Nagano Masumi Brewery

We love Nagano. It’s just north of Tokyo, easy to access by train, and here you’ll find delicious food and great sake. Suwa is a city that is accessible from Tokyo by train, about two hours from Tokyo on the express train, Azusa. Not the shinkansen, but it passes many stations along the way.

Here is some information on Suwa, a city that sits between a lake and the mountains. There are five sake breweries all within walking distance of the city center, and all conveniently located near each other. You’ll see the breweries in the map below around C2 and D2.

http://en.go-centraljapan.jp/lsc/lsc-upfile/pamphlet/01/40/140_1_file.pdf

In the city of Suwa, we like to stay at a ryokan with an onsen (hot spring bath). In the city there are a few sake breweries where visitors can come in for a tasting. Our favorite sake brewery in Suwa is Masumi. Masumi’s rich history dates back over 300 years.

The tasting room is beautiful. The sake is oishii. The portfolio is big, including some fruit sakes like yuzu and ume (apricot).

masumi-flight

Flights of sake at Masumi

The sake tasting room is spacious and there are several sakes to taste through. If the sake is too heavy to carry, it can always be shipped to your home or hotel. The staff are friendly. Masumi is exported, so this is good news if you come across a sake that you like. There is a good chance you can also buy it overseas.

Masumi Miyasaka Brewing Company 真澄 宮坂酒造

Nagano-ken, Suwa-shi, Motomachi 1-16 長野県諏訪市元町1-16

http://www.masumi.co.jp/english/

 

 

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Hirezake – Japan’s Weirdest Hot Saké Drink?

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There is still a chill in the wind and one of the fun hot drinks to warm up with is hirezake. The fin of the fugu (blowfish or puffer fish) is grilled over a flame until charred and then put into a cup of hot saké to steep. More for fun than for flavor, but a nice change-up from the hot saké or shōchū that I usually drink. We usually make hirezake from fugu fins that we buy in packs from Tsukiji Market. But, came across this the other day and had to try it. In southern Japan fugu is called fuku, which is a nice play on words, for good luck or fortune. On the package it is called fuku no hirezake.

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The box comes with a hiré (fin) from a fugu that has already been charred. It also comes with saké that can be heated in the microwave for a few minutes.

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The charred fugu hiré.

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It wasn’t as good as the version we make at home when we char the fins directly over a flame. I could hardly even sense any of the smokiness that we usually get. If you are visiting Japan and see it on a menu, do order it. It is a fun drink, and something I think you can only find here.

Five Questions for Sake Master John Gauntner

Sake Master John Gauntner

Sake Master John Gauntner

John Gauntner has done more to promote sake than any other non-Japanese in the world. John is the author of five books, an informational monthly newsletter, and for those lucky enough to be in Tokyo, he holds interesting tasting seminars at Takara.  His accomplishments are too numerous to list all of them here but some highlights include being the only non-Japanese to be certified in both the Master of Sake Tasting and as a Sake Expert Assessor. He also sits on many panels, often as the only non-Japanese, and rarely does a month go by where John is not in a Japanese magazine or newspaper. He has inspired many in the world to pursue and learn more about sake.

He has influenced my life as well. While I was working at Takashimaya’s flagship store in Nihonbashi as a sommelier in the sake department the staff were given a chance to study another beverage. The store manager encouraged me to study sake but John had done so much to promote sake that I decided my energy was better spent learning shochu. Originally from Ohio, this fellow Midwesterner also came to Japan on the JET program the same year that I did, in 1989.

John generously shares with us some with insightful tips for sake lovers visiting Tokyo. My recommendation is to time your trip with one of his sake seminars, to subscribe to his free newsletter, and pick up one of his books. My personal favorite at the moment is The Tokyo Sake Pub Guide.

1. On your website you list many of the best izakaya in the metropolis. If a visitor to Tokyo has only a limited time, could you suggest three izakaya. By visiting all three readers would have a better understanding of the izakaya scene in Japan.

This is a hard question to answer without qualifying. It all depends on whether or not one speaks Japanese. But I think one all around recommendable izakaya for food, sake, ambience and user friendliness is Sasagin. Another great and classy one on all fronts that flies under the radar a bit is Nakamura in Shibuya. Everyone that goes there is surprisingly pleased. And perhaps the ultimate gritty (in a good way) izakaya experience with great sake too is Taru-ichi in Kabukicho. Finally, the fourth of the three is Ajisen in Tsukishima: outstanding food, great sake, but very small, very popular and a bit more expensive.

But there are so many more…

2. What are good retail sake shops in Tokyo? Ideally conveniently located.

Surely the Hasegawa Saketen shop INSIDE JR Tokyo station at Gransta is the easiest and best. They have a great sake selection, English spoken (a bit) and optimally located albeit inside the wicket. Their Azabu Juban store is good too. Next would be Sakaya Kurihara in Moto Azabu, at the bottom of the hill down from the Chinese Embassy. Solid, classic collection and friendly proprietors but English may be strained. And in Shibuya, Tokyu Food Show just below Hachiko has a great selection too.

But there are so many more…

3. You have your finger on the pulse of what is happening with sake in the world. What sake trends do you see right now – either in Japan or in the world?

Domestically it is hard to see trends in a contracting industry but I do see some

-New branding, i.e. “our regular stuff sells under this old name, so let us make a new brand name for ginjo only, or junmai only.”

-Lots of young blood, i.e. younger brewers with new enthusiasm and ideas.

-Overall higher milling rates. Not necessarily a good thing, but I do see this trend.

-A second wave of muroka (not charcoal filtered) nama (unpasteurized) genshu (undiluted) sake. Personally this kind of sake lacks subtlety but it does seem to be making a comeback.

-More character-laden sake like kimoto, yamahai and naturally occurring yeast sake. Not a ton, but enough to see a trend.

4. What sake is in your fridge now? What good sake have you had recently?

In my sake fridge are about 30 sake, lots of which are “science experiments.” But most interestingly are a couple from brewers that no longer exist, like Suzuran in Iwate. The ones I most want to taste are Tensei, Mori no Kura, Sakuragawa, and a Kame no O from Niigata that is about  ten years old. Oh, and one Tatsuriki made with Toku-A Yamada Nishiki @ 35% that needs a year to open up.

5. What are some easy to find sake to look for at izakaya?

One way is to look for harigami, streamers on the wall, to see what is just in or not on the main menu! Two is to ask the proprietor not for a recommendation but rather what he or she likes now or best. Then ask for something similar if you like it or different if you do not. Some places (like Sasagin) will assess you and pick one for you. Others are more reticent to do that. Finally, ask for what you like and if they do not have it ask for something similar. And I highly recommend taking notes on what you taste!

John’s Blackbook

Sasagin 笹吟

Shibuya-ku, Uehara 1-32-15, Kobayashi Bldg.

03-5454-3715

http://r.tabelog.com/tokyo/A1318/A131811/13004599/

Nakamura 並木橋なかむら

Shibuya-ku, Shibuya 3-13-5, Ipuse Shibuya 2F-B

03-6427-9580

http://r.tabelog.com/tokyo/A1303/A130301/13059986/

Taruichi 樽一

Shinjuku-ku, Kabukicho 1-17-12 5F

03-3208-9772

http://www.taruichi.co.jp/

Ajisen 肴や味泉

Chuo-ku, Tsukishima 1-18-10

03-3534-8483

http://r.tabelog.com/tokyo/A1313/A131302/13002247/

Hasegawa Saketen はせがわ酒店

Chiyoda-ku, Marunouchi 1-9-1, Tokyo Station, GranSta B1

03-6420-3409

http://www.hasegawasaketen.com/english/about.html

Hasegawa Saketen はせがわ酒店

Minato-ku, Azabu-Juban 2-2-7

03-5439-9399

http://www.hasegawasaketen.com/english/about.html

Sakaya Kurihara さかや栗原麻布店

Minato-ku, Moto Azabu 3-6-17

03-3408-5379

http://www.sakaya-kurihara.jp/

Tokyu Food Show Sake Department

Shibuya-ku, Shibuya 2-24-1 B1

03-3477-3111

http://www.tokyu-dept.co.jp/foodshow/shop/liquor/

Sake no Ana: Best Place for Tasting Sake for Lunch in Tokyo – Part 2/2

Sake no Ana 酒の穴
Chuo-ku, Ginza 3-5-8
03-3567-1133
Juyondai and Denshu

Juyondai and Denshu

3. Juyondai Honjozo 十四代 本醸造
Premium sake, very hard to purchase retail. Often sold at much higher prices on E-bay (Sakamoto-san, the sake sommelier said that the bottle we had would go for 10,000 JPY even though the retail price is only about 2,500 JPY.)
From Yamagata prefecture.
http://www.yukinosake.com/juyondai.html (sake brewery site in Japanese)
rice: gohyakumangoku (somewhat popular for sake making)
nihonshudo: +2
4. Denshu Tokubetsu Junmaishu 田酒 特別純米酒
Also a premium sake from Aomori prefecture. Very hard to find outside of restaurants like this. Also sold overpriced on E-bay.
rice: Fubuki (don’t see this too often)
nihonshudo: +3
Dassai

Dassai

5. Dassai Junmai Daiginjo 獺祭 純米大吟醸
From Yamaguchi prefecture.
This is a top sake that is imported to USA. Good to look for at restaurants, and it is at most Japanese restaurants with a good sake list. This is one brand that I highly recommend.
Dassai also makes a nice nigori (unfiltered) sake that is also sparkling. Very fun to try if you get the chance.
Dassai is also famous for milling the rice down to only 23% of the original size. Dassai 23.
rice: Yamada Nishiki
nihonshudo: +3
http://www.asahishuzo.ne.jp/en/ (brewery site in English)
Kokken

Kokken

6. Kokken Yamahai Junmai Nigorizake 国権 山廃純米にごり酒
From Fukushima prefecture.
Nigorizake is unfiltered sake.
This one is also in the yamahai style where the sake ferments with naturally occurring yeasts in an open tank.
rice: Miyama Nishiki
alcohol: 14.5%
nihonshudo: +3
http://www.kokken.co.jp/eng/top.html (brewery site in English)
http://www.kokken.co.jp/eng/makingsake.html (great info on sake making process in English)
Sake no Ana

Sake no Ana

7. Sake no Ana Daiginjo 酒の穴 大吟醸
A private label daiginjo sake made for the restaurant.
From Nagano prefecture by the Ozawa brewery.
Nagano is famous for its water. The bottled water they served here was also from this brewery.
rice: Yamada Nishiki
nihonshudo: +4
Ryujin

Ryujin

8. Ryujin Daikoshu 1970 龍神 大古酒 30年
From Gunma prefecture.
Aged 30 years.
alcohol: 18-19%
Kameizumi

Kameizumi

9. Kameizumi Junmai Ginjo Namazake 亀泉 純米吟醸 生酒
From Kochi prefecture.
Made with yeast that went into outer space called CEL-24.
nihonshudo: -8

Sake no Ana: Best Place for Tasting Sake for Lunch in Tokyo – Part 1/2

Sake Sommelier Sakamoto-san

Sake Sommelier Sakamoto-san

Sake no Ana 酒の穴
Chuo-ku, Ginza 3-5-8
03-3567-1133

There are many wonderful izakaya in Tokyo, however finding one that is open for lunch is a challenge. I was in particular looking for an izakaya with a wide variety of sake by the glass that is open for lunch. All of my favorites, including Sasagin and Takara are only open for dinner.

I found this izakaya from John Gauntner’s great book, The Sake Handbook. John Gauntner’s wonderful website is also an outstanding resource that lists the top izakaya in the city. Out of all of these, only Sake no Ana is open for lunch. Sake no Ana in Ginza is an amazing place to go for lunch if you want to try many different sake by the glass. The location also can not be beat, in the heart of Ginza across the street from Matsuya department store. When I made our reservation I confirmed that a sake sommelier would be on hand to help with the tasting.

Sakamoto-san (no relation, unfortunately) was amazing. I asked him to taste us through all of the different types of sake (from honjozo, junmaishu, daiginjo) and asked him to put in some other fun stuff like nigorizake and koshu. Also, good to know that the evening menu which is full of sake-friendly bites, is available at lunch, you just need to ask for it. The restaurant is busy at lunchtime, mostly with salarymen and office ladies taking their set lunch specials, so it is not really the most conducive environment for such a tasting. But if you are in Tokyo for a limited time and want to use a lunch to explore sake, then I truly believe this is the best spot in the city. And Sakamoto-san is friendly, knowledgeable, and provided exactly what we wanted, a variety of sake.

Highlights of our tasting:

Suzune and Fukucho Purasu X

Suzune and Fukucho Purasu X

All sake below are between 15-16% alcohol unless stated.

1. Suzune すず音
Sparkling sake from Ichinokura (name of brewery) in Miyagi prefecture.
http://www.ichinokura.co.jp/syohin/t/suzune.html (picture of the bottle with notes in Japanese)
You called this the Moscato d’Asti of sake.
alcohol: 4.5 – 5.5%
nihonshudo: -70 to -90
2. Fukucho Purasu X Karakuchi Natsu Ginjoshu 福久長 プラスX 辛口夏吟醸酒
Made by Miho Imada, a female toji (sake brewer) – very rare for Japan where most sake brewers are men.
Made in Hiroshima prefecture.
Yamada Nishiki rice (most popular rice for making sake)
http://fukucho.info/?mode=f6 (sake brewery site in English) – good notes here on the sake making process
nihonshudo: +10

Update – Fukumitsuya in Ginza has closed


Fukumitsuya Ginza

Fukumitsuya Ginza

In Food Sake Tokyo on page 182 I have listed Ginza Fukumitsuya (Chuo-ku, Ginza 5-5-8) as a sake shop worth checking out. Unfortunately they have closed their doors as of July 31, 2011.

It is so sad to see special shops like this shut their doors.

FYI, the other shop listed in Food Sake Tokyo that has also closed since going to print is Nebariya (Shibuya-ku, Hatagaya 2-48-2), a restaurant specializing in natto on page 75.

Book Review – The Niigata Sake Book

The Niigata Sake Book

The Niigata Sake Book

There’s relatively little information on sake printed in English, so whenever a new work on nihonshu comes out, it’s worth carefully perusing. The Niigata Sake Book does not disappoint, especially for readers wanting to know more about the technical side of sake. It’s based on a work called The Niigata Sake Expert Textbook and, according to translator Mike Masuyama, is “the first sake book written in Japanese to be translated into English.” With its cool temperatures, rich water sources and highly esteemed rice, Niigata is an ideal location for making top-quality sake. This book is geared towards those looking for more scientific and technical information, including details about the brewing process, how to read labels, and what the differences are between rice strains. It’s suitable even for the beginner, though, with an opening section that’s filled with color photos and simple tasting notes. Masuyama deftly guides readers through the nuances of sake, offering insightful tips on flavor profiles that will empower anyone to become knowledgeable. This book is destined to become a reference guide—not only for Niigata sake, but for sake in general.

THE NIIGATA SAKE BOOK

By The Niigata Sake Brewers Association
The Japan Times, 2009, 86pp, ¥2,100

This review first appeared in Metropolis magazine:

http://metropolis.co.jp/dining/local-flavors/the-food-files/

Gotta Go – The Sake Fair on June 15th in Ikebukuro

The Sake Fair

The Sake Fair

The do not miss event for any sake aficionado, The Sake Fair, will be held on June 15th in Ikebukuro. A rare opportunity to try up to 450 nihonshu (impossible, but nice to dream about) at one time. And all for the bargain price of 3,500 JPY (3,000 JPY if you purchase ahead of time). Best of all, representatives from the breweries are on hand to answer questions about their products.

The English link for the event follows:

http://www.japansake.or.jp/sake/fair/pdf/2011_fair_en.pdf

Book Review – Drinking Japan by Chris Bunting

Drinking Japan

Drinking Japan

This indispensible guide will become the bible for anyone passionate about Japanese beverages. Regardless if your preference is for shochu or nihonshu, Chris has covered it all. Clearly written by a reporter, no detail is overlooked, and the information is easy to understand. The descriptions of each bar transports you there and he even includes specific drinks to try once you get there. The bars are not limited to Tokyo but he also guides you on major cities including Sapporo, Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto, and where to go in Okinawa.

I know this book is a winner as many of my Tokyo favorites are included such as the New York Bar & Grill in the Park Hyatt Tokyo, he even mentions to come as the sun is setting, which is what I recommend to all of my friends. Buchi, Buri, Maru, Akaoni, Taproom, Takara, and Sasagin are other favorites that are included in this guidebook. He definitely has his pulse on the bar scene in Japan.

There are also a slew of bars that are new to me that are on my list to check out that include Shusaron for its collection of koshu (aged nihonshu), Garari and its impressive kokuto shochu list, and Cheese and Wine Salon Murase in Ginza. And although I am not much of a whisky drinker, just reading his chapter on Japanese whisky has me thirsty to visit some of the bars listed in the book.

As for covering beverages he definitely has a well-trained palate that I would trust. He recommends Bryan Baird’s beers and in the Q&A below his favorite awamori at the moment is Shirayuri, also one of my favorites. Just knowing this I am confident in reading his notes on the beverages written about in Drinking Japan.

The chapter on the drinking culture that is to be found in Japan is essential reading for anyone who will be drinking in Japan. And Chris explains why Japan is truly is a drinker’s paradise. While other books go into greater detail on nihonshu, he more than covers the base on what readers need to know when drinking nihonshu in Japan. The same goes for shochu, awamori, beer, wine, and whisky.

One of my favorite parts of the book are his directions on finding each bar. Essential information as I have found myself on numerous occasions lost, and I have a good sense of direction.

Chris is quick to point out others who have helped him along this journey, including professionals like John Gauntner, Bryan Harrell, Phred Kaufman, and many more.

This book will become a reference book for drinks in Japan. I have already dog-eared many pages for my next night in Tokyo. For those who do not read Japanese, there is essential Japanese in the book for names of beverages and addresses for bars, which will help you while on your evenings out. Even if you are not physically in Japan, the information presented on the different beverages alone makes it worth investing in. A portion of the proceeds are going to Japan Earthquake Relief.

Chris was kind enough to answer some questions posted below. Very insightful answers – see his suggestions for nursing a hangover and why he would not open a bar in Japan.

Drinking Japan – A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments

By Chris Bunting

Tuttle Publishing

272 pages

$24.95 (2127 JPY on Amazon Japan)

For more information, check out his website: http://drinkingjapan.com/

1. What drink do you have at the end of a long day?

Depending on the mood, I might have a glass of beer or something a bit stronger: whisky, awamori or shochu. Recent favourites have been a bottle of Shirayuri awamori from Ishigaki island, which has delicious unctuousness that I find really relaxing, and a bottle of Japanese grain Kawasaki whisky from the independent brand Ichiro’s Malts.

2. If a tourist is coming to Tokyo and only has time to visit five bars which five would you recommend?

I am going to blather a bit before I answer your question because I want to make clear that I don’t think it is possible to come up with any definitive list of top bars in Tokyo. I went to hundreds of bars for the book and the one thing I discovered was the foolishness of my initial objective of finding the “100 plus best bars.” Everywhere I went I seemed to get a new recommendation for a hidden gem. Japan’s, and particularly Tokyo’s, alcohol culture has a boundless energy about it and it just cannot be nailed down. There are new places popping up all the time. I found myself writing at the end of the guide that all my recommendations were just my favourites from the small slice of Japan’s alcohol life that I had been able to experience, and urging readers to use the book to get out and discover their own new places. That said, six (I am cheating) of my favorites at this point are Shot Bar Zoetrope, a Japanese whisky bar near Shinjuku station; Shusaron, a bar specialising in aged sake near Shinagawa station; The Aldgate, a great pub with good craft beer in Shibuya; Katakura, an izakaya near Ichigaya station with a great selection of awamori, shochu, and sake; Tafia, a rum bar near Roppongi,  and Bar Lupin, a really historic bar off the Ginza where Osamu Dazai and other literary greats used to hang out.

3. Again, advice for a tourist who can only have a few drinks during his stay, can you suggest one of each of the following? Nihonshu, craft beer, Japanese wine, shochu, awamori, Japanese whisky.

I will try. This is a fiendish question because it is a bit like asking someone to pick out one French wine. But here goes (I will cheat again by not naming particular brands in most of the categories but styles instead because that is the key issue): a really wild kimoto or yamahai sake rather than just sticking to the clean, dry sakes; one of the Baird Beers from Shizuoka, a brewery that plays freely over a whole range of styles; a wine made with the koshu grape, which is one of Japan’s special contributions to the wine world and often has a delightful shy and delicate touch; a sweet potato shochu from Kagoshima (my favourite brand is Manzen, because I had a great time visiting Manzen san’s tiny craft distillery in the backwoods of Kagoshima); a “kusu” (aged) awamori of some sort, rather than just the unaged stuff; a Japanese whisky that has been aged in mizunara oak, another unique Japanese style, which often offers distinctive sandalwood and coconut aromas and tastes.

4. Your favorite bar outside of Tokyo?

Pub Red Hill in Takayama city. A lot of the bars in my book have absolutely mind-blowing selections of alcohol of one sort or another. Red Hill doesn’t, but it is really friendly and is run by a good friend of mine. Bars are not all about hundreds of bottles on the shelves, they have to have soul as well.

5. Any remedies for nursing a hangover?

Don’t drink too much the night before. Gallons of Pocari Sweat, if you have strayed.

6. If you could create/own a bar what would it be like? Where would it be? What would you call it?

I would not be able to run my own bar. It takes dedication, attention to detail, and persistence, among other qualities. I don’t have those. If I did have to set up a bar, I would set it up somewhere other than Japan, because my bar simply would not be able to compete in Japan’s very competitive nightlife.

7. Through your travels you had the opportunity to meet so many interesting people. Who was the most memorable and why?

Tatsuro Yamazaki, the 90-plus year old owner of Bar Yamazaki in Sapporo. I write about him quite extensively in the concluding chapter of the book. His life story is extraordinary (including living in a boiler and being cleaned out by theft and fires ) and I think it helped me understand why Japan’s bars are of such a high standard.

8. If you could trade jobs with one of the people you met from your travels who would it be? (Someone who had an awesome bar or maybe a distiller, etc.)

As I say, I don’t think I have it in me to do any of these people’s jobs, but if I could be the assistant to Toshihiro Manzen, who runs a small craft shochu distillery in Kagoshima prefecture, I would be a happy man. It was such a beautiful place: in the middle of the forest, birdsong drifting into the distilling hall, the sound of the river …. The stills, believe it or not, are wooden and the spirit they produce is really distinctive. I had a tremendous sense when I was there that Manzen san was toiling away at something that will one day get international recognition.

9. Your favorite bar snack (or food with alcohol)?

Cheese. Any cheese. Not because it goes with all alcohol but because I love cheese and am starved of it here in Japan (see page 204 of my book).

10. Where are we most likely to run into you in Tokyo? At which bar?

At a not-very-fancy izakaya called Mugiya out the back end of Shimbashi station. It serves standard Japanese lager in small glasses and the fried spam gives me terrible jip the next morning, but my colleagues at work go there so I go too. It is about the company as much as the drink. When I get my way, we go to a place in Nishi-Shimbashi called Craft Beer Market, which has reasonably priced craft beer that is becoming increasingly popular among my colleagues. Recently, my roistering has been restricted because my wife and I just had a baby.