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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 2000

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Keeping it plain & simple for serious sake drinkers



Some of the best sake can be tasted these days at modern, shiny, artsy-craftsy sake pubs. These present some of the most lively and interesting environments in which to hang out with nihonshu. But sometimes, what we seek in a sake pub is more of an out-of-the-way feeling. Sometimes its anonymity that fits the bill; along with simplicity and unpretentiousness.

As you descend the steep, narrow staircase leading to Sannoji, you'll know you've got your anonymity. Although it's but five minutes from Shimbashi Station, you know you have found an island of isolation. Problem is, so have about 20 other people, but still, it feels small and local.

As you part the noren and duck inside, you will know you have found your simplicity. Sannoji is but one simple basement room, filled with solidly built but tightly spaced tables. Most of these are filled with white shirts engaged in animated, decidedly non-work-related conversation.

The overall feeling is one of suffusing warmth. You'll be greeted politely and sincerely, but with no groveling. A glance around the room shows streamers listing the sake available, but the place is so small that the refrigerator is in plain view of all.

Sannoji also exudes a nice local feel to it. A dried fugu in a fully puffed state and the jawbone of small shark hang from above the square-cornered counter, along with a few other tacky trinkets. There's the compulsory drunk local wearing a cut-off sweat shirt at counter, squinting into the room through the mist of his overconsumption. As he struggles to see through the fog, the salaryman next to him offers a word of seeming encouragement.

As you order and enjoy your food and drink, you will know you have your unpretentiousness. The master presides from behind the cramped counter in a simple white T-shirt, no fancy emblazoned apron, no funky head wrap. He is straightforward and friendly, but without being overly chummy.

Although the menu is all in Japanese, just about any sake you might know well is here. Indeed, the sake selection is, like everything else -- solid but unpretentious. Rather than rare, hard-to-get, dreadfully expensive special sake, the sake list overflows with good sake that is commonly found and reasonably priced.

The 60 or so available include Otokoyama (Hokkaido), sterling Juyondai (Yamagata), Hatsumago (Yamagata), Shichifukujin (Iwate), and delicious Denshu (Aomori). There is also only slighty hard to find Goshun (Osaka), layered Kuroushi (Wakayama), balanced Masuizumi (Toyama) and many more.

The food too is simple, if maybe a bit too predictable. But it is at least consistent with the spirit of Sannoji. Edamame was brought to us in blue-and-white bowls reminiscent of Edo ware, one small one laid upside down over the beans in a larger one. Later we ordered sashimi, and they use the same bowls for that. Hardly an elegant presentation, but the sashimi was as fresh as it gets.

As well it should be, having come from Tsukiji that morning. The master's simple and unpretentious appearance belies his skill with the sashimi knife. A tiny white board behind the counter lists the other catches of the day. Some are grilled, some are stewed, some are raw, and there is plenty there to make a meal.

Sannoji offers solid sake and solid nibbles in a low-key environment.

To get to Sannoji, take the Karasumori exit of JR Shimbashi Station, and 45 degrees to your left, just across the narrow street, you will see an arch over the entrance to Shinbashi Nishiguchi-dori, a narrow restaurant alley. Eighty meters down, at the second four-way intersection, take a left and Sannoji will be on your right, 10 meters down. Just before this intersection, you will pass a Doutor coffee shop and a lottery ticket shop. Omori Bldg. B1, 4-19-1 Shinbashi, (03) 3437-0158. Open 5:30-11 p.m., closed Saturday and Sunday.

'Tis the season for sake events; fall is full of 'em. Here are a couple worth checking out.

If you can at all help it, don't miss the Ginjo-shu Kyokai's fall sake-tasting event. For those that do not know, the Ginjo-shu Kyokai is a group of 83 sake brewers from around Japan that gather for a sake tasting open to the public. Each will present five or so of their sake for sampling. If you want to find out and taste what really good sake is, this is the place.

There is also a spring event, but the fall event presents sake that has been laid down for six months or so, and is usually a bit mellow and mature, more rounded, balanced and pleasant. The cost is a paltry 4,000 yen, and you receive a bottle of ginjo-shu to take home, so that the tasting itself is basically rendered free. Be warned that there is no food at all available, only bottled water. A pre-tasting small meal is highly recommended if you want to avoid la-la land. (There will be spittoons, should you have such will power.)

The event will be held in Osaka Oct. 4, at the Nankai South Tower Hotel Osaka 6:30-8 p.m. In Tokyo, it will be held Oct. 20, 5:30-7:30 at the Akasaka Prince Hotel. To attend either event, call the Ginjo-shu Kyokai at (03) 3378-1231, and ask for an invitation to be sent. Or, fax them at (03) 3378-1232 with a written request to have them mailed. (You can actually just show up on the appointed day and pay at the door as well.) If you are interested in sake, this one is worth leaving work early for.

From today until Oct. 3, Daimaru department store at Tokyo Station will be holding a Japanese Sake and Delicacy Fair. There will be about 50 sake for sale, some available for sampling, and a special corner highlighting special sake each day. Saka-na, small snacks designed for nibbling while tasting sake, have also been gathered from all over Japan. They will also have a Sake Bar Izakaya set up for those interested in more serious tasting and nibbling. The event is being held on the 8th floor 10 a.m.-8 p.m. on weekdays, until 7:30 on weekends and 5 p.m. on the final day.

Lastly, I will be holding a sake tasting, with a short lecture and a meal, Oct. 21 at the sake pub Mushu in Awajicho, near Shin-Ochanomizu and Awajicho stations, 6-9 p.m. The evening will begin with a blind tasting of seven or eight sake. (Note that this is a sake-only evening, not a joint sake-pottery seminar.) Seating is limited. 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.

* * *

Hanahato (Hiroshima Prefecture)

"Ginjo Tsukuri" Junmai-shu
Nihonshu-do: +2.5
Acidity: 1.5
Seimai-buai: 50 percent

Hanahato calls this their "Ginjo Tsukuri" Junmai-shu, with the point being it is meant to be priced and considered a sake of junmaishu class, but at the same time wants us to know it is made according to ginjo standards. In particular, note the seimai-buai of 50 percent; that alone would qualify it as a daiginjo.

This manifestation of Hanahato is slightly fragrant of rice and melon, steady and consistent. The overall flavor has a slightly cooling effect, being smooth and rich in the background but quieter up front. The acidity is quite prominent, and tasting Hanahato chilled will keep that in check. That acidity makes it a classic match with tempura.

Sign up for a free sake-related e-mail newsletter 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 (0467) 23-6895.

The Japan Times: Sept. 28, 2000
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