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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 1999

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Sake tools you can trust



Happy Holidays to all Japan Times readers.

There are sure to be, among all you merry-makers, a few last-minute shoppers. Perhaps a sake accouterment would be perfect for that one last gift. In this, the last Nihonshu column of the year, century and millennium, let's look at a few of the sake toys and tools around town.

On top of being the holiday season, it is also the cold season. And nothing cures that like warmed sake. We all know that perhaps 90 percent of all good sake should be served cold, but for that remaining 10 percent -- and those less discerning readers -- the right serving temperature is paramount. That too varies with preferences, but could be said to be about 40-48 C.

For measuring that temperature, try the O-kan meter. It is a small thermometer with winglike protrusions on the side near the top. This allows you to set it in a tokkuri with the sensing bulb in the center of the tokkuri, not too low near the heat. It also allows you to pull it out easily and quickly. A nifty little tool for 1,000 yen available at (at least) Seibu Loft.

Next, should you be filling tokkuri regularly, you'll want the "jido (automatic) filler," available at 100 yen shops for, well, 100 yen. It snaps neatly on to a 1.8-liter bottle of sake (or shoyu, for that matter) and allows you to pour neatly into a tokkuri. The pouring end is a slightly elongated tube. When the level in the tokkuri reaches the top, the sake automatically stops coming out of the bottle, preventing the dreaded overflows. Clean and simple. Waste not, want not. Should you not finish the bottle in one serving, there are several options.

One is the Private Reserve product, available at Seibu Loft and select wine shops. It is a small cylinder of mostly nitrogen gas that allows you to blast all the oxygen out of a bottle before you re-cap it, giving you a little bit more time after opening before the sake loses its pizzazz. At 1,800 yen for 90 uses, it is a cheap way to buy some time.

Sake, just like wine, needs to be consumed very soon after opening or it will become relatively lifeless. Products like this help it retain its original qualities a few more days, but still try to consume it soon.

There are other solutions to this problem: products that use a small pump and special stopper to pull air out of the bottles, creating a vacuum of sorts to prevent dreaded oxidation. One brand name is Epivac, available in 800 yen and 1,500 yen versions. These work fairly well also.

And, when you're finished with the bottle, it can be educational to hang on to the label for future reference. There is often a lot to be learned from labels, and they go well with tasting notes too. Perhaps the cleanest way to remove them is to soak the bottles in water for an hour or two. Many labels will come off cleanly using this method.

There are, however, many breweries who use paper or atomic-strength glue that simply do not facilitate easy removal. Tearing and ripping render the whole exercise meaningless. The solution is to use these plastic label removers available widely at wine shops.

These clear plastic squares with adhesive backing are placed over the label on the bottle and rubbed vigorously with a pen or something hard to cause the label to thoroughly stick to the adhesive. When the plastic is peeled back, the label image comes with it.

Basically, it removes the label, leaving the glue and some label fibers behind. While not 100 percent perfect, it usually does the job and is much better than nothing at all. In fact, when you place the label-bearing plastic square back onto its wax-covered cover sheet, there is space on the back for tasting notes. Pretty slick indeed.

Next, should you choose to enjoy warm sake this season, here are a couple of neat (if slightly extravagant) tools that also make great gifts.

The right temperature is important, but so is maintaining that temperature. Often, it starts to drop just as you finish warming it. To maintain that warm but not too hot temperature, try the "Kan nabe and kan nabe warmer" set, available for 7,500 yen at Ebisu Mitsukoshi Kurashi no Wa on the first floor. It consists of a small, black metal pan under which a candle is placed, which gently warms a black teapotlike vessel sitting on top of it.

There are also ceramic versions in which a pot of water is heated by candle, and you place the tokkuri inside the small, gently and evenly heated water. Prices are about 10 yen,000-13,000 yen, and are available at fine sake shops like Sakaya Kurihara in Moto-Azabu.

Last but not least, nothing makes a better gift for someone else or yourself than a nice, fun to hold o-choko or guinomi (sake cup). 'Tis the season for yearend displays of gorgeous pottery at department stores everywhere. While not cheap, nice ceramic cups easily double the quality of experience when drinking sake.

The display at Takashimaya in Nihonbashi offers a wide range of pottery styles. Beyond that, the word from Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist Rob Yellin is that the best places to shop are at Ikebukuro Tobu and Matsuya in Ginza, as well as Mitsukoshi in Nihonbashi and Odakyu and Isetan in Shinjuku.

Perhaps such ceramic gifts, which last a lifetime, make the finest of holiday presents. Naturally, less expensive, simpler versions are available everywhere. Another option are black lacquered versions of the small wooden boxed called masu, which allow you that traditional feel without letting the flavor of the wood affect the flavor of the sake. These are available for 500 yen (again at Seibu Loft).

* * *

Tentaka "Kokoro" (Tochigi Prefecture)

Junmai ginjoNihonshu-do: +4

Acidity: 1.5

Seimai-buai: 52 percent

"If it isn't dry, it ain't sake." These were the words, more or less, of the founder of this sake. Tentaka sake is indeed generally dry. But nowadays, it has a nice character and solid foundation of flavor as well. A very light and fruity nose that almost jumps out at you, but with a mature and confident mellowness. Pleasant chilled, but also nice slightly warmed.

* * *

Japan Times Ceramics Scene author and Japanese pottery expert Robert Yellin and I will be doing a joint seminar on sake basics and pottery basics on Jan. 22, at the sake pub Mushu in Awajicho, near Shin-Ochanomizu/Awajicho stations, 6-9 p.m. The evening will include a meal, half a dozen or so good sake, and lectures by Rob and me. Seating is limited and fills up fast. To make a reservation, e-mail me or fax me at the address and/or number below (e-mail preferred), or call Mushu at (03) 3255-1108. Details will be provided by e-mail later.

Sign up for a free e-mail newsletter and wade through oodles of information about sake at Also, to be put on a contact list for information on sake-related tours, events, and seminars, send an e-mail to, or fax your name and address to (03) 3460-8233.

The Japan Times: Dec. 23, 1999
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