Feb 26, 2010

Early Show of Sakura and "Matsumidori" Sake

"Matsuda Sakura Festival" is now held in Matsuda-machi, Ashigarakami-gun, Kanagawa Prefecture. From Matsuda Station on JR Gotemba Line, we took a bus, which went across under Tomei Kosoku Highway, and then ascended a steep slope on a hill. Just a few-minute travel on the bus brought us to a place where we could enjoy an early-spring. There were early season varieties of sakura trees such as Kawazuzakura and rape blossoms in bloom, and we could enjoy these pink and yellow flowers. Facing south, this hillside place overlooked the town of Matsuda-machi, beyond which mountains of Hakone lay. Also, a snow-crested magnificent Mt. Fuji could be seen from the hillside.

During the festival period, the shuttle bus service that connects the station and the sakura place is available (one-way fare: 150 yen).

After being satisfied with the wonderful sight of the flowers, I recommend you to have lunch at the restaurant "Nikuhachi" (肉八) just in front of Matsuda Station. They offer horsemeat dishes including a horsemeat bowl, hot pot with horsemeat. I had the horsemeat bowl, on which an omelet with leek was placed. I picked some amount of the omelet with the chopsticks and brought it to the mouth and then found sliced horsemeat appeared from under the omelet. The meat was tender and tasted very nice! Moreover, this restaurant carried various types of sake from different places across the country. If you are partial to sake, ask the restaurant master whether he has recommended sake. He actually had good one for me this time.

After eating a horsemeat dish, you may want to go visit Nakazawa Brewery, which is making "Matsumidori." This brewery offers free drink of amasake (literally sweet sake) during the period of the festival. Also, you can sample some of their sake at the brewery.

Junmai Ginjo Namazake "Haru-urara" is a usunigori (slightly cloudy) namazake that has been designed to be shipped around this time of year. In spite of the sake meter value of zero, it did not taste very sweat, but left a flinty impression. This was very mild sake. I also tasted a pasteurized junmai Matsumidori, which also had a mild taste and was quite quaffable. I purchased bottles of both sakes to bring them home.

Matsuda Sakura Festival will last until March 7 and you may want to go there to enjoy an early spring.

Feb 22, 2010

Lone Drinker

Yesterday, I went out for shopping to Tachikawa City. Then, I dropped in an izakaya to enjoy some sake alone.

Foods grilled on a charcoal brazier and a wide selection of sake, shochu, and other alcohol beverages are the sales points of this izakaya Aburi-izakaya Oumi. They offer drinks and foods at reasonable prices. The sake types they are carrying are as many as around 35.

I were already in front of the restaurant 15 minutes earlier than the opening time, which was 5 p.m. So, I walked around in the vicinity to see if something interesting could be found. After not having found anything special but anyhow having filled the time, I entered the izakaya at just 5 p.m. There were two young guys working inside, restaurant manager and waiter.

The interior of this izakaya created a tranquilizing atmosphere with old-fashioned Japanese taste. Traditional paper-made kites displayed on the wall added to the mood along with other miscellaneous ornamental elements. I took a seat at the counter, which had a thick broad counter top. I like large space on the table.

Sometimes I want to go for light drinking alone. Nonetheless, just silently continuing drinking alone is not very interesting. It is sometimes fun to have moderate conversation with izakaya staff. Yesterday, which fell on a Sunday, when I entered the restaurant, there were no other customers. So, I could say I, as a lone drinker, went there in a good timing since I could enjoy talking about sake with the staff.

This restaurant allows their customers to order sake by the unit of 0.5 gos (90 milliliters). So, they can order many types of sake by little and little. As to me, I drank the following sake yesterday:

- Okunokami (屋守): Sake made in Tokyo. Sensation of namazake is attractive.
- Dassai (獺祭): 48% daiginjo sake. Light graceful taste.
- Daruma-masamune Three-year Aged (達磨正宗三年熟成): The brewery of this sake adheres to making aged sake. This time the sake was too cold. I believe it would taste better at room temperature or when warmed.
- Tempoichi Junmai Super-dry Nama (天寶一純米超辛口本生): Very dry but has a good taste.
Ikki Junmai Ginjo Nama (一喜純米吟醸生): Sweetish but tasty
Shinkame Junmai Karakuchi (神亀純米辛口): Very good! I like it.
Boujimaya Junmai Origarami (坊島屋純米おりがらみ): Exhibits a somehow inorganic impression. Not bad.

When nearly two hours had past after I entered the restaurant, I felt slightly drunk. So, I quitted drinking and left there. When I, drinking alone, feel satisfied with drinking, I can stop and go home since no one dissuades me leaving for home. It is a good point of drinking alone.

Feb 19, 2010

Koji Rate Regulation of Regular Sake

Lately, we have colder days than in the average February here in Japan. I prepared for little birds some apple on a stick which was tied to a branch of a tree in the garden. It took several days for them to find there was their food. Finally, white-eyes came to the food and enjoyed their meal. The following is the movie I took yesterday morning:

Well, in this post, I discuss the koji rate regulation, which is currently applied to tokutei-meisho-shu, or special designation sake, and may be going to be introduced also to regular sake. Whether to apply the koji rate regulation also to the regular sake is likely to be discussed by Japan Sake Brewers Association (source: in Japanese).

The koji rate of a specific sake represents the percentage of the koji rice (rice malt) used for making the sake to all the rice (including the steamed rice) used.

The tokutei-meisho-shu must have the koji rate of 15% or higher value as a standard. However, there is no koji rate standard for the regular sake so far.

By lowering the koji rate, brewers can reduce production cost and offer low-priced regular sake. However, lowering the koji rate probably requires the addition of enzyme, which helps the saccharification activity.

As it has been said "koji first, yeast starter second, and fermentation third," koji making is considered to be the most important process in sake making. If regular sake is made by using only a little amount of koji rice, the output from this most important process, is such sake considered authentic? This question may partly have lead to the movement of the koji rate regulation of the regular sake.

However, major breweries, which are making low-priced sake in large quantity, seem to be reluctant to support introduction of koji rate standard for the regular sake.

I would feel like I were deceived if someone had me drink sake that used only little amount of koji rice or no koji rice while saying "this is sake." It is important that consumers are well informed of what ingredients and additives are used.

Sake Quizzes
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Feb 17, 2010

Why Sake Is Suffering Low Consumption?

The sake industry in Japan is now suffering low consumption of sake, and the sake market in Japan is shrinking year after year. Why this is happening? I give a consideration to this issue.

Goshu-no-Nikki (sake diary), the existing Japan's first technical book concerning sake making written by a private party, makes mention of danjikomi (staged fermenting mash preparation), morohaku-zukuri (sake-making method using milled rice for both rice malt and additional steamed rice), hiire (pasteurization), etc. Some people assert that this document was established in 1355, and others say it was established in 1489 (now, the latter argument seems to gain more support).

The mention of such technical terms of sake making found in this book proves that they had already begun using such sake-making techniques as staged fermenting mash preparation, rice milling, pasteurization, etc. at least 500 years ago. These methods are also used widely in modern sake making. So, it can be said the history of sake making is longer than 500 years.

I think Japanese people can be proud of Japanese sake, and also consider it our obligation to preserve the tradition and techniques of sake making and hand them down to posterity.

Unfortunately, the sake industry in Japan is currently not very brisk. The amount of sake shipment is decreasing year after year. Japanese people drink beer, shochu, whiskey, and many of the youth seem enjoying shochu and soda. Whiskey and soda is now in mode. And now, less and less people are drinking sake.

According to statistics of the National Tax Agency, the consumption of sake was about 1,370,000 kiloliters in fiscal year 1990, twenty years ago, and about 980,000 kiloliters in fiscal year 2000, ten years ago. The Japan Sake Brewers Association recently announced that the amount of sake shipment last year was about 630,000 kiloliters.

Well, what should the stagnant sake consumption be attributed to? In my opinion, I can list the following three points:

1. Widened choice of alcoholic beverages
2. Reduced opportunities for drinking sake
3. Insufficient advertisement and promotion of sake by the industry

Sake along with beer had been enjoying its expanding consumption until around 1974. Then, however, it began suffering a gradual downturn in consumption while beer continued increasing steadily in popularity. Around 1984, the consumption of shochu started growing.

Before, sake and beer shared most of the Japan's alcoholic beverage market, where shochu later took part in the competition and became a choice as an alcohol drink. Due to this widened choice of alcoholic beverages of consumers, it must have become difficult for both sake and beer to recover the loss of their market shares.

Secondly, as to reduced opportunities for drinking sake, I mean the following: Before, sake played an important role in a shrine festival or Shinto event and there was the practice of drinking sake in many types of gatherings related to Japan's traditional or religious events such as a wedding ceremony, Buddhist service, etc. However, people have become less regardful of holding shrine festivals or Shinto events strictly and observing the old practice. This trend may be caused by depreciation of tradition in the wake of diversification of values among the Japanese people. In the meantime, there are lately fewer scenes than before in which employees old and young in the same workplace of a company together enjoy drinking in a drinking session after work. As a result, the young generation has fewer chances to learn "how to drink" sake from the older generation. I even hear of Japanese guys in their 20's who have never drunk sake.

Last but not least, the stagnant sake consumption should also be attributed to insufficient efforts in advertising and promoting sake by the sake industry including sake makers, sake brewers' associations, and other related bodies. Many of sake breweries are small businesses with several to several ten employees, and do not have very great capability of advertisement and technology development compared with companies from other liquor making industries in Japan such as major beer or whiskey companies. For example, I obtained the following information from the Web sites of two major sake breweries in Japan:

Ozeki Co., Ltd.
Capital: 828,750,000 yen
Number of employees: 477

Gekkeikan Sake Co., Ltd.
Capital: 496,800,000 yen
Number of employees: 549

In contrast with the above, the corresponding data of Suntory, Japan's major beer and whiskey brewing company, is as follows:

Suntory Holdings Limited
Capital: 70 billion yen
Number of employees: 21,845 (in Suntory group)

There may be some faults in simple comparison of these numbers, but it can be said that sake breweries are far smaller than this whiskey and beer company in terms of business scale. I guess, being small in business size, sake brewers have many difficulties in advertising and promoting their products.

So, should they become big companies? No, the issue is not so simple. Making sake breweries too big probably involves abolishment and mergers of many of the existing breweries, which may damage provinciality of sake and other sake characteristics of each brewery that represent the natural features of each production area, and reduce diversity of the sake world. This issue may be difficult to approach, but I hope that the sake industry will develop soundly while protecting the tradition and culture of sake brewing and maintaining characteristics of local sake (jizake). It is desired that each of breweries and sake brewers' associations further make continuous efforts in collaboration with each other.

As described above, I pointed out and discussed the three points as reasons for stagnant sake consumption in Japan: widened choice of alcoholic beverages, reduced opportunities for drinking sake, and insufficient advertisement and promotion of sake by the industry.

Of those three, as to the first "widened choice of alcoholic beverages," there seem to be no measures to be taken. The state of people's having the widened choice is not a bad thing, and, also, it is difficult to convince people to be satisfied with a narrower choice. However, as to the second and thirds points, I think more efforts must be made.

Personally, I am determined to continue drinking sake in the future, off course. And, also, I will try to induce more and more people to enter the wonderful world of sake and convey the delight of sake drinking.

Feb 6, 2010

Winter Ends and Spring Starts

February 3, 2010, I went for a walk in the Ikuta Green Space in Tama Ward of Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture. There are good walking trails in the woods.

I found paw-prints here and there on the left snow that had fallen several days before, and was hit by the thought that those animal were walking barefoot on the snow and must have been feeling cold! Walking along the snow trail in the wood while having such a silly idea was fun for me.

Beside the wood of this green space, a disused train and steam locomotive were being displayed, and we can enter the train, be seated, and rest inside.

I got a cup of coffee from a vending machine and entered the train so that I could have a rest. To my surprise, there was a very unusual earlier visitor.

Look at this! It is sitting on the backrest of a seat.

A crow, it was a crow.

It came close to me and it looked big! It did not look to feel fear of the human at all. It did even seem to feel superior to the human rather than to be tamed. Suddenly, it came down to my foot and started picking my boot with its big pointed beak! "Ouch!" I felt its strength even from the inside of the instep of the boot.

"Oh, this is dangerous," I thought, if this crow attacks a toddler with its thick strong beak.

At least on that day, the train was not a good place to rest. It seemed I'd better keep a distance from that bruiser and go out of the train.

By the way, February 3, 2010 falls on the day of bean-throwing events (in which people throw beans to repel devils). Shrines and temples hold bean-throwing events February 3. It is said that the day marks the end of the winter and the spring starts on the next day. When I came home, I found an ornamental exorcism made of holly leaves and sardine heads beside the front door.

The exorcism is displayed as a message to devils. The message means "To all devils, if you enter this house, you will be treated just the same way these sardines were treated."

Anyway, a close-up shot of this ornament looks quite cruel.

And, in Japan, the spring starts February 4. Of course, it is still cold, but the nation considers the day to be the beginning of the spring in anticipation.

Ozawa Syuzou, one of the sake breweries in Tokyo, ships bottles of special sake, "Risshun Asashibori," on February 4, every year. The production of this sake has been planned meticulously so that it can be pressed in the early morning of February 4 and be shipped on the same day.

One of my friends, who is working for this brewery, gave me a bottle of this sake yesterday. So, I opened and enjoyed this sake in the yesterday's evening, and nearly emptied the bottle.

This is a junmai ginjo nama genshu sake with a sweet bouquet and briskness. The this-year version seems a bit drier than the last-year version of the same sake.

At the end of this post, I paste the video I took yesterday. This is prettier than the crow.