The Sake of Nara Prefecture
Late last fall I gave a speech at an event sponsored by the Mainichi Shinbun, one of Japan's main national daily newspapers. It
was on the appeal of sake, at least my part was, as two others also gave presentations. One, a well-known rakugo (a traditional, artistic form of monologue comedy) performer, ensured that nothing got too
serious on that day.
The presentation was attended by about 400 people - almost all of them octogenarians. Which is fine, of course. But I was a tad... surprised; disappointed even. It hammered
home the sad truth that Japan's younger generation has not yet embraced the wonders of sake.
Later, I strolled over to Osaka Station to grab the speeding bullet train home to the Tokyo area. I
was wired, tired and hassled enough from three long speeches within the span of a single week in a language other than my native tongue.
This seemed to enough to justify grabbing some sake for
the several-hour train ride home. I do tend to avoid the bottom shelf, and with what little time I had settled I on the disastrously named Houshuku Kisenshu Kichou from Nara. Not only is it hard to say for
many, but the name was written in wickedly cursive characters and all but illegible to anyone but Buddhist monks.
So why'd I get it? Cuz their local salesmen won the shelf space battle, and it
was the only junmai ginjo I had not yet tasted there. But it led me back to thinking about the sake of Nara Prefecture.
Ah, the sake of Nara. How in the world could I have been writing about sake
for over a dozen years and not totally given the sake of Nara its "props." Sure, I have written about it before (see the May 2002 issue here); but still, the historical and contemporary significance
warrant efforts that ensure the region and its sake are much more firmly ensconced in the minds of sake fans everywhere.
Let us look at a list representing a rundown of the reasons Nara is so
significant in the sake world.
-Nara was actually the first region to seat a capital to the Japanese people, way back in the 8th Century. While the glory daze of Nara were not long - the capital moved
to Kyoto in 794 - it was a significant period culturally.
-The Imperial Grounds back then actually held a sake brewing department. We can see from early on that they had their priorities in line.
Sake back then, however, was a far cry from what we enjoy today, and said Imperial Brewing Department (the "IBD" ?) focused its efforts for the most part on sake used in ceremonies and events. In
fact, the IBD produced upwards of a dozen different types of sake, some colored with ash of black, red or white hues, with varying degrees of alcohol content, and all with specific uses, likely the least of
which was catching a buzz.
-In the middle ages, when much sake brewing was confined to temples and shrines, a style of yeast starter development known as "bodai-moto" was developed in
Nara. Considered a pre-cursor to modern yeast starters, the method fell out of use but was revived a decade or so back by local brewers using water from the original shrines and old records.
-Nara is also the home of Oh-miwa Jinja, a Shinto shrine long considered very sacred to sake brewers, the expansive grounds of which are home to hallowed sugi (cryptomeria, kind of like cedar but actually
closer to cypress) trees. Sugi wood is used in making tanks, taru (casks), koji-making trays and other tools for sake brewing, and sugi leaves are used to make "sugi-dama," the green-cum-brown balls
seen outside sake breweries.
-Then there is Kasuga Taisha, a Shinto Shrine established at the same time as the capital there, with the ensconced deity therein having been responsible for
protecting Nara. It was also the guardian shrine for the Fujiwara clan, the most powerful family of that era. The sake brand Harushika comes from the old, old, old brewery that was historically responsible for
brewing the sacred sake for Kasuga Taisha. And you can still drink it today.
-In more modern times, like 15 or so years ago, Nara was the place where Philip Harper, the first and only
non-Japanese toji (master brewer) in the history of sake brewing got his start, and a brewery called Ume no Yado. While Philip now brews in Kyoto, Ume no Yado is alive and well.
-Being so close
to the massive brewing centers of Nada (in Kobe) and Fushimi (in Kyoto), like other prefectures in that region, for decades much sake in Nara was produced under contract, to be sold to larger manufacturers for
blending into other lakes of mediocrity. As demand for said mediocrity has dropped, so has this practice (which for sure has its positive aspects). Still, amongst the 40-odd kura remaining in Nara, most are
proud and storied names albeit mostly smaller organizations.
-My companion on the train ride home mentioned above comes from a medium-sized brewer called Houshuku, and was quite excellent, rich
yet understated, complex yet demure. I'd go back to it in a second if I could find it around here, but like much Nara sake, it doesn't make it out of western Japan too often. Good for them.
-Other brands to remember and search for beyond the couple mentioned above include Hanatomoe, Yamatsuru, Shinomine, Suiryu, Hyaku Raku Mon, Tama no Tsuyu and Yatagarasu. Most of the sake from Nara tends to be
soft and full-ish, stopping just short of big-boned. Some is quite dry, most lean sweeter, at least to me. But enough diversity exists to warrant thorough research before reaching your own conclusion!
-One of the most stupedendous matches of sake and western food I have ever enjoyed was Harushika's "Cho Karakuchi" (super dry) Junmai-shu with a cream-based pasta upon which had been
sprinkled some crushed bacon. The creamy texture of that sake engaged the same aspect of the pasta sauce, and the dry, sharpness of the sake teamed up with the salt of the bacon to cut through the viscous
thickness. The memory of that meal remains with me vividly today.
* * *
It is always good to get back to roots and origins, and those of sake and its concept and application of terroir are no exception. Seek sake of Nara as one place to start.
* * *
"Fly-Away-For-Good-Hot" and "Flower-Cold"
Traditional Names for Temperature Ranges
When it comes to warm sake, 'tis the season, at least
in half of the world, and perhaps not as much as it might have been a few decades ago, but it still is cold. Also, slowly and with appropriate caution, the concept of some premium sake being enjoyable warmed
is catching on.
Interestingly, this concept has had to become reintegrated into the consciousness of sake lovers in Japan as well as in other sake-loving environs, although admittedly it is much more
widespread in sake's homeland. In other words, while there is tons of hot sake everywhere, even in Japan the notion that good stuff is always enjoyed slightly chilled has had to break down and give ground to
the older, more traditional (if swept-under-the-tatami for a time) joys of warm sake.
I have written several times about various aspects of warm sake and the rich culture that suffuses it, especially
about how it was in pre-war Japan. More about that can be read here and here.
Very often we tend to lump all sake into groups: hot and cold. In actuality, doing that is about as useful as calling sake
"rice wine," and stating that since "rice is all the same, there ain't much to get all excited about." (Man; it physically hurts me just typing that out.) Perish both of those thoughts!
The truth is that there is no one right temperature for all sake, and much less so for any given sake. Each and every one of 'em will have different facets highlighted at even slightly different changes in
temperature, and what is best depends on the product, the occasion, and of course, the preferences of the drinker.
And, naturally enough, across history those that drank and served sake came up with a
handful of terms to describe sake at different temperature ranges that were thankfully much more romantic than simply "35.6 degrees" (no offense, Mr. Bond). And naturally enough this extended to the
cold side of things as well, with the various temperature ranges of chilled sake having names.
Note, though, that in these modern times, few people know of these, and less use them these days. Here is
a painfully relevant quote, which I have presented in a past article on this topic.
Mr. Hideharu Ota, president of the brewery making Daishichi sake in Fukushima, once explained to me, "During the
war, naturally, sake consumption and production dropped tremendously. After the war, slowly but surely, sake production returned to its pre-war level. But there was a 20-year gap in sake culture, in the
culture of sake enjoyment, and even though sake production and consumption were restored, sake culture never returned to its pre-war levels. That gap was too big to fill."
As such, few take the
time - or develop the connoisseurship - to focus on individual temperature ranges for their sake, and much less use the terms. But for the sake of keeping culture alive, being thorough, and promoting the
resurgence of an open mind about warm sake, here is a list of the terms used for the various temperature ranges. Note, the chilled sake references as well as those used for the hot stuff.
- Tobikiri-kan ("fly-away-for-good" hot): 55C (134F)
- Atsu-kan ("hot-hot"): 50C (125F)
- Jo-kan ("upper-hot"): 45C (116F)
- Nuru-kan ("warm-hot"): 40C (107F)
- Hitohada-kan ("a person's-skin-hot"): 35C (96F)
- Hinata-kan ("out-in-the-sun-hot"): 30C (85F)
- Jo-on ("normal room temperature") 20C (68F)
- Suzu-bie ("cool-chilled"): 15C (59F)
- Hana-bie ("flower-chilled"): 10C (50F)
- Yuki-bie ("snow-chilled"): 5C (41F)
While if you walked into a restaurant and asked for tobikirikan, they might ask you to fly away for good yourself, a few of these are very commonly used today. In particular, jo-on, nuru-kan, and atsukan will
get your point across anywhere. The only remaining question is whether or not you have picked a place that will actually take the time to lovingly warm it to meet your request.
I do feel the need to
restate this truth: in spite of the above rah-rah session for warmed sake, most premium sake like ginjo is indeed best enjoyed slightly chilled (shall we say "suzu-bie?"). But there are lots of
delicious exceptions, and the above remnants of sake culture are proof enough of that.
Sake Educational Products from Sake-World.com
I am quite pleased to announce the opening of the Sake-World e-store, currently offering three
educational products immediately downloadable for your education and further sake enjoyment. See Educational
Products at Sake-world.com. Currently, we have three products, and the store is up and running in time for the holidays.
First is The Sake Notebook, a 15-page pdf file guaranteed to
jump-start your sake understanding and appreciation. It covers everything related to sake in a tight, concise and easily digestible presentation replete with plenty of photos and diagrams for at-a-glance
enlightenment. Sake basics, history, grades and quality levels, aging, temperature, storage and more are all briefly touched upon to create a foundation upon which more sake learning can flourish. There is
also a list of 250 (count 'em!) sake brands to look for and try. Finally, included with purchase is access to a password protected area on www.sake-world.com known as "The Goodstuff" a regularly
updated list of good sake recommendations, replete with brief commentary on each, and some indication of John's personal recommendations and preferences. Available for $15.
Next is The Sake
Production Slideshow, an executable file (Photojam) wherein resides a 15-minute slideshow of photos of the sake-brewing process from beginning to end, giving you a glimpse into the day-to-day brewing
environment of sakagura in Japan. Available for $15. Also, access to "The Goodstuff" comes with this product as well.
Third is a bundled package of both The Sake Notebook and The Sake
Production Slideshow for those that cannot make up their minds or simply have to have - or give - both as gifts. Available as a set for $25.
Surely these are the perfect holiday gifts for those
close to you that are itching to get into good sake, and their easily downloadable digital format makes it all that much easier.
Note, we do plan to add more products early next year, most
importantly a home-study version of The Sake Professional Course, with a special text book, audio guidance, and more. Stay tuned to the newly designed and just-released www.sake-world.com, and this newsletter
2008 Sake Professional Course, Jan. 21 to 25, Japan
I am pleased to be able to announce the Fifth Annual Sake Professional Course, to be held
January 21 to 25, 2008, in Tokyo, with a visit to the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area. This will be the final announcement for the course. There are but a few vacancies remaining.
The Sake Professional
Course is a five-day intensive immersion into sake and the sake world, replete with plenty of classroom instruction followed by relevant tasting, and four sakagura (brewery) visits. Naturally, the evenings
will be filled with more merry tasting along with great local cuisine. While the course is focused on those that plan to use the information professionally, anyone is of course welcome to attend. My objective
is that, after completing the course and taking the time to absorb the material, no one out there will be able to tell you anything about sake that you do not already know. In this, I have great confidence. It
will be thorough. The tasting sessions that follow each classroom session ensure that participants will understand the material on a deeper and more permanent level than would be the case from book-study
alone. For more details, and some testimonials, click here.
This year's class is full, and will commence
soon. Those interested in future courses can contact me by email.
On the evening of Saturday, February 9, from 6pm until 9pm, Rob Yellin and
I will hold our first Sake and Pottery Seminar of the year at Takara near JR Yurakucho station. As is customary, the topics will be the basics of the sake world and the world of Japanese ceramics. The cost for
the evening, including two lectures with materials, six sake and dinner, is 7000 yen. Those interested can make a reservation by sending me an email. Also, anyone interested in being notified by email of
upcoming sake events can sign up for said notification here.
Links to Sake Book Info and Archives
More information on the following topics can be found at
- Sake Homebrewing
- Books on Sake
- Information on the archives of this newsletter
- General information related to this publication
Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner. Email John from this link: www.sake-world.com/html/email.html
All material Copyright, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.