Quantum Physics and Regionality, Ajisen
Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
May 1, 2004
In this issue:
-Quantum Physics and Sake
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Apologies to readers for the late-ish sending of this May newsletter. A long business trip and the ensuing fatigue resulted in missing self-imposed deadlines.
Quantum Physics and Sake Regionality
One of the great things about writing your own newsletters is that you can wax into
weirdness once in a while, free from the scathing wrath of nervous editors. While it is also important to ensure this newsletter provides practical and useful information, there is no law against having a bit of
fun doing it. Hence the title of title of this article.
A basic premise of quantum physics is that at the quantum level, energy comes in the dual manifestation of waves and particles. In other words,
depending upon how you measure it, energy can behave as if it comes in waves, or it can behave as if it comes in particles. While it should be one or the other, at the quantum mechanical level, it seems to be
both at the same time.
Backing gingerly away from the brink of a major diversion, let us return to sake. Like wine, sake has “regionality.” In other words, sake from one part of Japan will have
one particular style or set of representative flavors and aromas, and sake from another part of Japan will have a totally different style, profile and appeal.
Many things contribute to this, with perhaps
the most obvious being the raw materials of sake: rice and water. Like the raw materials of any other beverage, different varieties of rice will lead to different flavor profiles in the resulting sake. And, like
all plant life, different varieties of rice grow differently in even slightly different regions, with each rice variety having its own micro-climate in which it thrives. So historically, kura (breweries) would
naturally use what rice grew locally, and end up with sake typically representative of that rice.
Water, too, exerts massive leverage on the flavor, feel and nature of sake. In fact, it is not an
exaggeration to say that almost all kura exist where they do because they were built around a good source of water. Sake is in the end about 80 percent water, and the mineral content of water and its hardness or
softness determine to a great extent the character of that sake. Although this certainly goes beyond the simple polarity of just hard water and soft water, the former will lead to firmer, more focused sake while
the latter can result in wider, more absorbing flavor profiles. While it is true that within any given region there are both sources of hard water and sources of soft water, there are indeed some regions of
Japan where the water is similar throughout the region.
Beyond the raw materials, though, there are other factors that have traditionally affected regional differences. Not surprisingly, local cuisine is
one example of this. Mountainous regions rarely saw much fresh fish, for example, but rather found sustenance in preserved foods, with their saltier, stronger flavors, and the sake of such regions naturally
developed so as to complement this. Locales near major fishing ports enjoyed different delicacies, mostly seafood with its comparatively lighter nature, which led to local sake that supported such cuisine. Other
cultural factors have also played a part in some areas.
And so this is the “wave” nature of quantum physics as it manifests itself in the sake world. There are “waves” of
generalities that are discernible in assessing the sake of many regions of Japan. For example, the wave of Niigata sake is light, dry and refined, the wave of Hiroshima sake is soft and sweet, and the wave of
Nada sake is solid and masculine. Assessing sake (and many other delicacies, crafts and arts in Japan) in this way has long been very popular. You might say it’s all the wave, and you might be wight.
However, many of these factors have changed over the decades, along with changes in society and infrastructure. Local food is no longer limited to what was eaten 100 years ago, and the local townsfolk
are no longer the only market for any kura. Also, unlike the wine world, sake brewers are not limited to using only local rice. And in fact, very often rice is shipped from one region to another. While this may
lead to better sake in more places, it is certainly a chink in the armor of the concept of regional distinction.
Also, with technological developments and their availability to all brewers, as well as the
increasing need for product differentiation among good sake, many kura are producing sake that is unique, and decidedly unlike traditional local styles. The individuality and personal preferences of brewers
themselves also have much more room to be expressed than was feasible long ago. And naturally, the media has done its part to extol the virtues and reputations of various producers and products from around the
country as well.
What all this has led to over the past few decades is individual kura becoming well known for the sake they brew, irregardless of whether or not it is representative of region, or what
that regional style might be. Many consumers no longer look for or ask for sake by region, but rather by producer. Erstwhile, consumers and aficionados might have felt and spoken about liking the sake of a
particular region, but more often than not this has migrated toward a list of producers with identity and character that are mutually exclusive of region. Very interesting, actually.
And this, as
you have likely already guessed, is the particle aspect of the admittedly tenuous tie between sake and quantum physics. In other words, especially over the last quarter century, consumers look at a sake map of
Japan and see particles, individual sake and breweries, rather than waves of regional style.
This does not mean that regionality is dead. Not at all, actually. All but one of Japan’s 47 prefectures
produce at least some sake. However, not all of them have an identifiable style to their sake. But many do. And while there are many particles amongst the waves, there are also efforts amongst the producers of
many regions to maintain at least some semblance of the original waves of regional style. These efforts include developing and using local rice types and yeast strains, and other less concrete approaches too.
So in the end, the energy of the sake world can be viewed as waves or as particles. Both have their validity, and both are fascinating to observe and study. While it might seem that the wave aspects were
more valid a few decades ago, with particle facets more so today, in fact they both continue to coexist in peace.
In truth, the parallels between quantum physics and sake do not run much deeper
But my point is not really the comparison of sake with quantum physics. Rather, I am trying to convey that while a few decades ago consumers looked at region first, lately they tend to look at
individual producers for their preferences. Yet, at the same time, the vestiges of regional distinction in the sake world still exist, and are still very much worth exploring.
Over the next few months I
will look again at the various regions of Japan, and their sake, with this wave-particle duality in mind.
While I realize that
most readers are *not* in Tokyo, and that many may never make it there, it still seems valuable from time to time to introduce one great place to enjoy sake in that monstrous metropolis. Ajisen is one of those
places worth visiting if you have but one free night. It is fairly centrally located, yet just a bit tricky to find. Small, cozy and warm, the food and sake are outstanding. And many sake brewers drop by when
visiting Tokyo on business trips; this is always a good sign.
Ajisen strikes you as special before you even walk in the door. The entrance is very atypical of a sake pub. Instead of the usual sliding
door and rope curtain, there is a very artsy-craftsy stained-glass sign, with a reassuring wooden sake barrel in the corner. The inside is remarkably small and compact, with a tight counter for seven people and
tables for 14 beyond that.
Settling in with an Ebisu draft (another very good sign), you may be courteously warned that most things may take a moment or two longer to prepare than the average place. No
problem. You should be happy being camped here for the duration.
You are likely to be instinctively drawn to the shelf of sake bottles and the descriptive banners hanging below it, titillating in their
potential. But discipline yourself to check out the food first. Ajisen is on Tsukishima, an actual island created by rivers, yet a short taxi ride from Tokyo station. While just a bit off the beaten path, it has
a reputation for excellent and varied food using only the finest ingredients.
The fish is exceptional. The owner, Shinichi Araki, worked for eight years in a fish market before opening Ajisen. He knows
his stuff and makes the short trip to Tsukiji every morning. This is why the menu varies a bit from day to day, not to mention with the seasons.
There is a short food menu on the table, but look up at
the inside wall for where it’s really at. There are dozens of selections, each of which are prepared several ways. On each square of paper, the fish is listed in the middle, and each of the ways you can have
it is listed in a corner. Raw, baked, broiled or stewed; each selection has two or more ways you can enjoy it.
Other banners list less perishable specialties, and the prefectures from which they hail.
Much of it you are likely to have never heard of; a bit of it seems downright strange. But hey, somewhere, someone enjoys it, and so can we.
Everything is clearly a cut above the average. The tofu comes
from Nishikawa-ya of Ginza, tasty and refined. Even the satsuma-age (a traditional fish-based staple) was unique, packed with vegetables and lots of pine nuts. Indeed, you can’t go wrong with anything on the
menu. And that’s before you even get to the sake.
Ah, yes, that potential-laden sake list. There are perhaps 60 selections, and they change with great regularity. Oh, there are the must-haves, like
Kubota, Hakkaisan, Juyondai and Kokuryu. Wonderful, all of them, but not exactly hard to come by in sake pubs.
There are also a wide range of sake from tiny brewers, a few I had never heard of, and all
handpicked. Included among those are Kenkoichi from Miyagi, and Kure from Hiroshima. Others — not all that rare but certainly not ubiquitous — include Ama no To and Oroku, both available in several
There are more, like Wataya, Tatsuriki, Shinkame and Wataribune, and others you may recognize as well.
Ajisen is one of those places where they notice when you are paying attention
and rise to the occasion by engaging your interest. As such, it is a great place to learn about sake. There’s not a sake here that Araki-san does not know well, and if he is not so busy as to be engaged,
you’ll get an educational earful.
In addition to sake, there is also a shochu list covering all the main styles, should that be your fancy. A bit of wine is available, too. But it seems hard to beat
the match between good sake and the food served here at Ajisen.
Alas, only Japanese is spoken and written here, so you may need to entice a friend to help. But you can easily make it worth their while.
To get to Ajisen, take a right out of Exit 7 of Tsukishima Station on the Yurakucho Line and cut diagonally across the tiny intersection. Take the second left, and Ajisen is down about 150 meters on the
left, just beyond the hourly rental parking lot. Open 5:30-10:30 p.m. (last order), closed Sunday, Monday and holidays. Tsukishima 1-18-10, Chuo-ku, tel (03)
Sake Events and Announcements
On the evening of Saturday, May 29, from 6:00 to about 9:00, Rob Yellin and I will hold
another joint seminar on sake and Japanese Pottery at Takara, near Yurakucho Station. The sake topic will be sake rice types; what makes sake rice special and what makes the various strains important.
The cost for the evening – half a dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and
printed material – will be 7000 yen. Those interested can reserve a spot
by sending me an email. No deposit is required.
Takara is located on the B1 level of the Tokyo Forum, the convention
center just outside Yurakucho Station. More detailed instructions for
getting there will follow with the confirmation email.
Do you work for a company in Japan? John Gauntner is available for corporate sake seminars. A wide variety of formats are possible: in house, at a sake pub, with food, without, with lectures on
a variety of sake-related topics. Please contact John by email for more information.
THE SAKE HANDBOOK, published by
This second edition of my first book, with more sake, more sake pubs in the Tokyo area, and updated information, is the most detailed on the brewing process.
THE SAKE COMPANION,
published by Running Press
This book approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch, and covers material like sake history and the differences in sake
styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of Japan. Sake production is also explained, although not in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 140 sake are introduced with an
indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the labels makes them easier to remember.
Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink sake in the US. As this
book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and drink sake in Japan is not covered, as it is in The Sake Handbook.
The Sake Companion is available at bookstores such as Borders for
$24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan, Amazon.co.jp is highly recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).
NIHONJIN MO SHIRANAI NIHONSHU NO
HANASHI, published by Shogakkan
This anecdotal read describes aspects of the sake world from a foreigner’s point of view, including the personalities, events, and techniques that make the sake world so
unique and special, things that may be lost on those that are too close to the subject. Written in Japanese.
Also worth searching for:
-SAKE: PURE AND SIMPLE (John Gauntner, Griffith Frost): A
light, pure and simple guide to sake.
-Sake, An Insider’s Guide (Phillip Harper): A pocket sized, well-written book by an insider; Harper brews sake at a kura in Japan.
-Sake: A Drinker’s Guide
(Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral information.
you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must check out The Sake Digest, a mailing list on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at firstname.lastname@example.org. On this list, issues both
stylistic and technical, detailed and general, are discussed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable home brewers. Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, regularly generously
imparts his experience and wisdom to readers. A message is generated perhaps twice a week, so one in not inundated with information and countless emails. It is quite interesting to follow along with the
apparently successful efforts of these brewers from a cyber-distance.
Most recently, several brewers are experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly
improved results. This koji can be purchased from F.H. Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb. Batch. For more information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793.
Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed
koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs, the product is available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact him at
Vision Brewing: email@example.com, and see their site at http://www.kagi.com/vision/sake.
To subscribe to The Sake Digest, send the word “subscribe” without the quotes to firstname.lastname@example.org .
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All material Copyright 2004, John Gauntner & Sake World Inc.
Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa-ken, Japan, 243-0003