Coming from Narita into Tokyo was quite the experience, riding on the Sky Liner and seeing trees and green fields whizzing by and morphing into small buildings that grew taller and taller. As if responding to the slowly setting sun, the buildings became bright with neon and LED ads and lights all over. I had arrived in a new place, and it was time to experience new things, first of which was Japan’s native spirit, sake.
To embark on this journey of understanding a new spirit, I was enlisting the help of my long-time friend and Tokyo native Jeff Takano. Jeff has been in the sake industry for the past 7 months after joining the team at Hasegawa Saketen, one of the best liquor stores in Tokyo specializing in sake. He became involved in the industry following a 3 month internship, a collaboration project with Japanese footballer Hidetoshi Nakata, to make a special refrigerator that was perfect for storing sake.
During the project, Jeff was able to take part in the brewing process at two of the best sake breweries in Japan, and he also got hooked on the beverage. “I learned that sake tastes so fucking good! I had one sip of a particular sake and ever since then, whenever I see sake I crave it.” In order to learn more about his new favorite spirit and to educate the world about sake, he joined Hasegawa Liquors and has been a sake evangelist ever since.
Sake, or Japanese Rice Liquor, is made from fermenting rice that has been polished to remove the bran. Instead of fermenting the sugar from fruit, as with wine, sake is made by a brewing process similar to beer in which rested and polished rice is mixed with a specific mold culture and allowed to ferment for 5-7 days before adding yeast and water to the koji (rice mold mixture) and sitting for 7 days.
Then, water, steamed and fermented rice are added in three stages, with the staggered approach allowing for increased volume and becomes the moromi (main mash). The moromi ferments for 2-3 weeks at 15 C (10 C or less for high-grade sake). Following fermentation, the sake is extracted from the solid mixture through a filtration process before remaining sediment (lees) is removed and the sake is carbon filtered and pasturized. Sometimes, distilled alcohol (called brewer’s alcohol) is added to bring out flavors that are sometimes lost in the mash.
Jeff told me to meet him at Ginza Station at 8:40 that night. After tooling around all day in the busier parts of the city, mainly the hodge podge of KTV bars, cafes, expensive restaurants and knick knack shops that was Shinjuku – home to the infamous tourist trap Robot Show – I made my way through the belly of Tokyo’s subway until I transferred to the bright yellow Ginza Line. From there it was two stops to Ginza station, past the gates and into the world of Ginza. Here, the randomness I found in Shinjuku had been replaced by order and elegance: high-end brand stores and beautifully constructed buildings surrounding chic cafes and eateries with expertly-dressed socialites and tourists walking here and there, taking dates and friends to impress them in these dens of decadence that dotted the landscape. It was here that I met Jeff.
What surprised me most about Ginza – and Tokyo in general – was how effortlessly what was new and glitzy could transform into something rustic and harkened to days long past. An example was the sake bar we planned to visit, Sake no Ana. Here the concrete of the highrise we were passing under turned into a bright wooden entry with the bar residing above a fancy steak dinner joint. Through the blue and white entry we went into a quiet room with the same bright wood as the exterior holding the whole thing together. Beyond the seats filled with smiling and laughing patrons sat a short wooden bar behind which was a refrigerator filled with some of the best sakes in Japan.
We took our seats at the bar and Jeff pointed out a golden bottle in the fridge. It was a sake that had been named the best bottle in the world. Considering the price of tasting the bottling, Jeff opted for the second best bottle, Isojiman. For a first-time sake drinker like myself, it was nothing short of amazing. The chilled drink, first poured into a metal glass surrounded by ice for serving, was very mellow on the nose and palate, with hints of fresh berries hidden behind a slight refreshing dryness.
The next bottle was a slightly fruitier option. Senkin had a lively floral and fruity nose, a bit intense on the palate but still wonderful. Our journey wasn’t complete without small snacks to accompany our impromptu tasting: the waitress serving us, clad in a navy blue kimono, soon approached with a round serving platter covered with small blue bowls filled with three varieties of snacks. Jeff took a bowl of chicken while I took a bowl of pickled vegetables with fresh grated wasabi, nothing short of spicy and amazing.
While we dined and sipped we also tried some of the bar’s sashimi. The salmon, white fish and mackerel offered were, I dare say, superior in flavor to what I had in the morning in Tsukiji; more rounded and with the umph of a nice umami – to which Jeff commenting that there must be something wrong with my taste buds.
During the whole affair, Jeff took the time to explain sake to me, emphasizing the name first. “Sometimes they translate sake as ‘rice wine’, but you should instead just call it sake or ‘Japanese liquor’” because it is brewed, much unlike wine. He further explained the 5 types of high-grade sakes to me. Junmai (Pure-Rice), the first type of premium sake, is sake that is made solely with rice, water, yeast and koji with no additives like sugar or brewer’s alcohol. Next is Honjozo. Like junmai sake, honjozo uses rice that has been polished down to 70% but contains a small amount of brewer’s alcohol to round out the flavors. Ginjo is sake that has rice that’s been polished 60% and generally is more fruity and light thanks to use of a special kind of yeast and fermenting process. There is also Junmai Ginjo, which is Ginjo sake that’s been made with the “pure-rice” method. Finally there’s the highest level, Daiginjo and Junmai Daigingo. The name Daiginjo means “super premium sake” with rice polished down to 50%. Junmai Daigingo is the same, but made with pure rice and no additives.
After awhile we ordered a third sake, Yorokobi Gaijin, which was my favorite of the bunch. The nose and palate were robust, with a somewhat thicker mouthfeel and hints of cocoa powder and chocolate truffle. Jeff paired this with Tamagoyaki, a traditional Japanese egg dish of layered egg that was light and flavorful, and cream cheese with bits of squid, which worked to enhance the chocolate flavor I was experiencing in the sake. Before our bill arrived and we left for the evening, we were served one final dish: two gargantuan potatoes with beef, what Jeff referred to as true Japanese comfort food. The beef itself was good but the potatoes were otherworldly and quintessentially Japanese, with a light sweetness to them from the fish broth in which they had been cooked. A perfect and filling end to the tasting.
All in all an eye opening experience, the evening was a lesson in a new national spirit and something to explore if you’re ever in Japan. In my opinion, sake is one of the many defining characteristics of Japanese culinary culture, and its something you shouldn’t miss out on or skip. Of course, sake, sashimi and comfort foods aren’t the stopping point on this journey, as there was still much to explore, especially in the realm of noodles.
Sake no Ana | 酒の穴
Business Hours: 11:30 AM-11:00 PM
Address: 〒104-0061 5-8-3, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo | 〒104-0061 東京都中央区銀座３丁目５−８
Hasegawa Saketen (Azabujuban) | はせがわ酒店(麻布十番)
Business Hours: 11:00 AM-8:00 PM
Address: 〒106-0045 2-3-3, Azabu Jyuban, Minato-ku, Tokyo | 〒106-0045 東京都港区麻布十番2-3-3
Hasegawa has locations around Tokyo, which you can find here.