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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 2000

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Ryohana: brilliantly competent, and proud of it



The late Jerry Garcia, former Grateful Dead lead guitarist, was once asked in an interview if he would like to be considered a great musician. With characteristic modesty, he waved the idea off as something in which he had no interest. After a moment of thought, however, he responded: "I would like to be considered a competent musician. Yeah, competent. That would be nice."

By now you are likely glancing at the top of the page to be sure you are reading the right column. What has this to do with nihonshu? Although Jerry was not likely a big sake drinker, the issue of competence being important is the common thread.

There are all kinds of sake pubs. Rustic, stylish, mellow, wild and great value are some of the qualities prized by tipplers. And, of course, great food and great sake are almost unspoken requirements. But all we really need is a sake pub that is competent. Like Ryohana.

Ryohana is a very competent sake pub. It has a simplicity to it that allows you to concentrate on what's important: the sake, the nibbles and your company. It has an unpretentiousness to it that makes it eminently approachable. And both the food and drink are solid and satisfying.

It's not a big place. A long, sunken table sits about 14 communally, and a J-shaped counter holds about the same. The interior is not quite traditional, but not flippantly modern either. The jazz being pumped out could be a bit more audible. But it's comfortable and humble to be sure.

Should you opt for a beer to, if nothing else, allow your eyes to become accustomed to the slightly too-dark room, they have Yebisu on draft. For those that would like something a bit more chunky, they also have sturdy Brooklyn Lager on the menu.

The character of Ryohana soon begins to appear. The mustachioed master and his several polite employees all have closely cropped hair, and wear pajama-esque samue, traditional working clothes. You feel a bit like you are in a temple. The varied serving vessels are not without their character-imparting chips and cracks. It all brings a slight grin to your face.

There are 34 sake on the menu, from among 20 brewers. All have been tasted by the master and selected to work well with the food. None have been selected for their popularity or marketability. In another stroke of uniqueness, all the sake is served in short-stemmed fluted transparent wine glasses, allowing the color and luster to be appreciated.

There are nine sake from venerable Kikuhime of Ishikawa; all have a different flavor profile and a different price point. Several of these are yamahai-shikomi sake, sake made with the special yeast starter process that yields a strong and wild flavor. Kikuhime excels at yamahai, and a stronger flavored sake you will not find.

There are some slightly expensive sake, but nothing really hoity-toity, horrendously famous or glorified. But there are many extremely recommendable sake, more than the average sake pub. (Perhaps it is just that his tastes are in line with my own.) Indeed, everything on the sake menu is, well, competent.

Some concrete examples might include one of the several selections from Toyo no Aki, a mellow and finely balanced sake from Shimane. Otemon and Shigemasu from Fukuoka, Shinkame from Saitama and Yorokobi no Izumi from Okayama are all to be found here as well.

If that were, for some reason, not to be enough, you could work with Koro from Kumamoto, Kaiun from Shizuoka or Kariho from Akita (the alliteration is totally coincidental). And finally, the Kanto region is amply represented by Shikizakura from Tochigi, Kagamiyama from Saitama and Iwanoi from Chiba.

The food at Ryohana does not take a back seat to the sake, but fits rather well into the picture (as is the master's intention). The o-toshi, brought to you with your first drink, are ample and different for each person. There are lots of unique, umami-laden dishes to dig into, like pitan-dofu, tofu graced with a Chinese-style black, pickled egg. Sashimi, salads, grilled fish and more are all presented with competence, and a touch of uniqueness.

Ryohana may not be the most rustic pub in town (try Fukube for that). It may not have the largest selection (try Akaoni). Nor may it be the wildest (head to Mokichi). But Ryohana is competent. In its food, its feel and its sake, it is all you need.

To get to Ryohana, go out the north exit of Shimokitazawa Station on the Odakyu and Inokashira lines. Take a right at the bottom of the stairs, and walk about five minutes until that dead-ends, where you will see a small clothing shop called Meili. Take a right there, the first left a few meters up, and the first right. Ryohana is there on the right, with the name in both Japanese and English on the sign set our front. Menu and conversation in Japanese. 2-34-8 Kitazawa, (03) 3468-6456. Open daily 5-11 p.m. Closed Sundays and holidays.

* * *

Kudoki Jozu (Yamagata Prefecture)
Junmai ginjo
Nihonshudo: +1
Acidity: 1.2
Seimai buai: 50 percent

The toji (head brewer) at this kura is also the president. Not only is this rare, it's amazing that he can find the time to do both, considering the energy that each job would take.

This junmai ginjo is a light and balanced sake that is actually quite distinct. The flavor is clean, with a soft fruitiness. The nose as well is quite fruity and flowery, often with a solid essence of the apples, especially in the finish. The balance, however, is not sacrificed. Best slightly chilled.

Here, they make copious use of a yeast known as Ogawa 101, which gives rise to a fruity fragrance, bursting with green apples and strawberries. If this type of lively sake appeals to you, be sure to seek out this and the more expensive daiginjo manifestations of Kudoki Jozu.

Sign up for a free sake-related 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: Mar. 9, 2000
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