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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 2002

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A heavenly match made in Tsukishima



Ajisen strikes you as special before you even walk in the door. Great care has been taken in creating the entrance itself -- a good sign of the good things to come.

The entrance is very atypical of a sake pub. Instead of the usual sliding door and rope curtain, there is a very artsy-craftsy stained-glass sign, with a reassuring wooden sake barrel in the corner. The inside is remarkably small and compact, with a tight counter for seven and tables for 14 beyond that.

Settling in with an Ebisu draft (another very good sign), you may be courteously warned that most things may take a moment or two longer to prepare than the average place. No problem. You should be happy to be camped here for the duration.

You are likely to be instinctively drawn to the shelf of sake bottles and the descriptive banners hanging below it, titillating in their potential. But discipline yourself to check out the food first. Although, being located in Tsukishima, Ajisen is a bit off the beaten path, but it has a reputation for excellent and varied food using only the finest ingredients.

The fish is exceptional. The owner, Shinichi Araki, worked for eight years in a fish market before opening Ajisen. He knows his stuff and makes the (wonderfully) short trip to Tsukiji every morning. This is why the menu varies a bit from day to day, not to mention with the seasons.

There is a short food menu on the table, but look up at the inside wall for where it's really at. There are dozens of selections, each of which are prepared several ways. On each square of paper, the fish is listed in the middle, and each of the ways you can have it is listed in a corner. Raw, baked, broiled or stewed; each selection has two or more ways you can enjoy it.

Other banners list less perishable specialties, and the prefectures from which they hail. Much of it you are likely to have never heard of; a bit of it seems downright strange (liked smoked hoya). But hey, somewhere, someone enjoys it, and so can we.

Everything is clearly a cut above the average. The tofu comes from Nishikawa-ya of Ginza, tasty and refined. Even the satsuma-age was unique, packed with vegetables and lots of pine nuts. Indeed, you can't go wrong with anything on the menu. And that is even before you get to the sake.

Ah, yes, that potential-laden sake list. There are perhaps 60 selections, and they change with great regularity. Oh, there are the must-haves, like Kubota, Hakkaisan, Juyondai and Kokuryu. Wonderful, all of them, but not exactly hard to come by in sake pubs.

There are also a wide range of sake from tiny brewers, a few I had never heard of, and all handpicked. Included among those are Kenkoichi from Miyagi, and Kure from Hiroshima. Others -- not all that rare but certainly not ubiquitous -- include Ama no To and Oroku, both available in several manifestations.

There are more, like Wataya, Tatsuriki, Shinkame and Wataribune, and others you may recognize as well.

Ajisen is one of those places where they notice when you are paying attention and rise to the occasion by engaging your interest. As such, it is a great place to learn about sake. There's not a sake here that Araki-san does not know well, and if he is not so busy as to be engaged, you'll get an educational earful.

In addition to sake, there is also a shochu list covering all the main styles, should that be your fancy. A bit of wine is available, too. But it seems hard to beat the match between good sake and the food served here at Ajisen.

To get to Ajisen, take a right out of Exit 7 of Tsukishima Station on the Yurakucho Line and cut diagonally across the tiny intersection. Take the second left, and Ajisen is down about 150 meters on the left, just beyond the hourly rental parking lot. Open 5:30-10:30 p.m. (last order), closed Sunday, Monday and holidays. Tsukishima 1-18-10, Chuo-ku, tel (03) 3534-8483.

Ama no To (Akita Prefecture)

Ama no To Ginjo is mildly fragrant, well-rounded (if a tad on the full side), with a lovely driving acidic sweetness. Overall, Ama no To is a name to remember. Much of their sake is very distinctive, the homogenous tastes of the mass market be damned, with great pride taken in the local rice used. There are usually three or so Ama no To sake at Ajisen, so check them out there.

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: Jan. 20, 2002
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