Japan Times Archives – 2002, John Guantner

Illustration by Takeuchi ShingoBooks by John Guantner

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2002/09/15

Sake-shopping picks that really hit the spot

By JOHN GAUNTNER

There exists, where you would least expect it, a marvelous oasis for sake shopping. Yoshiike department store, just outside Okachimachi Station and just across from the entrance to Ameyokocho, has a fantastic selection of sake and a plethora of sake utensils to go with it.
The store is directly outside the Yoshiike Exit of the JR Yamanote Line station, and just around the corner from the Toei Oedo Line subway station. Yoshiike’s been around a long time and has a very retro feel, but despite being as glitzy and polished as most department stores, a little corner of sake heaven awaits you at the top of its first-floor escalator.

The entire second floor is dedicated to alcoholic beverages and their accouterments, with the lion’s share of that being sake. The nihonshu in stock, easily several hundred different sake products, fills a wall and a half.

A large number of these are Niigata sake, including many that are rarely seen in Tokyo, such as Koshi no Tsukasa, Matsunoi, Takachiyo and Fukusen. The big Niigata names are also represented; these include a three-bottle set of the “three plums of Niigata” — Koshi no Kanbai, Setchubai and Koshi no Hakubai — as well as six-bottle and 12-bottle “Echigo Jizake sets,” for 20,000 yen and 38,000 yen (including delivery).

Great sake from all over Japan is also well-represented. The selection appears to be heavy on honjozo and junmaishu, as opposed to lots of ginjoshu. This means you are drinking more of what the locals in these regions are drinking!

Just a taste of other recommendable sake difficult to find elsewhere would include Manzairaku (Ishikawa), Saika (Wakayama), Ugo no Tsuki (Hiroshima) and lovely Tsuki no Wa (Iwate). Not as hard to locate but still worth trying are Sharaku (Fukushima), Dewazakura (Yamagata), Kotsutsumi (Hyogo) and excellent Suigei (Kochi).

There are also a few unique products, such as koshu (aged sake) in a small ceramic pot called a kame.

As for containers for all that sake, they have everything. Masu are available for 300 yen, and although these traditional small wooden boxes may affect the flavor of a good sake, they are fun to own and use from time to time.

Large taru (sake casks), the cedar tubs that are broken open at weddings and other ceremonies, are for sale, too. At 100,000 yen or so, they are almost twice what you would pay if you went directly to a brewer, but there’s no pressure to fill them with sake.

On a smaller scale, there’s a wide variety of drinking utensils — o-chokko cups and tokkuri vessels of all shapes and colors, including some unique bamboo items.

There’s also a wealth of general sake-related info, which includes signs directing you to good sake-drinking spots in the neighborhood.

This is a really fun place to shop for sake: Yoshiike department store, (03) 3831-0141. Perhaps the greatest convergence of convenience, variety and quality is to be found in the eye of the cyclone, at Tokyu Department Store (Tokyu Toyoko-ten), right at Shibuya Station. It’s a great place to pick up a few bottles as o-miyage before a trip overseas.

Just below the bustle and madness of Hachiko square, in the basement of Tokyu, is a compact and well-organized sake section with a wide range of styles and prices. I do not know who is picking what they stock, but we obviously have similar tastes.

Distinctive sake such as Shida Izumi (Shizuoka), Ama no To (Akita) and Kudoki Jozu (Yamagata) are supplanted by standard favorites — Rihaku (Shimane), Masuizumi (Toyama) and Tegorigawa (Ishikawa). Maihime (Nagano), Kuroushi (Wakayama) and Kameizumi (Kochi) are a few harder-to-find sake that will always impress.

For many of those brands, there are several grades of sake. For those who simply must splurge, there are a few super-expensive sake: Kikuhime “BY” for 10,000 yen, Kikuhime “Gin” for twice that, and Kikuhime “Kurogin” for a whopping 30,000 yen (all 1.8-liter bottles). The somewhat rare Wataribune from Ibaraki is here for 15,000 yen as well.

But there is no need to go to that expense. There is so much available here that will please and impress that is much more reasonably priced. Tokyu Departement Store, (03) 3477-3111

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Chikurin’s “Fukamari” junmaishu from Okayama Prefecture
Chikurin (Okayama Prefecture)
“Fukamari” junmaishu

The name Chikurin means bamboo forest, and recently this sake has become very popular. It is classically Okayama in that it is sweet yet elegant. Chikurin works well with a wide variety of simple food, with much more presence than simpler, drier sake.

To be put on a contact list for sake-related information, send an e-mail to sake guy@gol.com, or fax your name and address to (0467) 23-6895.