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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 1999

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Sipping Sake's Diversity, One Cup at a Time



Accessibility is key when it comes to learning about sake. You can read about it until you're blue in the face, but if you can't access it and sample various types, there's not much point.

Often, though, choosing a bottle out of so many selections available at a shop can be daunting. So can committing to a huge bottle when you are not sure if you'll like it or not. Even good sake pubs can pose challenges. Good sake is never cheap, and those confounded kanji don't make the ordering process any easier. Wouldn't it be great to be able to drop in to a conveniently located shot-bar kind of place, and order up just a shot of good sake? In English?

Well, now you can, at Kuri.

Kuri is a tiny sake "pub," just opened, that can cater to those needs. Located in a quiet, residential neighborhood halfway between Hiroo and Roppongi, it sits tucked away from the noise of the big city.

Here, you can slip onto one of the 10 bar stools at the counter, or chill out at one of the two tiny tables, and relax. Start with a beer, if you choose. Kuri has a continually changing selection of draft ji-biiru (microbrewed beer) from all over Japan. Whatever is in this week is sure to be interesting.

Or, dig right in to the sake. This is immensely simplified by the fact that the entire sake menu is in English. (Naturally, a Japanese version exists too.) Names, flavor profile descriptions, and prices on the four-page, 100-odd sake menu are all rendered perfectly and instantly understandable.

But wait! That is not all this place has going for it. Each of the sake is available in one of several sizes. You can have a full glass if you are sure of what you are ordering, or sample several that sound good. Servings come in sizes as small as 50 ml, and for prices as low as 130 yen. Quite conducive to learning.

This is especially neat when considering the quality of some of the sake in stock. Here, you can try sake you've heard a lot about, supposedly all the rage, and avoid taking out a loan to do so. There are also 90 ml and full ichi-go (180-ml) servings. At Kuri, you can sample four or five different selections and still be in one piece.

The sake menu is quite diverse indeed. There is sake from every region, as well as aged sake, sparkling sake, sake only available here and some very rare and expensive selections too. They took the time to put it into English due to the high concentration of English speakers in the neighborhood.

Some of the more interesting selections include a tasting set of five 50-ml glasses of Tokugetsu, the ultra-refined Niigata sake made by the brewers of Kubota and Asahiyama. The set includes brews from 1990, '92, '94, '96 and '98. See how such sake ages. There are several other aged sake as well.

Here, you can try wonderful Tatsuriki Akitsu, usually about 30,000 yen a bottle, for 1,130 yen for 50 ml, just to say you've had it. Biwa no Choju and Ugo no Tsuki are both a bargain at 140 yen a 50-ml shot. Kikuhime, Kamoizumi, Bizen Sakehitosuji, Rihaku, Suwaizumi, Shigemasu, Koro and Kudoki Jozu are just a few of the dozens available.

But what of the food, you might ask. That's easy. There isn't any. Well, none to speak of, anyway. There is a menu of small snacks, a dozen delicacies from all over Japan, that are quite tasty and go well with sake, but nothing of any volume. Kuri (the name refers, ironically enough, to the kitchen of a temple) is meant to be more of a sake sampling bar, and that it does very well.

The owners, the Kurihara family, own the sake retail shop just across the lane. Now you know where you can buy and take home anything on the menu you might have liked. They are well known and very active in the sake community, and are now channeling their energy into this project as well. They are extremely friendly and accommodating, which suffuses the whole place with added warmth.

The building used to be used simply for storage, and the interior has been polished and refined wonderfully. A few rustic touches, like nails visible in the rough-surfaced wooden pillars, still remain. Beyond the main room is a zashiki with a long table easily sitting 15 or more. This is in general reserved for meetings or seminars, but can be reserved for large groups.

Lest I get myself in trouble with either the owners or irate customers, English is for the most part confined to the sake menu. You can indeed order sake in English, but please do not expect a lengthy, in-depth conversation on politics or where to get your dog's coat cleaned.

What you can expect, though, is exposure to countless great sake at reasonable prices, a quiet, pleasant venue, and simplicity in ordering. That rarity alone is worth a visit.

To get to Kuri, walk along TV Asahi-dori from Roppongi (alternatively, come up the hill passing by Arisugawa Park from Hiroo intersection) and take a left just beyond the Chinese Embassy (or a right just before it if you are coming from Hiroo). At the bottom of that hill, you will see Sakaya Kurihara on the left, distinguished by the large sakabayashi cedar ball dangling out front, and other sake paraphernalia. The nomiya Kuri is on your right, just across the street from Sakaya Kurihara. Open 5-10:30 p.m., closed Sundays and holidays. 2F 2-11-1 Moto-Azabu, (03) 3497-0881.

* * *

Chiyo no Sono "Shuhai Mark II" (Kumamoto)

Nihonshu-do: +6
Acidity: 1.4
Seimai-buai: 45 percent

Chiyo no Sono was one of the first kura (they claim) to begin brewing junmai-shu after the war. They pledged to continue their efforts at brewing better and better sake, and sealed that promise by all drinking out of a huge, vermilion lacquered cup called a shuhai, hence the name of this sake.

Sweet elements and slight bitter aspects duke it out across your tongue in a flavor profile that was obviously very deliberately and artistically crafted. The nose is somewhat peppery but laced with faint melon fruits. The acid-spawned tartness lingers in the tail, holding a bitter note ever so lightly and pleasantly to finish. Overall, very interesting.

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 sake, or fax your name and address to (03) 3460-8263.

The Japan Times: Sept. 9, 1999
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