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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 1999

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Oasis of Serenity Found in Rowdiest Roppongi



One of Tokyo's greatest charms, and one of its greatest oddities, is its occasional lack of congruency. Like architectural hiccups, you often see a building where you would least expect it, completely unrelated to everything around it. Aburaya in Roppongi is like that, albeit it is more a matter of atmosphere than architecture.

Aburaya has the feeling of a small, ever-so-slightly upscale neighborhood joint. Although it has only been open a few years, it feels like a place that has been in the family for decades. It's an oasis of serenity amidst the chaos and neon of this part of town. You will forget you are in Roppongi.

The two men who stand and prepare the food behind the 15-seat counter, from which all their work is visible, are not the young, hyped-up, bursting with so much nervous energy that they twitch when not cooking or shouting kind of guys. They're mature workin' men, experienced shokunin (craftsmen) to the core. Busy, professional and traditional, they are aware of all that is unfolding around them, as their knives glide through the necessary motions.

Yet they are friendly and accommodating as well, even taking the chance to rib a customer when the opportunity presents itself. After all, everyone is within earshot. Aburaya is small; beyond the counter there is but one tiny table for four (thin) people, and a raised tatami dais with a table for six or so.

Beyond the shoulders of the shokunin runs the long, two-tiered sake refrigerator. Almost all of the 50-odd selections are visible. There is a paper menu rolled up in a rack on the table, should label recognition not be your forte. As that also lists the prices, it may be a better bet.

The sake selection toes that just slightly upscale line as well. Mostly junmai/honjozo class and above, with a few daiginjo thrown in for good measure. Most are well known. Kaiun and Onna Nakase Daiginjo from Shizuoka, Yoakemae from Nagano and Suigei from Kochi are some of the more light and fragrant selections available. Should karakuchi (dry) sake be your preference, Shimeharitzuru of Niigata, Michizakari from Gifu and Tsukasabotan from Kochi will fit the bill nicely.

Kamoizumi from Hiroshima, Nishinoseki from Oita and Umenishiki from Ehime are some of the more full-flavored selections. Masumi from Nagano, Denshin from Fukui and Tateyama from Toyama are good if you want something mellow and smooth. But no matter what sake you order, the presentation is a treat.

It comes in a simple ceramic tokkuri, situated in a deep-walled, black lacquered dish. To keep it cold, there is a block of ice the size of a small brick that has been left to melt, just enough so the sharp edges have become smooth and rounded. It's more than a bit reminiscent of the way that Aburaya melts the sharp edges off of the Roppongi that sits just outside the noren curtain. Between the mirror-finished ice and the tokkuri rests a sprig of a seasonal flower.

The food menu is not vast. Mostly fish, with lots of vegetables and some meat. It is tasty and attractive, though. Most of it is printed on streamers, and in the 700-900 yen range. Again, just a bit upscale. The large grilled eggplant is great, as is the skin which they will gladly slice up for you later. Noppe-jiru, a vegetable stew of sorts, is light and tasty as well. All of the fish, sashimi or baked, is fresh and flavorful.

For another treat, finish off with the soba. You grind the wasabi yourself, from the root. But unlike almost everywhere, the small grinding board is not metal, but real sharkskin-covered wood. The difference in the ground wasabi is profound: much more fragrant and smooth in texture. Another little Aburaya touch.

Here they don't seem to be trying to cater to any one particular crowd -- not to business men nor to young women nor to the flotsam and jetsam of the street. Rather, they are just there, doing their thing. The clientele is therefore fairly varied.

Although no English is spoken or written, I have seen them do their best to accommodate the less than linguistically inclined customers -- without panic.

To get to Aburaya, from Roppongi intersection, go about 100 meters down the narrow street immediately to the left of Almond Cafe. Aburaya is on the left, just above and beyond the awkwardly situated public restrooms. Crescent Bldg 1F 5-9-23, Roppongi, (03) 3405-0880, 5 p.m.-11 p.m., closed Sundays and holidays.

* * * On Saturday, July 17th at 1 p.m. there will be a sake tasting and seminar held at restaurant 1066. The event is organized by RAIN (Refugee Assistance International Network), a charity which supports children displaced by the civil strife in Sri Lanka. All proceeds will go the charity. The event is sponsored by Maihime Brewery, brewers of sterling Maihime sake from Nagano, and will feature several types of Maihime sake for comparison. There will be explanations in both Japanese and English on the various types of sake, their respective brewing methods and how to read labels, if you are a novice. Sake will be available for purchase and there will also be a drawing for various interesting prizes.

1066 is located at 3-9-5 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku. Admission is 3,000 yen for the tasting and accompanying food. Space is limited to 30 people. If you are interested, please contact Steve Cooke at or call (03) 3719-9059 or fax (03) 3719-9002.

* * * Ugo no Tsuki (Hiroshima Prefecture)


Nihonshu-do: +5.5

Acidity: 1.4

Seimai-buai: 40%

Ugo no Tsuki, or "the moon after rain," is among Hiroshima's finest. It has a soft and melting quality, perhaps better closer to room temperature than chilled, as a well-grounded sweetness and several ripe fruit essences become apparent. Clean and light.

You don't need to go as far as a daiginjo, either. Ugo no Tsuki also makes a fine tokubetsu junmai that is similar but perhaps more sturdy and less airy. Ugo no Tsuki is available at (among other places) Sakaya Kurihara in Moto-Azabu, (03) 3408-5378.

Questions about sake? Ask by e-mail 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. For information about sake, visit

The Japan Times: July 8, 1999
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