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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 1999

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Shibuya's Best-Kept Secret !



Publicity can be both good and bad. It can help a restaurant or pub stay open and economically healthy. It can also, however, be the bane of an establishment as well. Too much attention has its downfalls.

Ni-go-han in Shibuya knows this well. It's relatively unknown, at least among the masses -- which simply adds to the mystique of the place. It is but a three-minute walk from Shibuya Station, just up Miyamasu-zaka. It is hardly hidden, being right on the main street and marked with a big sign pointing to the building basement. Still, you'll not likely see it advertised or written up in any book or magazine.

It seems they shun such attention, choosing to pass on offers of inclusion in city magazines and sake pub guidebooks. Upon inquiry (after settling down with sake in hand), it was revealed that the master is of the opinion that all that would do more harm than good. After all, you never know what kind of riff-raff will come stumbling in. He may have a point.

Ni-go-han is definitely unique. Long and narrow and compartmentalized, its form follows function. You can choose the single, large table for six or more in the front, seating for one or two near the counter, or one of the zashiki in the back. The lack of windows is more than made up with by hanging art, some of which is for sale.

On the table rests a laminated menu, one side of which is crammed with more than 120 sake selections. It is hard to think of anything you might want that isn't on there.

If too many options are intimidating, scan the walls. There are plenty of especially recommended selections pasted up. You'll see Kubota in almost every manifestation of grade: Senju, Beni-ju, Koju, Heki-ju and Manju -- in that order. You can also check out the driest of the dry in Yuki no Matsushima. If you like sake with a bit heavier flavor, check out Rihaku, Shinkame or Amanoto Umashine.

Biwa no Choju, Bon (from Fukui), Shosetsu, Kotsuzumi, Uragasumi and Shinkame are just a sampling of what else is available. If you can't be bothered with reading the menu, the above will get your group through the evening just fine.

The food menu is curious. Many of the selections are rather spicy, certainly too overpowering for most of the sake there, but tasty enough for the transgression to be overlooked.

Most of the usual suspects are available: sashimi, salads, age-mono (deep-fried ditties) and tempura. There is an unusual range of spring rolls, most notably natto harumaki and cheese harumaki. There is also a section of different octopus offerings, most recommended of which is the spicy hippari-dako.

Ni-go-han is a tad serene, with a clean-cut, diligent master behind the counter. Some might think the place a bit too serious. While certainly not stuffy (the friendly waitresses ensure that), you are not likely to find much howlin' and knee-slappin' here. But the food is good and the sake exceptional and the prices are reasonable to boot.

So, if and when you do go, do me a favor and don't stomp in waving the Japan Times article; I want to go back. Tell them you heard about the place from a friend.

To get to Ni-go-han, from JR Shibuya Station go up Miyamasu-zaka in the direction of Omotesando on the right side of the street. Ni-go-han is three minutes up, just across the street from the Shibuya post office. 2-19-17, Shibuya Shibuya-ku, (03) 3486-0205. 5:30-11 p.m., closed Sundays and holidays.

* * *

It's back: the sake tasting of sake tastings -- the Nihon Ginjo-shu Kyokai spring event. On Thursday, April 15, 5:30-7:30 p.m., at the Akasaka Prince Hotel, you can taste upward of 400 sake from among 83 breweries from around Japan. Get out of work early and indulge in two hours of Epicurean excess.

The cost is a measly 4,000 yen which is in essence refunded since you receive a bottle of ginjo-shu to take home when you leave. This is the spring event, and sake brewing is just wrapping up for the season at most places, so much of the sake will be shinshu, new sake. Also available will be the shuppin-shu of each brewery, the sake to be submitted to government-sponsored sake competitions. Not to be missed!

Be warned there is no food available at the event. Empty stomachs and sake tastings are a formula for disaster; it is highly advisable to grab a bite beforehand.

Although you can simply show up on that day, things are smoother for all involved if you register in advance. To do so, send a fax to (03) 3378-1232 requesting the requisite number of applications, and include your mailing address. You'll need to return the postcard by April 9.

* * *

Isojiman (Shizuoka)
Nihonshu-do: +6-+8
Acidity: 1.1
Seimai-buai: 55-60 percent

This kura brews nothing lower than honjozo class. Although its ginjo-shu class sake is certainly wonderful, this simple honjozo has enough distinction and class to fit almost any bill. Balanced and relatively fragrant, the nose leans toward melons and persimmons. The flavor carries an unmistakable richness recognizable throughout all Isojiman sake.

Isojiman can be a bit hard to find, but not impossibly so, in retail stores. However, it is fairly popular in sake pubs, and its wonders can be sampled in establishments like Ni-go-han above.

Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist and yakimono expert Rob Yellin and I will be hosting our second sake and Japanese pottery (sake utensils, of course) seminar April 24, at the sake pub Mushu near Shin-Ochanomizu/Awajicho stations. If you are interested, please e-mail, call or fax me at the e-mail address or number below (e-mail is preferred). Participation is limited to 45, and it should fill up fast.

A free sample of the bimonthly newsletter Sake World is available; e-mail me at, or fax your name and address to (03) 3460-8263. Also, to be put on a contact list for information on sake-related tours, events, and seminars, send an e-mail or fax me.

Questions about sake? Ask by e-mail or visit www.sake-world.

The Japan Times: Mar. 25, 1999
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