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Travelogue: Spirited Away


Peter Green
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Happou shu is beer-like beverage with low malt content.

For more info, click here. There is another category of beer-like beverage: dai-san no beer (third beer or third-category beer), which is also described in the linked webpage.

I usually have Nodogoshi nama (third beer) of Kirin (for no particular reasons).

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Peter, I know you are busy, tavelling and all but...

Where is the Food, Man?!

We are crazy with anticipation.

**************************************************

Ah, it's been way too long since I did a butt. - Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"

--------------------

One summers evening drunk to hell, I sat there nearly lifeless…Warren

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Peter,

Scud watches Neon Genesis Evangelion, too? I got hooked on the series when I was stationed in Hong Kong. Of course, I was thankful for the subtitles.

That looks like a good serving of takoyaki. There seems to be a myriad ways to top takoyaki balls. In the Philippines, it is teriyaki sauce and some kind of cuttlefish powder. Here in Korea, you get a choice of teriyaki sauce & Mayonaise, or teriyaki sauce & mayo & mustard. I have sampled the latter in LotteWorld (Korea's answer to Disneyland) when Billy and I was there last month.

Here are the takoyaki girls doing their thing.

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You can see on your left the different sauces that they would top the takoyaki balls. Universally, almost all takoyaki balls are finished with a topping of those thinly sliced fish flakes (called dancing flakes, right?).

So, more food, more eating and more pictures!

I know, I know, we're a demanding crowd. :biggrin:

Doddie aka Domestic Goddess

"Nobody loves pork more than a Filipino"

eGFoodblog: Adobo and Fried Chicken in Korea

The dark side... my own blog: A Box of Jalapenos

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March 14….

Yeah, it’s not over yet.

If you think this travelogue is progressing slowly, you have to understand that I find Tai Chi a fast moving, dynamic sport.

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How can you not love a country that vends cold beer every block or so? (And Rona’s told me of more bizarre items in the machines, so I’ll be watching out).

From Den Den Town I had some vague idea of getting to Namba.

In general, I was getting pretty vague by this point.

But just before I made it to the main drag, I found a market on the side. I believe this is the Osaka k\Kuromon (Black Gate) market, where I could’ve seen the pufferfish on sale that I’d been eating earlier.

If it wasn’t closed.

Okay, the market was closed, but that’s not the sort of thing that stops me.

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At least the flower shop was still open.

But I needed more than flowers. I needed something I could eat with a shovel.

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This place appealed to me. It was open. It was empty, but open.

Perhaps empty is just as well, as I was still self-conscious about being completely useless as far as communications went……okay, completely useless, let’s forget about limiting things.

At least I could read enough to know what I was getting. This was an okonomiyaki place.

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Like I said, sometimes you just need a shovel.

There was a bit of concern regarding what I was going to have. They had a wide selection of ingredients you could use, putting the name of “Japanese pizza” into perspective, this dish allowing you to pretty much play to your heart’s content with what goes into it.

Some places will just give you the stuff, and let you do the work. Here they had everything pretty much done, and presented you with a prepared patty to go on your grill.

The waitress was concerned enough to caution me about leaning on the grill. That would’ve been interesting.

I worked my way around the ordering issue like I usually do, by drawing pictures. No oysters, but they did have squid.

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I’ve also learned to say “chotto” when it comes to mayonnaise. The waitress gets pretty aggressive with the squeeze bottle action.

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There are fixings on the side. Salt, pepper, more sweet sauce, and some chili flakes, I think? Someone jump in and correct me on that little red shaker there.

While this cooked, I was taking in the TV. I’d been joined by one other young fellow, who was keeping the waitresses in stitches with a steady banter of jokes. The two of us were watching a cooking game show, where the contestants appeared to be trying to guess the cost of the meal. If they failed, they had to pay for everyone.

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The okonomiyaki a pretty thing, sizzling there on the grill in front of me. I used my spatula to shove it about a bit, and then, once I’d been given the nod that it should be done, I started in on it, carving pieces off like snow on the walk in midwinter (what do I know of snow? I’ve been in the Gulf for ages)

Not bad. It’s hard to go bad wit grilled battered things. It reminded me a lot of pajeon in Korea, and I wonder as to the origins of the dish, Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s Kansai having benefited from the spoils of the Imjin War, known sometimes in Japan as the Pottery War, from the number of Korean artisans brought back as slaves.

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I’d been drinking beer up until now, but there was a nice looking collection of bottles just around the corner of my vision. As I expected, these were shochu, which is getting an interesting lift in popularity these last few years. Beer is still the number one drink, but this is catching up.

After a couple of glasses of cold shochu (potato), I finished up, and then glanced off of the outskirts of Namba on my way back home. There were takoyaki places everywhere, with clusters of diners getting their batter fixes in for the evening.

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However, as hard as this may be to believe, I didn’t eat any more. I was feeling kind of full.

I’m just a shadow of my former self, I know.

I did have enough foresight to stop by my local vending machine. We’ll be seeing more of this over the next few days. This one, my “bottle shop” (as my landlady put it) was primarily a Kirin and Asahi dispenser.

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It’s a heartening thing that, after years of having to wait on my beers to chill, these ones came out of the machine cold enough to freeze my fingers as I carried them home.

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And, so, my 3 friends and I worked on the earlier posts you lot have already gone through.

So much for what was basically Day 1.

Next: Day 2

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It only took a week to finish the first full day! That's not bad, at all!

The little red bottle is shichimi, I think, and to the right of it is nori. Did they have bonito flakes? I never use them, and my favourite okonomiyaki place doesn't, either, but I still see them at okonomiyaki places sometimes.

Did you eat it using the spatula, too? I see a lot of people doing that, but I'm always too afraid of burning myself. Some people say I have a big mouth, but it's more figurative. Really!

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In Akihabara in Tokyo, you can see a lot of interesting items in vending machines, like oden, ramen, and bread.

http://portal.nifty.com/2007/06/25/c/

The red bottle may be ichimi (single-flavor) togarashi. Or, is it shichimi (seven-flavor)?

Goku uma of Asahi! It's a third beer. I prefer Nodogoshi nama. I like real beers the best, but tend to buy them on special days.

One more thing: Haven't you ever been to konbini in Japan? They sell beers and other alcholic beverages at lower prices than vending machines.

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One more thing:  Haven't you ever been to konbini in Japan?  They sell beers and other alcholic beverages at lower prices than vending machines.

Yup, we're getting some of our stuff from the local convenience stores. They are a better price.

But the beer vending machine is just outside my door!

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It only took a week to finish the first full day!  That's not bad, at all!

The little red bottle is shichimi, I think, and to the right of it is nori.  Did they have bonito flakes?  I never use them, and my favourite okonomiyaki place doesn't, either, but I still see them at okonomiyaki places sometimes. 

Did you eat it using the spatula, too?  I see a lot of people doing that, but I'm always too afraid of burning myself.  Some people say I have a big mouth, but it's more figurative.  Really!

Nag, nag, nag.........

I didn't try and eat directly from the spatula for the same reason you gave. It just didn't seem like a wise idea to start a trip off with oral cauterization.

And I'll try to get a little faster. We've come to rest in Tokyo now, and our settings are somewhat more luxurious (which means Scud and I aren't tripping on one another and fighting over the machine).

Back to work. There's research to be done out there.

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March 15 – Fushimi

One of the many things that works with egullet is that you get the opportunity to meet people who share your interests. In the case of this trip, I was able to meet up with the Prairie Girl herself, Rona (aka Prasantrin).

We met on the platform at Yodoyabashi station. Rona had been helping out a lot during the planning (if what I do can be called “planning”) of the Osaka trip, and is responsible for all the things that went right. I’m more than capable of getting things to go wrong for myself, so I seldom have to have assistance in that area.

Incredibly, she was able to recognize me in the crowd at the subway. I guess I’m just not blending in as well as I should.

It’s fun to have someone to yack with over food and train rides. Like meeting up with Doddie in Korea, there’s a lot to talk about regarding food and the expat life. It was enough fun that we almost missed out stop.

First on the day’s plan was the shrine at Fushimi Inari-taisha. This is the one with the big red torii that march off into the forest. It’s one of those shots that you always see in the tourist stuff, so I wasn’t about to miss it.

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I’d seen the stock photos before, but what I hadn’t appreciated was that the shrine was entwined with fox spirits – kitsune. This was a bonus, as fox spirits play throughout the ghost stories of North East Asia (and in North America, from foxes in the NorthWest to good old Coyote down south).

Foxes also played a role in Pompoko, that great film about the destruction of the tanuki by the spread of urban development. The foxes, sharp as ever, were able to make the shift to living alongside the humans (generally running hostess bars and pachinko parlours) while the tanuki, not quite as sharp, were slowly beaten down.

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I’m straying again. I got off on this track as we did come across a tanuki (stuffed) amidst the bits and pieces out on sale in the tourist trap at the foot of the shrine.

The shopping strip is a pleasant enough thing, and we were attracted by the little birds on sticks. At least I was. Rona wasn’t big on the idea of little birds at that point (although we did get to discuss the ortegal topic that’s come up as a tie in to the foie gras bits), so I crunched my way through a quail on my own. We’d really wanted to try the sparrows (suzuru), but they were out, so quail it was.

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Isn’t it fun coming to countries where you have no idea what you’re supposed to do? I broke down as much of the bird as I could, crashing through the crispy bones, but still had a couple of points where I couldn’t get through without risking some dental work.

“You’re crunching an awful lot.”

I did eat the head, though. Can’t say much about the brains, as a quail’s head is a pretty insubstantial thing (unlike a rabbit’s).

I did also look at some charcoal, of interest to me for filtering. This looked perfect (and it’s purpose was, supposedly, for filtration), but they wouldn’t sell just one piece, and $18 for three pieces of charcoal wasn’t quite my thing.

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Rona’s eye was taken in by the cotton candy. How can you say no to cotton candy in a Hello Kitty bag? She has a very detailed high pressure approach to the enjoyment of cotton candy, but I’ll leave that for her to spec out (if she so chooses). I wouldn’t want to give away state secrets.

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Second stop was a couple of stops back up the line, more in Fushimi town proper. We were meeting others for lunch, but had a little bit of time to kill, so we ambled down to one of the cafes in the arcade.

Among my first impressions, I can say that Japan is in no apparent shortage of running out of cafes and pastry shops. Rona vouches for the quality of the pastries, and, given her interest in baking (note: you never go hungry around her; there’s always a nice bit of pound cake or a caramel somewhere) I have not the slightest reason to doubt her.

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The coffee was acceptable. It was black, and it was hot. That’s enough for me, especially when I haven’t had any caffeine for a day.

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We met Rona’s friend and from there made our way to lunch, with a brief look-in on a sake shop. We were curious about what looked like tofu in the bottom middle of this picture. It’s used in soups, the lees of the sake brewing process.

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We ate at a very pleasant little restaurant (Rona, what was the name?) where we discussed Victoria and Vancouver – Rona’s friend’s mother having spent some time in Victoria - and from there stretched out into anime and film, and into talk of the Kansai.

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Lunch, for me, was a set. A prettily wrapped bento, two onigiri, a bit of layered vegetables, and a soft soup of wee mushrooms.

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A bento is always a joy. There’s that mystery just before you open the treasure box. For me it’s just difficult not to rush the matter, but I tried to restrain my eagerness.

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Sashimi, egg, sweet potato, yakitori, fish, nigiri, and inside the duck was a little mochi, if I remember correctly.

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And for dessert there was a sorbet (pumpkin? Rona?) and a custard with two of those strawberries that had been an issue of discussion in Amy's recent blog. For my part, I found them very sweet and pleasant, and quite capable of holding their own with the products of the Okanagan.

After lunch we took a short stroll.

I needed to learn about sake.

Next: classtime

P.S. - as I'm indicating in the asides, please feel free to jump in and correct. Part of egullet is having one of the best sources of proof readers to be had on the face of this planet.

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Peter - what's a tanuki?

Ah, the tanuki. I think this is translated as "racoon dog". I always think of racoons when I see them, as I've lost more than one food cache to them in the bush, and the resemblance is striking, but it's just a resemblance. I looked it up, and they are a canid, more closely related to dogs (which explains the tie to foxes, too).

There's a lot of folklore regarding their lives and actions but my first intro to them was Tom Robbins' Villa Incognito, and I was only reading that because of the Lao connection. Then, when I picked up a copy of Pom Poko, it all made a lot more sense, all the shape-shifting, and their abilityh to glide through the air (I won't go into how they do that here), and their propensity to drink heavily.

Studio Ghibli's Pom Poko takes up the side that shows the tanuki as a fairly happy go lucky sort, who're content to eat themselves to a point of stupefaction, and then have a few drinks to top things off (no comments from those of you who have passed an evening with me!)

Getting way more otaku, Scud points out that in The Decline of Gaming (an online flash cartoon) there was a line of:

"the little racoon suit in the original Mario, why does it allow him to fly? I always thought it would give him the ability to root through garbage cans and look for food"

I could go on a lot longer, but I would be straying from our edict to cover food issues.

Interestingly, the Japanese make a soup from them, and used to use their skins in goldsmithing (and may still do so, given the high regard for tradition we see here).

As seen in Pom Poko, there aren't too many tanuki left about.

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Sake lees:  I think you remember that smallworld made mazake from sake lees.

Got it! I went back and reread Amy's post on her husband making mazake and then remembered it.

Truth was, I was so full of sympathy for him, his wife sneaking a picture of him cooking onto the internet, that I didn't twig to what was being done.

Wait a minute....don't I do that to my family?

:biggrin:

P.S. - Hiroyuki, what's the word for quail? It sounded close. I'm curious, as I remember reading somewhere about the Japanese fondness for small birds, and I wonder if they're all grouped together.

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I think it was uzura and suzume, but don't quote me on that.

The sorbet was carrot. I liked it, but sometimes the little bits of non-pureed carrot got in the way of my enjoyment. I can't remember the name of the restaurant at all, but I could ask next week (assuming my student even knows the name of the place, which I don't think she does because it seemed it was the first time for her to go there, as well).

I actually haven't had pastries from Doutor in many many years, but when you need a quick fix, they're fine. I never liked their coffee much, but that's because it was always too strong for me, but I know a lot of people who do like it (mostly Japanese).

I don't think the stuffed animals were actually for sale. I think the hunter guy just wanted to show off his catches.

BTW, I found some info that there will be kyogen performances subtitled in English in Tokyo on the 29th! I think you should drag Scud out to one of them. He can thank me later. :biggrin:

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I think it was uzura and suzume, but don't quote me on that.

The sorbet was carrot.  I liked it, but sometimes the little bits of non-pureed carrot got in the way of my enjoyment.  I can't remember the name of the restaurant at all, but I could ask next week (assuming my student even knows the name of the place, which I don't think she does because it seemed it was the first time for her to go there, as well).

I actually haven't had pastries from Doutor in many many years, but when you need a quick fix, they're fine.  I never liked their coffee much, but that's because it was always too strong for me, but I know a lot of people who do like it (mostly Japanese).

I don't think the stuffed animals were actually for sale.  I think the hunter guy just wanted to show off his catches. 

BTW, I found some info that there will be kyogen performances subtitled in English in Tokyo on the 29th!  I think you should drag Scud out to one of them.  He can thank me later.  :biggrin:

Wait! You are not going to tell us about your cotton candy eating technique? :shock:

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Sake lees:  I think you remember that smallworld made mazake from sake lees.

Got it! I went back and reread Amy's post on her husband making mazake and then remembered it.

Truth was, I was so full of sympathy for him, his wife sneaking a picture of him cooking onto the internet, that I didn't twig to what was being done.

Wait a minute....don't I do that to my family?

:biggrin:

P.S. - Hiroyuki, what's the word for quail? It sounded close. I'm curious, as I remember reading somewhere about the Japanese fondness for small birds, and I wonder if they're all grouped together.

Sorry, I was drunk and I made two mistakes!

It was smallworld's husband who made amazake (not mazake).

ama = sweet, zake = sake

Quail is uzura in Japanese, and sparrow is suzume.

Tanuki are very popular animals in Japan! My mother likes tanuki figures very much, especially their big "balls". :biggrin:

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Wait! You are not going to tell us about your cotton candy eating technique?  :shock:

OK, but no eye-rolling!

I like to squish my cotton candy down so it's nice and compact. Then I take a chunk of it, and squish it down a little more (it should still have a bit of air in it, but I like it dense-ish). Then, if you sort of lick the outside, it crystallizes so when you pop it in your mouth, you get a crunchy outside but soft inside.

I'm a little obsessive...And I like the the colour change when it gets wet. :rolleyes:

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Okay, I have one clarification,

The restaurant we lunched at was Asada.

For the next part, I'm tormented.

I had an excellent afternoon on the making of sake. But it's not something I want to gloss over. So......give me a bit of time to get farther behind in my food writing, and I''l try to do proper justice to the fine art of brewing.

Cheers,

Peter

p.s. - an excellent dinner tonight at Restaurant Morimoto in Roppongi

p.p.s. - Lupin III is on tv!

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Drinks and dinner (as opposed to dinner and drinks) at Beer Club Popeye's last night.

Forty beers on tap, primarily Japanese micro-brews, and some very tasty hopped sausages.

Dinner tonight at Azuba Kadowaki.

Now I'm waiting for Scud to come fully awake and we're off for Tsukiji with the first train. It's hard getting him started at this time of the day.

Day? I guess it'll be day soon.......... :blink:

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Let me preface this with by saying what needs to be said. If there's something wrong in this, it's because I messed up in pulling things back from the video tapes and notes that I made. So, blame me, and no one else. I've needed to get this done on the road, so I haven't been as strict in my research and checking as I probably should be, and I don't do justice to what I've seen (and tasted) here.

Plus, Scud's been using the computer to read manga.

There, let's get on with the show.

Back to school

I’m lucky sometimes. Really lucky. Maybe it’s in part to this being my year, the Rat, or maybe it’s just the company I keep……but then, isn’t that luck, too?

I was able to spend most of the afternoon with Rona, PekoPeko(from KyotoFoodie), and the Kitagawa family - Chisato (Mrs. Kitagawa), Yukihiro (the President), and Miho (their daughter)- who own the Kitagawahonke Company, which in turn has the Inuigura sake brewery, sake brewers for the last 300 years.

PekoPeko’s already blogged on his previous time here (check out kyoto foodie ), and I’d recommend his writing to you. That will allow me to keep this a bit shorter (although you’re all probably aware that “short” can have a different meaning for me).

After entering and changing to plastic sandals (which is always a challenge for me), we began upstairs, in the classroom. This came with a whiteboard and a/v equipment, and a square of tables for discussion. A good sensible room, both for tours such as this one, and for technical working sessions.

We started with a little history. Sake’s been made in Japan for some 1200 years (others say 2000 years), going back to the founding of Kyoto, and has been made in Fushimi for the last 400 years (since the Edo period), when relative peace was established under the Tokugawa Shogunate. Stability tends to support the development of long term business, and with Fushimi being an administrative center as opposed to the court in Kyoto, the city was in a boom.

The brewery started when a man named Shirobei ran an inn of the name of Funaya, servicing the river traffic (Fushimi was the “port” for Kyoto, handling distribution to Osaka). By 1657 a registry of sake brewers was established, showing 83 sake brewers in Fushimi, with Funaya as an established brewery.

The Kitagawahonke’s brand is Tomio, which comes from Tomi Kore Okina in the Nine Chinese Classics, meaning “old sage”. (Tomio is the Japanese reading of Tomi). Kitagawa Sannemon had chosen the name, as Tomio was seen as a philosopher who held that you’d be a better person if you experienced more.

I’ll drink to that.

Brewing is a tricky business, and is trickier with sake. The base material is sticky/glutinous rice, a rice with lots of starch, low in protein, large in grain, and soft, with a good, pearly body. (As I looked at the samples of the rice, I was wondering how this would work in a risotto.)

The rice is polished, losing a large part, if not most, of its mass. The level of polishing controls, in part, the classification of the sake. We were looking at rice polished to 70%, 65%, and 50% in the display, but they’ll take it down below for 40% for the high end Daiginjyoshu.

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In part, with the more expensive sake, you’re paying for the increased cost of the ingredients. Also you’re paying for a lot more work and dedication in the crafting of the sake, but we’ll get to that.

This talk of rice is all well and good, but the rice has no sugar, so you need a Philosopher’s Stone, to transmute the elements.

Enter the koji. The “national micro-organism of Japan”.

The koji is an enzyme that will act upon the soaked rice to break out the sugars. These then act as the food for the yeast, and there you have an alcohol producing system (do you ever stop, when drinking, to consider that you’re consuming the waste product of a living thing?)

Koji goes beyond just sake, though. It’s also a part of the production of miso, say sauce, nattou (still haven’t eaten any of that) and a range of fermented products. And, of course, there are different kinds of koji, and colours – yellow for sake, black for shochu (modern), and white (the original one for shochu).

The koji, and the water used, is more important than the rice in the production of sake. Like hops for beer. The koji itself is purchased for the brewery through the Japanese Brewers Association. But the brewing of beer is a linear process. Sake is considered a simultaneous ferment, which is what makes it trickier. The koji and the yeast are both together in the vat with the rice, and so, as the enzyme saccharinizes the rice, the yeast can gorge. This means playing a balancing game during the month that things are active.

A growing organism needs something beyond sugar to be healthy (my kids might disagree) and so the quality of the water does play a role. The question here is how soft or hard the water should be, tied to the content of magnesium, potassium, and calcium in the water.

Fushimi (the #2 sake producing district), for its part has about 62 or 63 mg/l of dissolved minerals, and is considered in the middle, or bordering on “soft” or “feminine”, whereas Nada sake (the largest producer) has around 80-90 mg/l of dissolved solids, a “harder”, more “masculine” sake.

Sake is a winter production, after the rice harvest in the Fall is in, and there’s a one month fermenation period, followed by an aging/settling time. This combined takes you to the Fall September/October window as being the best time to enjoy fresh sake, which brings you right back to Winter and getting the next batch ready.

You can age sake, it won’t spoil soon. Aged sake is referred to as koshu, kept for two years or for more than five years (up to 20). This takes on a “sherry” like flavour. And there’s taruzake, which is cask aged, traditionally with Japanese cedar, but the new trend is to utilize French oak and other imported woods to give a different approach to the sake.

You can get fresh namazake that’ll pop when you open the bottle, unpasteurized so that tthe fermentation is still active, the brew still “sparkling”. This is in contrast to a new product, sparkling sake, which is carbonated through a bottom ferment to give a “champagnoise” feel to the beverage. The Kitagawas aren’t producing this, but there’s a lot of effort among other brewers being put into this now with the target being foreign markets.

Oversight of the brewing, and the running of the shop, is handled by the Toji, the brewmaster. In parallel, there is also the owner of the brewery. The owner has the overall control, as it is his responsible to make certain that there’s a market for what they’ll produce.

As I agreed with Yukihiro, it’s good to be the owner.

However, in terms of market, it’s a mixed bag right now. Domestically, sake is losing ground, as beer has been the number one beverage for some time, and the remaining market is being slowly taken over by shochu, which, with a fair bit more alcohol, will get the average salaryman where he’s going a lot quicker.

However, international sales are increasing, with China, Taiwan and the USA showing increasing demand. Then there’s Korea, and there’s growing interest in Europe, with the big wine show in London recently adding sake to their categories, and in the Middle East, with Dubai becoming a target market.

In terms of standings, there’re major competitions for sake. The big one is in May in Hiroshima, where the breweries are allowed to enter one sake. But as a competition, it isn’t so much for a “which single sake is the best” as it is to set the levels for production. Of 500 entries last year, 150 were awarded as gold level. This also, by its nature, is a good opportunity for the brewers to cast an eye over what’s being done in the industry. There are 1300 breweries in Japan, and that’s a lot of competition (even if it is friendly) to keep abreast of.

And internationally there’s competition coming up, with a certain amount of brewing being done in the US (generally under Japanese supervision).

We got out of the classroom and onto the floor. Cool and wet, with a lot of condensation running off through the drains in the floors. The line started at the washing of the rice, and then it came up to the hoppers, where it’s weighted down with cloths and soaked overnight, and then fed into the steamers.

How it’s steamed (for how long, at what temperature) is related to the type of rice used and the target process.

Along side, we got a look at the little controlled room where they prepare and culture the koji (which is the most expensive equipment in the factory).

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After that, skidding over the wet floors with the drains snowed in with bits of rice, we climbed some battleship stairs and stopped by the vats. We opened up a fresh one with the Daiginju underway (at the 10th day). PekoPeko dropped his head in and gave an immediate “whoa”, and I was a little bit more cautious, picking up the solid aromas of a just opened fermentation tank.

I had a sudden vision of Doug and Bob McKenzie, for some reason.

The sake will stay in these vats for one month under temperature control. They’ll mix it, and if it gets too warm they’ll add in ice. They track the lot, the vat, the date, and the amount of weight in rice. The tank we were looking at had consumed 1.5 tons of rice (polished down to 39%).

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It’s a nice factory to tour. Both if you like pipes and equipment, but also for culture, with little shrines about the place, perched up high, and Shinto notes pasted about.

The factory has a capacity of 1,300 kiloliters. That’s a lot of sake. This we discussed as we walked through the big tanks. We went on top of these to get up on top. There you just see the hatches to the tanks, reminiscent of the scenes from Nausicaa (the manga, not the anime) where the one eyed-critters are held. We pulled off the plastic seals to look down into the bubbling ferment below. There was a rich tapestry of bubles and froth, all with that beige colour that you know is going to make something good.

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Each of these big boys will hold 6 kiloliters. Down here is Junmaishu, up top was Daiginshu. Out of this you’ll get 10,000 of the big, big bottles that I’ve been admiring in the restaurants.

Temperature control is one of the big concerns in any brewing process, and a separate control room monitors the profile. We could see the variations on the early batches, and compare these with the flatline on the one that was at 27 days now. The barrels are usually about a week apart. There’s also a little clean lab in there for checking for any contamination.

Besides the temperature, contaminants can wreak havoc with brewing. For instance, nattou is banned from sake floors. You can’t eat it before you come in to work here, as the micro-organisms in nattou will kill the ferment. Also, in the past, women were banned from entry, but they’ve eased up on that now (there are two women working on the line now).

To be a Toji (a brewmaster), there’s a certification process required. Some work their way up from the floor, and others go to university (but then still need to work the floor).

If you want to study sake, the places to go were Osaka and Hiroshima universities, but now it’s Tokyo Agricultural University. Osaka and Hiroshima aren’t putting much energy into sake work anymore (there’s more interest in biotech there), so Tokyo pretty much owns the roost now.

The sake production process is understood so there’s not much there. The current work is research on the yeast and koji.

We looked at the two pressing methods. The first was the for the top end process, a large tank with a heavy wooden beam being hand cranked down upon the mass, and the second a large machine sealed off behind accordion doors to be kept at lower temperatures during the pressing.

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And then, oh joy, we went back to the artisanal press for a pour.

Life seldom gets better than this. We took big tumblers of this and took in the rough and ready aroma of extremely fresh sake, straight out of the press. It’s got a wonderful full flavour. Not as thick in the nose as Korean dongdongju, but that’s what it reminded me of. And the taste, while a little rough, was still good.

I had a big glass.

In the back there was also a cheerfully potbellied still for the making of shochu. The fermented mash is fed in, the tail and head are separated from the process, and there you have it. Here they just work with rice, but the boom in shochu has taken the liquor beyond it’s traditional range of rice, barley, and potato to the current point where almost anything is being done up out there.

They use this to make umeshu here from their own shochu and plums, infusing the plum flavour into the liquor. Rona’s eye’s lit up when they pulled the cover off of the tank holding the plums that had been pulled out of the liquor. “That smells good!” She has designs of dessert, I know.

From there, it was back to the classroom, and, to the delight of Peko and I, there were two bottles out there, a bunch of glasses, and a picture of the straight pour from the press that we’d been testing earlier.

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What we were trying was the raw fresh sake from vat 22, a Daiginjyo; a finished Daiginjyo from vat 26 that had been out for one week; and a Junmainginjyo that had been out for 11 days. Of these, the Daiginjyo’s had been worked from rice polished to 39%, while the Junmaiginjyo was at 55%.

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I really liked the Daiginjyo, with a beautiful nose on it. But the Junmai was excellent, too, and while it’s bouquet wasn’t up to the Daiginjyo’s, the taste, in Mr. Kitagawa’s estimate, made for better drinking.

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Peko and I had a few more glasses. There was a large stainless steel drain that Yukihiro made use of as he tasted and commented, but Peko and I seemed to miss this.

Comparing the finished product with the very fresh press, you can see how the edges are taken off, and the volatiles settle down. But I still wouldn’t turn up my nose at a glass.

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Behind our tasting was a beautiful Meiji era print of the sake process in the Edo period. I was about to say “it’s sobering to think about it” but, given my condition at the time that would’ve been inappropriate – rather, let me say that it gives you reason to respect the old sake makers, as they were working in the barest of clothing, in the wettest of conditions, in the middle of winter to produce material intended for the well-being of all.

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Just outside the door we stopped to admire the numerous awards that Kitagawahonke has won over the years (there are a lot more than I could fit in this one picture). Yukihiro and his family have done well here over the centuries (he just took over as President a few months ago), and when you talk with him the joy he takes in his work comes through clearly. There’s a strong desire to hold with traditions of quality, but there’s also a keen interest in knowing the business and looking for ways to advance the market for quality sake. These are the sort of people you really like to meet as you travel.

Did I mention the part about me being “lucky”?

Next: back to food

note: edited, as expected to fix things that I'd messed up (names - I'm horrible at listening to things)

Edited by Peter Green (log)
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