Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
May 1, 2004
IN THIS ISSUE:
-- Quantum Physics & Sake Regionality
-- Sake Events & Announcements
Quantum Physics & Sake Regionality
One of the great things about writing your own newsletters is
that you can wax into weirdness once in a while, free from the scathing wrath of nervous editors. While it is also important to ensure this newsletter provides practical and useful information, there is no law against
having a bit of fun doing it. Hence the title of title of this article.
A basic premise of quantum physics is that at the quantum level, energy comes in the dual manifestation of waves and particles. In other
words, depending upon how you measure it, energy can behave as if it comes in waves, or it can behave as if it comes in particles. While it should be one or the other, at the quantum mechanical level, it seems to be
both at the same time.
Backing gingerly away from the brink of a major diversion, let us return to sake. Like wine, sake has "regionality." In other words, sake from one part of Japan will have one
particular style or set of representative flavors and aromas, and sake from another part of Japan will have a totally different style, profile and appeal.
Many things contribute to this, with perhaps the most
obvious being the raw materials of sake: rice and water. Like the raw materials of any other beverage, different varieties of rice will lead to different flavor profiles in the resulting sake. And, like all plant
life, different varieties of rice grow differently in even slightly different regions, with each rice variety having its own micro-climate in which it thrives. So historically, kura (breweries) would naturally use
what rice grew locally, and end up with sake typically representative of that rice.
Water, too, exerts massive leverage on the flavor, feel and nature of sake. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that
almost all kura exist where they do because they were built around a good source of water. Sake is in the end about 80 percent water, and the mineral content of water and its hardness or softness determine to a great
extent the character of that sake. Although this certainly goes beyond the simple polarity of just hard water and soft water, the former will lead to firmer, more focused sake while the latter can result in wider,
more absorbing flavor profiles. While it is true that within any given region there are both sources of hard water and sources of soft water, there are indeed some regions of Japan where the water is similar
throughout the region.
Beyond the raw materials, though, there are other factors that have traditionally affected regional differences. Not surprisingly, local cuisine is one example of this. Mountainous
regions rarely saw much fresh fish, for example, but rather found sustenance in preserved foods, with their saltier, stronger flavors, and the sake of such regions naturally developed so as to complement this. Locales
near major fishing ports enjoyed different delicacies, mostly seafood with its comparatively lighter nature, which led to local sake that supported such cuisine. Other cultural factors have also played a part in some
And so this is the "wave" nature of quantum physics as it manifests itself in the sake world. There are "waves" of generalities that are discernible in assessing the sake of many
regions of Japan. For example, the wave of Niigata sake is light, dry and refined, the wave of Hiroshima sake is soft and sweet, and the wave of Nada sake is solid and masculine. Assessing sake (and many other
delicacies, crafts and arts in Japan) in this way has long been very popular. You might say it's all the wave, and you might be wight.
However, many of these factors have changed over the decades, along with
changes in society and infrastructure. Local food is no longer limited to what was eaten 100 years ago, and the local townsfolk are no longer the only market for any kura. Also, unlike the wine world, sake brewers are
not limited to using only local rice. And in fact, very often rice is shipped from one region to another. While this may lead to better sake in more places, it is certainly a chink in the armor of the concept of
Also, with technological developments and their availability to all brewers, as well as the increasing need for product differentiation among good sake, many kura are producing sake that
is unique, and decidedly unlike traditional local styles. The individuality and personal preferences of brewers themselves also have much more room to be expressed than was feasible long ago. And naturally, the media
has done its part to extol the virtues and reputations of various producers and products from around the country as well.
What all this has led to over the past few decades is individual kura becoming well
known for the sake they brew, irregardless of whether or not it is representative of region, or what that regional style might be. Many consumers no longer look for or ask for sake by region, but rather by producer.
Erstwhile, consumers and aficionados might have felt and spoken about liking the sake of a particular region, but
more often than not this has migrated toward a list of producers with identity and character that are mutually exclusive of region. Very interesting, actually.
And this, as you have likely already guessed, is
the particle aspect of the admittedly tenuous tie between sake and quantum physics. In other words, especially over the last quarter century, consumers look at a sake map of Japan and see particles, individual sake
and breweries, rather than waves of regional style.
This does not mean that regionality is dead. Not at all, actually. All but one of Japan's 47 prefectures produce at least some sake. However, not all of them
have an identifiable style to their sake. But many do. And while there are many particles amongst the waves, there are also efforts amongst the producers of many regions to maintain at least some semblance of the
original waves of regional style. These efforts include developing and using local rice types and yeast strains, and other less concrete approaches too.
So in the end, the energy of the sake world can be
viewed as waves or as particles. Both have their validity, and both are fascinating to observe and study. While it might seem that the wave aspects were more valid a few decades ago, with particle facets more so
today, in fact they both continue to coexist in peace.
In truth, the parallels between quantum physics and sake do not run much deeper than that.
But my point is not really the comparison of sake
with quantum physics. Rather, I am trying to convey that while a few decades ago consumers looked at region first, lately they tend to look at individual producers for their preferences. Yet, at the same time, the
vestiges of regional distinction in the sake world still exist, and are still very much worth exploring.
Over the next few months I will look again at the various regions of Japan, and their sake, with this
wave-particle duality in mind.
While I realize that most readers are *not* in Tokyo, and that many may never make it there, it still seems
valuable from time to time to introduce one great place to enjoy sake in that monstrous metropolis. Ajisen is one of those places worth visiting if you have but one free night. It is fairly centrally located, yet just
a bit tricky to find. Small, cozy and warm, the food and sake are outstanding. And many sake brewers drop by when visiting Tokyo on business trips; this is always a good sign.
Ajisen strikes you as special
before you even walk in the door. 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 people 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 being 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. Ajisen is on Tsukishima, an actual island created by rivers, yet
a short taxi ride from Tokyo station. While just a bit off the beaten path, 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 short trip to Tsukiji every morning. This is why the menu varies a bit from day to day, not to mention with the
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. But hey, somewhere, someone enjoys it, and so can we.
clearly a cut above the average. The tofu comes from Nishikawa-ya of Ginza, tasty and refined. Even the satsuma-age (a traditional fish-based staple) was unique, packed with vegetables and lots of pine nuts. Indeed,
you can't go wrong with anything on the menu. And that's before you even 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
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.
Alas, only Japanese is spoken and written here, so you may need to entice a friend to help. But you can easily make it worth their while.
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.
Sake Events & Announcements
On the evening of Saturday, May 29, from 6:00 to about 9:00, Rob Yellin and I will hold another joint seminar on
sake and Japanese Pottery at Takara, near Yurakucho Station. The sake topic will be sake rice types; what makes sake rice special and what makes the various strains important.
The cost for the evening -
half a dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and printed material - will be 7000 yen. Those interested can reserve a spot by sending me an email. No deposit is required. Takara is located on the B1 level of the Tokyo
Forum, the convention center just outside Yurakucho Station. More detailed instructions for getting there will follow with the confirmation email.