It is May and it is getting hot in Japan. We are getting a taste of Summer, which is for many our least favorite season, due to its sticky-clammy humidity is definitely on the way. But there is still a lot to see and do, although most sake breweries have by now stopped making sake and moved into the bottling, labeling, and storing phase...
Aged Sake Cave Tour and Aged Sake Tasting
One of the breweries I often work within Tochigi is Shimazaki Brewery famous for its aged sake and its storage facilities - the cave.
The cave used to be mainly their storage facility, which visitors could either check out via Shimazaki Breweries self-guided tour (via multilingual tablets) or by arranging a personal tour (if you are interested I can help you with that here. Previously tastings had to be arranged separately and would be held at a different venue, but now if you are touring the cave, you will also be able to sit down with a tasting set that starts at about 1000Yen, which of course depends a little on the sake you are trying. Such a great addition and even better, the sake is also sold right there in the small cave shop.
Mashiko Spring Potter Fair and Tonoike Sake Tasting
The Mashiko Pottery Festival is one of the biggest pottery festivals in Japan, held twice a year in spring and in autumn and if you are looking for a special sake cup or tokkuri, then this is the place to be!
Potters from all over Japan come together and showcase their craft, with many only selling at this event, making it even more special. Aside from all the ceramic, there is of course also some of the best street food and drinks. Plus Tonoike Sake Brewery is close by (about 20min on foot) so you can first buy your sake cup and then get it filled at the tasting room of the brewery. Not a bad day out isn't it?
A visit to Kodama Jozo in Akita
It was so exciting to visit Kodama Jozo in Akita again, as I love their sake, but have also been looking forward to visiting their Soy sauce factory, which was unfortunately closed during our last visit.
So this time, we got to see their massive soy sauce factory, all using the traditional wooden barrels (which in an operation that size is very rare). And it was a real highlight walking between the massive Koike and understanding that these barrels have been around for centuries...
Of course, there was sake to be tasted and one of the great moments was trying the Taiheizan Kimoto and the Kimoto Shirakami side by side, with the only difference being the water source. Truly mind-blowing.
Tendo Brewery and Spa Hotel
I love Yamagata, but this has been my first trip to Tendo, where some amazing sake breweries are located.
Now Yamagata is also home to some amazing Ryokans and Onsen, so why not combine the brewery visit with a relaxing overnight stay? And how better to do so at a brewery?
At Ichiraku Tendo Spa & Brewery you can do exactly that. They produce several varieties of beer and are really big in supporting all kinds of other local beverages including sake and wine. Some of their room packages are all-inclusive which means, half board but also all drinks are free. To my surprise that also included drinks in the lobby and at their cozy bar with access to a small garden that in the evening offered a fire pit and Marshmallows to roast.
Really highly recommended it if you are planning on staying in Tendo.
A Visit to Dewazakura in Yamagata
The reason we stopped by in Tendo was in fact a very special sake brewery visit - Dewazakura!
This was my first time visiting the brewery and although we came a tad bit late in the season, there was still some work going on, including bottling. It was very exciting to see the size of the brewery (and in fact, they do have two breweries, another one located in Yamagata) and also get an idea of how massive their storage space is especially as they are aging a respectable portion of their sake production.
The brewery tour was followed by a tasting and again, what a great experience. Highlight was certainly Dewazakura’s Vintage Sake collection, which consists of a 3, 8 & 12-year-old sake. Based on their popular Ikko (Junmai). The one that stood out for me most I would say was the 8-year-old - really incredible aged sake.
Sake Pairing Dinner at Atami Sekaie in Shizuoka
More great Ryokans this month and this one is Atami Sekaie in Shizuoka. A very high-end luxury space and a real treat for anyone who wants to combine their onsen experience with a seaside town vibe.
The big surprise, however, was not the onsen on the balcony overlooking the ocean, or the great food, no it was the fact that part of their drink pairing menu already included sake. And that they could basically spin the whole menu into a sake pairing list. What a great experience, with some really great sake to match the food.
New Aged Sake Bar - Sneak Peek
After Ueno-san has closed his previous aged sake bar, many of us have been waiting for his new establishment to open up, peek, and it just so had it that I was able to get a sneak peek into his new bar.
Super elegant and already filled to the bring with great sake at his new bar counter (which is also equipped to heat sake) on the first floor. There is a swanky meeting room style lower floor with another beautiful storage space that I was told will hold another approximately 800 bottles of sake.
Now the bar is said to open later in June and I cannot wait to come back and try some of the aged sake he has been collecting for this place.
Hidden Sake Bar - Sake Bar O
Not quite a secret anymore is the concept of "Sake Bar O", a franchise of hidden sake bars in Tokyo, that is currently also expanding to other countries.
With two locations in Tokyo, one in Naka-Meguro and one in Aoyama, they are based on a members-only idea, where you need to purchase NFT in order to buy your membership either to one bar or all of them. The good news is, that they do have some flexibility towards visitors, even if you are not a member.
For drinks the minimalist Aoyama bar is great, but the location in Naka-Meguro is where all the magic happens. They even added a pairing menu, which I still have to try. I will share once I got a chance to pop in...
Saitama Keyaki Beer Festival
The Keyaki Beer Festival in Saitama was yet another VERY wet festival - sooo much rain and I did feel sorry for all the breweries and vendors that came out, especially as there was almost no shelter (unless you prebooked a seat in one of the tents).
Still, it was a great event for any beer lover and anyone wanting to dive head into the world of Japanese Craft Beers, as breweries from all over the country came together for us to sample their best brews. I tried beers from about half of the vendors and I must say the fruit beers made in Hokkaido by Hokkaido Brewing were utterly delicious and a fun sweeter alternative to all the other more traditional craft beers available on the day.
Aged Sake Seminar
A well-kept secret is that the Toki Sake Association has slowly started their own certification program for importers, sellers and Restaurant owners in order to promote aged sake and I joined them for one of their aged sake seminars in Tokyo.
With a short introduction to the history of age sake, the main part of the seminar was focusing on maturing, storing, flavour profiles and of course, ther was a quick tasting as well as an introduction to some of the upcoming projects of members of the association.
Probably the biggest surprise of the seminar was the slow arrival of all the Toki Sake Association members, as it seemed to have aligned with one of their meetings and it was great to see some of the brewers I work with and/or that I have been visiting recently.
More great things to happen here soon, so stay tuned.
It has been a while since I have been to Marie Chiba's Eureka! and I was looking forward to catching up with friends and checking out her new Summer menu.
Loved her Burrata and Peas dish and of course, there is no way I could pass on her classic blue cheese and ham katsu paired with Nondo's Doburoku (as it is hands down my absolute favorite). But it was also very cool to get to compare Aramasa's pink unicorn from two different years the 2017 and the 2018, what a difference a year makes...
Of course, Marie-sans presence made all the difference and I am looking forward to going back soon :)
Utsunomiya Cocktail Club
Most people might know that Utsunomiya is famous for Gyoza, but it is also a hub for Jazz Music and Cocktail Bars.
It is said the reason why cocktails have gotten so popular in the city is largely down to one man "Toru Otsuka", who launched Paipu no Kemuri in 1974 and then headed on to win one global cocktail competition after another. He also passed on the knowledge and passion to his staff Takei-san, Ogawa-san, and Yamanoi-san who all went on to win national titles and eventually opened their own establishments. So Utsunomiya for many years became the epicenter of cocktail culture in Japan and the Utsunomiya Cocktail Club was born out of that.
These days the Utsunomiya Cocktail Club features 31 bars, each with its signature cocktails and style. So as one of my last challenges here in Tochigi, I decided to try to visit as many of these Cocktail bars Tochigi as possible. So prepare yourself for lots and lots of cocktails coming up in the next two weeks. But first up is Sukatto Dinning bar, with Terasawa Tatsuya behind the bar - great Cocktails and great showmanship!