Friday, February 17, 2006

Off to Japan

Well, I’m off to a running start here in the land of the rising sun. For the first time ever I purchased a 3-week Japan Rail Pass. Tidbit: You must purchase this pass prior to entering Japan and must be a foreigner or a Japanese National having a permanent residence outside of Japan. What a bargain! For $520.00 I can go virtually anywhere that the JR train system goes throughout the four main Islands: Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu, and Hokkaido for three whole weeks. Tidbit: Japan is not an island; It is an archipelago composed of 5 large islands and numerous smaller ones.

That JR pass went right into use when I stepped off the plane at Narita (main airport outside of Tōkyō) and took the Narita Express (part of the JR train system) to Tōkyō Eki (Station). That ride alone would have been ¥3,000 (about $28.00). After my seamless, clean, and speedy fifty-minute express train ride to Tōkyō Station, I found an internet kiosk in a hallway of the station as I was passing through. After completing a more than 16-hour journey from my home, I was having withdrawal symptoms having been away from e-mail for that long. For ¥100 (less than a buck) per 10 minutes, I could check e-mails and reach the rest of the world. Whew! My final destination on the first night was Kiba, an old area of downtown Tōkyō. It is a very residential non-touristy area.

After arriving in Kiba and waiting for a friend to come home, I popped into a local neighborhood Izakaya (a bar, pub) by the name of Masakura for a little snack and my first social lubricant of the trip. I chose a sake, Kaiun, Ginjō, from Shizuoka Prefecture and requested that it be reishu (chilled). It was served in a wide, open-mouthed touki (earthenware vessel) along with an ochoko (a small, round sake cup that mated with the vessel in which the sake was served). It was a splendid way to end one journey and let another begin. The drink was subtle, not terribly aromatic, yet full of Shizuoka sake flavor. Alas, I was here.

The tasty treat accompanying my sake, katsuo no tataki, is bonito that has had the skin and sinew removed and is then ever so slightly and quickly seared on the outside. The fish is sliced up sashimi style, only thicker, and then yakumi is added. Yakumi is a set of, in this case, asatsuki (Japanese type of chives) finely chopped, and myōga (a plant whose stem resembles that of a Japanese ginger plant, but only buds sprouting from the root itself are eaten). The Okamisan (women chef/owner) took small portions of this mixture and placed it onto each slice of katsuo and then slapped it relatively hard with the flat, broad side of a wide knife to ensure that the flavors of the yakumi are infused into the flesh of the fish. The dish was then plated and sauce was added. The sauce varies depending upon the chef at the helm, but typically it will be a variation of soy sauce, vinegar, and sake. Tomorrow will be another day.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A sake question from a distributor sales representative:

Seth asked...
Michael I have a retailer who wants to know in depth why Midorikawa, daiginjō prices out well over $100.00.

I replied,
Regarding Midorikawa, daiginjō there are a couple of things that I know of off hand that might make it so expensive. First and foremost, it is damn good! But I think that we need to go beyond that if we want to bring some credibility to the price of the sake.

Midorikawa Shuzō has made quite a name for itself in the sake world in Japan. Some of the breweries that you (The Henry Wine Group) represent are famous within their region but possibly are not so well-known outside of their local area, (That is why we call them jizake –meaning small, local producers.) Google the word jizake someday and read up. Back to Midorikawa. Even nationally (in Japan) Midorikawa is quite famous. During the Sumo matches (at the beginning of them) a cask of sake is smashed into by a famous Sumo wrestler to begin the events. I have seen Midorikawa used for this purpose.(This ceremony is a big deal and an honor for the sake company). As you know, if it is good wine and in demand, the price goes up. There is still another major component. I have visited approximately 20 breweries in the past 12 months. Midorikawa is the cleanest, most clinical, hospital-like brewery that I have ever visited. I’m sure keeping the facility in that condition adds to the maintenance bill and final price of the sake. Perhaps this cleanliness and purity is reflected in the bottle you are holding that costs the consumer well over $100.00.
Uonuma-shi, Niigata. This is where the brewery is located. Shi means city. Uonuma is the name of the city located within the prefecture of Niigata. Throughout Japan the prefecture of Niigata is known for growing some of the finest rice in the entire nation. The Uonuma region is at the top of the pyramid. People who know rice know also that this specific region produces some of the best of the best. Aoki Shuzo (which you sell) is also produced within this region.

Those are some of the reasons for the cost. I don’t want to mislead you, though. The rice used in the particular bottle that you speak of uses Yamada Nishiki rice which may come from a different region. Among the competition class sake and many of the other highest quality sake produced, Yamada Nishiki is often the rice of choice. It, too, varies in grade and quality and is very very expensive. I can guess that this rice might be from Hyōgo-Ken (another prefecture), but I am not certain. I can find out though. In any case, it is top grade rice, and keep in mind that 60% of the kernel has been removed and only the inner 40% is being used in the sake fermentation process. That 60% is being discarded and sold off to other companies for the making of things like rice crackers, pickles, etc. This surely also adds to the cost.

I hope that I have answered your questions.