Japan Times Archives – 2000, John Guantner

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2000/08/24

Where new discoveries and old favorites await

By JOHN GAUNTNER

For exploring the world of sake, nothing is more helpful than a reliable sake retailer with a wide and varying selection. There are many such retailers in all parts of Japan, and developing a good relationship with one is key.

One such highly reputable retailer is Aji no Machidaya in Nakano. While not exactly centrally located, their incredible selection makes the short jaunt from Shinjuku well worth it.

Machidaya is not just a retailer; they are also a major distributor for restaurants all over Tokyo. Nor are they your average distributor: Machidaya is known as a purveyor of new discoveries of fine sake. Most of the “new faces” of the popular jizake world can be found here.

Sake brands that are currently riding a wave of popularity can be hard to find outside of restaurants. For many such brands, that search stops here. Hiroki and Aizu Musume, both from Fukushima and both recently introduced in this column, can be found here. Biwa no Sazanami from Saitama, Suminoe from Miyagi, Tenyurin from Mie, and Kisho from Tokyo are a few more recent fad sake you can find at Machidaya.

Yet, the more established names are here too. Awesome Isojiman from Shizuoka, usually hard to find in Tokyo, is here waiting for you. So is Asahikikuchi from Hiroshima, Shishi no Sato from Ishikawa, Maihime from Nagano, and countless more. You’ll never exhaust your options here.

Family-run Aji no Machidaya is small and cramped, but the staff is cheerful and helpful. All of their sake is kept refrigerated (a good sign), most of it in a large, walk-in cooler kept quite cold. When you walk in on a hot summer day, the sweat freezes quickly and you’ll need a break from the cold before you check out all they have.

Should you be interested in shochu, there is a nice, wide selection of that as well. Long maligned, shochu is distilled, ranges from 15 to 35 percent alcohol and can be quite tasty if you like stronger beverages.

Machidaya has a simple Web site in Japanese only, with limited e-commerce capabilities. Not all of the sake in the store is available from the Web site, but there is certainly enough to get your tongue wet. Check it out at www02.so-net.ne.jp/~jizakeya/

* * *

There are about 1,700 sake breweries in Japan at present. This number is dropping each year as breweries cease operations. The reasons are many and varied.

For some breweries, it is simply a matter of not having anyone to take over the reins and continue operations. Running a sake brewery is hard work, and often the children of brewers would rather go to the big cities or pursue medical or other professional careers.

In other cases, there is no one to take over the brewing itself. The average age of skilled toji (head brewer) and kurabito (brewery workers) is well over 60; you just can’t get good help anymore.

Then, of course, there is money. Sales of sake and profit margins from those sales are hardly raging. Moreover, inexpensive sake from larger producers has become available in every nook and cranny of the country, making former local markets of local breweries dry up.

Kinsen’s junmai ginjo
So a few drop out of sight each year, and a piece of culture and history is gone forever. This is a particular downer when a sake you are especially fond of disappears, as when news came around three years ago that Kinsen, a lovely sake from Hiroshima, would no longer be produced. Ah, Kinsen, with its unmistakable distinction. We hardly even knew thee.

So imagine my surprise when I stumbled on a bottle of Kinsen at Machidaya lately. My first thought was that they had hoarded several bottles and aged them, but a glance at the bottling date showed this was not true. My next thought was that the brand name was being borrowed by another brewery.

Looking at the name of the brewer, in tiny characters on the label, I saw it was Aihara Shuzo, brewers of Ugo no Tsuki in Hiroshima. No slouches, they. So I asked at the counter. It seems that Kinsen is indeed being brewed again, and by the same people that brewed it before. They are, for whatever reason, borrowing the facilities of another brewery, Aihara Shuzo.

One interesting fact about Kinsen is that the owner was (and is) the toji; a difficult endeavor. Now, as before, the Horimoto family is doing the brewing and everything else.

Although this “kura borrowing” is an amazing show of cooperation, the proof is in the flavor. Kinsen does not disappoint: That unique distinction is still present.

Naturally, Kinsen is a bit hard to find, either in restaurants or in retail shops. You can drink it at Sake no Ikesu in Hachioji, (0462) 42-1508, should you be out in that neck of the woods. When it is in stock you can also pick it up at Machidaya.

A view of the brewery can be seen at www2.biglobe.ne.jp/~abcd/wa_51.html

Also, Kinsen can be bought online at www2.biglobe.ne.jp/~abcd/wa_5101.html (a site unrelated to Machidaya or to me; I just stumbled on it).

To get to Aji no Machidaya, take the exit for Yamate-dori at JR Higashi-Nakano Station (two stations from Shinjuku). Cross Yamate-dori and enter the shopping street called “Ginza-dori.” This runs into Waseda-dori; cross over this and continue straight just to the right of the koban. This road will wind left and right and up and down a bit, and after five minutes or so there will be a road peeling off 45 degrees to the left, with another koban on the corner. Follow this road for about five minutes, and Machidaya will appear on the left. With the plethora of sake bottles in the front, you cannot miss it. There is a simple map on their Web site as well.

* * *

Kinsen (Hiroshima Prefecture)

“Hyaku Yaku no Cho” Junmai Ginjo-shu

“Hyaku yaku no cho” means “the best of all medicines.” No argument here. Pine, light anise and pear are very distinct in the prominent and balanced nose. A soft, dry and even slightly grainy start spreads into a lighter finish with a bit of bitterness and sweetness coming out of the recesses. The acidity gathers authority as it moves across the palate, distributing all the flavor with directness and decisiveness. There is a thickness to Kinsen that survives long into the finish, which is fairly quick despite all that is happening before its turn to take the stage comes.

* * *

Japan Times Ceramic Scene writer and Japanese pottery expert Robert Yellin and I will be doing a joint seminar on sake and pottery Sept. 2 at the sake pub Mushu in Awajicho, near Shin-Ochanomizu and Awajicho stations, from 6-9 p.m. The evening will include a meal, half a dozen or so good sake and lectures by Rob and me (different topics from last month’s seminar). Seating is limited. To make a reservation, e-mail or fax me at the address or number below (e-mail preferred), or call Mushu at (03) 3255-1108. Details will be provided by e-mail later.

Sign up for a free sake-related e-mail newsletter at www.sake-world.com. To be put on a contact list for information on sake-related tours, events and seminars, send an e-mail to sakeguy@gol.com, or fax your name and address to (0467) 23-6895.