowl on wooden tray,  announcing the beginning of the sake ceremony. Sake sommelier  Hitoshi Tanabe, dapperin an  immaculate suit, has three for me  to try, selected from a list of 55. His  colleague, Ms Kataymia Ayumi,  wearing a grey and white kimono,  decants the clearliquid into a wide  bowl to aerate it, and from there into  small cups. ‘With sake,’ says Mr  Tanabe, ‘it is an art form: the cups  you use, the bowls you use, how you arrange them. what i find fun is how it tastes different, depending how you serve it.’
  To demonstrate,  each sake is poured  into a differently  shaped, chilled  glass,ranging from  squat and bulbous to  tall and thin. My favourite is Juyondai, made in a province famous forits rice. It is creamy, with hints of mango, and draws out both the saltiness of  the crab and the sweetness of the fig in the dish brought to the table. The experience is one of delight in precision and tradition. ‘Sake has such a long history in Japan,’ says Mr Tanabe. ‘It plays a culturalrole in our country it is more than just a drink.’
  On my way out, I ask him where he  drinks sake when he’s not at Kozue. ‘Ah,’ he says with a smile. ‘To Izakaya Genkaya in Shibuya. Very traditional,  very casual, no gaijin [foreigners].’
  My last night in Tokyo, and i can't resist trying to find the pub that Mr Tanabe visits on his night off. I set off through the streets of Shibuya on anotherrainy night, the address of Genkaya written down in Japanese in my notebook. On a backstreet notfarfrom the city’s  famous Shibuya Crossing, I spot a small sign with letters that vaguely match those on my paper. I venture up a set of stairs, and, unconvinced  this is the right place, stand hesitant outside a closed door on the fourth floor.i cautiously open it and per in a waiteris instantly upon me, taking my umbrella and pointing to  an empty table. Before me is a grill  and a menu with photos of cuts of  meat on it. Japanese rock and bad covers of Sister Sledge and Chris Isaak songs play on the stereo. A waitress lights the charcoal in my grill and I point to the menu at bits of meat that I hope are beef. Around me, young couples and groups of friends sit at  benches, faces slowly turning pink in the heat of the flames.all is smoke and sizzle, chatter and laughter.
  I cook my beef, dip it in chilli oil and try it with a light sake served in  a tall bamboo cup. The verdict? Cold sake and beef sohotit burns themouth I believe I’ve found perfection.

Other Travetou Articles :

Scroll to top