Fugu Fear Factor

*After my fantastic introduction to the production process at Dassai, Mr. Sakurai Sr. and Mr. Sakurai Jr took me out for a fantastic all-blowfish dinner. Known as “Fugu” in Japanese, yes… it is that deadly, poisonous fish. Yeah, that’s the fish you need to have two years of training and a special license to cut and serve. Wikipedia tells me that According to the Japanese Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, 14 people died of blowfish poisoning between 2002 and 2006. cats_love_fugu.jpgTo top it off – Fugu is a total prized and very expensive. If my hosts weren’t concerned, why should I be?

Well… at the restaurant, I did ask to see the fugu license of the nice lady cutting up our blowfish, but everyone just laughed. gulp.

The restaurant itself was totally quaint and very much that hidden type of place you would never know about unless you were recommended there by a friend of a friend. Not only to they run a restaurant, they also farm their own Fugu!

fugu_sashimi.jpgOur first course was a heaping plate of Blowfish sashimi. Mr. Sakurai showed me his preferred method of eating it. wrap each slice with a bit of chive and the shredded daikon-carrot like stuff. It was delicious. Since my limbs didn’t begin tingling, I quickly forgot about the possibility of poisoning and began to seriously chow down. The texture was quite firm, almost meaty, yet smooth and silky. Delicious!

with_mr_sakurai.jpgMr. Sakurai brought 2 bottles of Dassai along for our dinner. We had both a Dassai 39 Centrifuge and a Dassai 50 Sparkling Nigori. Both were fantastic. The Centrifuge sake is unique. that final production process adds “a little something extra” to the flavor and texture on the tongue. The Sparkling Nigori is Fantastic – it opens with a POP just like you get from champagne. Very festive and fun – perfect for celebration. The bottle comes with an extra hang tag to alert people to open the blowfish_tempura.jpgbottle like champagne. the stopper will fly out! I’m sure this has surprised a few Dassai Sparkling drinkers in the past – it’s not what you expect from a sake, but it is terrific fun.

Next we each got a plate of deep fried Fugu Tempura. The axiom that everything tastes better deep fried definitely holds true for Blowfish. It was crispy and offered a different angle on the flavor of fugu. The Nigori meshed with the tempura like and hand in glove. my favorite pairing of the night!

fugu_fear_factor.jpgThe next course was a bit of a “Lost in Translation” moment. We were each served a small square dish with white something or other in there. I asked what it was, and after a little back and forth and some confusion, I finally understood they were male fugu private parts! I actually can’t tell you how they taste. This fear factor moment pushed me to my limit. Fear was a factor for me! as I sat there staring at the fugu reproductive organs, chopsticks in hand… unsure how to proceed… time for another sip of sake.

blowfish_nabe.jpgLuckily, our hostess quickly arrived with a glorious, steaming pot of Fugu and vegetable stew called “Nabe”. This dish came with a bowl for the fugu bones. Nabe is now one of my new favorite things! It was warming and hearty and the fugu added a great depth of flavor to the broth. after all the fugu was fished out and picked clean, the hostess filled the bowl with rice. it was two, two, two dishes in one! and boy was I getting full!

dassai_sparkling.jpgDessert arrived in the form a cool and refreshing Japanese lime beverage, kinda like a homemade lime-aid. this unexpected treat cleansed the palate and was just about the only thing I had all night that didn’t have Blowfish in it somewhere. Our lovely hostess gave me a fugu tokkuri as a parting gift. I was really touched. On the way out, they also showed me the Fugu tanks and I got to see some live specimens up close and personal. Um, blowfish won’t be winning any beauty pageants. Fugu is kinda Fugly up close, but… it sure does taste good.

My sincere thank you to the delightful Sakurai family for this tremendous and delicious evening. A special “arigatogozaimasu!” to the hostess at the fugu restaurant for cutting up my fish in such a way that I won’t be landing on the Japanese Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry statistics for 2007. Kanpai!

Visit to Dassai Brewery

I was honored to receive an invitation to visit Asahi Brewery, makers of the delicious Dassai Brand Sake located in Yamaguchi Prefecture. The beautiful Sakurai Family generously opened their home and their business to this curious American/fledgling Samurai, and I was rewarded with a real insider’s view of life at the brewery. This adventure made quite an impression on me as I finally saw with my own eyes how much effort and exacting labor it takes to turn humble rice into the “drink of the gods”. Check out this video and share a bit of my fantastic trip to the home of Dassai.

Need Quicktime? download it here.

“We Love Sake” Takenotsuyu Tasting

kaiseki.jpgAfter my morning and afternoon of sipping and spitting sake at the Kyoto Sake Samurai sake tasting, I dashed off to Chion-in Temple by Taxi and tried to find my way to the sake tasting dinner. My hosts were gallantly looking for me on the vast temple grounds and luckily I was found and quickly escorted to the dinner without having missed too much!

we_love_sake_tshirt.jpgThe event was hosted by a group of sake loving Kyoto-ites banded together under the name “We Love Sake”. Today, they were featuring sakes from Yamagata’s Takenotsuyu Brewery and on hand as honored guests were Mr. Aisawa, the President of Takenotsuyu and his lovely wife. In addition, Mr. Beau Timkin, owner of True Sake and 2006 Sake Samurai himself was also an honored guest.

talking_to_the_crowd.jpgSoon after settling in (sitting on the floor) and starting on my first course of a fantastic Kaiseki dinner (my second in two days), Mr. Aisawa informed both Beau and myself that he was going to ask us to address the 60+ ‘We Love Sake’ folks enjoying their dinnner. Um… ok! So, After Mr. Aisawa said a few words about his Sake, Beau-san got up and spoke eloquently about his sake experiences at his True Sake Store. takenotsuyu_bottles2.jpgThen it was my turn… well i did my best and tried to tell these Kyoto sake fans that interest in Sake in the US is on the rise and that sake makes you happy, so I was happy to be with all of them for this event.

The Sakes featured were a fascinating line offered by Takenotsuyu. They are all Nama Genshu sakes made with with same water, same milling rate (55%) with the only difference between them being the strain of rice used. Cool! It’s always interesting to taste similar sakes side by side, but this takes it to the extreme. Paired with Kyoto Kaiskei, it was heaven. aisawa.jpgTo top it off Mr. Aisawa provided his trademark Yamagata water, the same delicious water the sake is brewed with. Evian – watch out!

At the end of the night, I made it back to the hotel with my taste buds all tasted out. I am quite sure, I had never tasted this much sake in one 24-hour period before. Boy, I needed to hit the hay. This samurai had a 6:30 AM date with the Bullet Train tomorrow to speed me to my next sake adventure…

Kyoto Sake Samurai Sake Tasting

big_sake_tasting2.jpgDay 2 of the Sake Samurai events had me up early to head off to a very large sake tasting connected to the Sake Samurai Association. I felt pretty good after last night but was in for a long day of tasting… and we were starting early – 10AM! When I arrived at the tasting, the attending brewers gave me the low down on this tasting.

_sip_spit_repeat.jpgThe sakes were broken up by grade… Junmai and Ginjo grades in the main auditorium and Daiginjo grade and specialty sakes in a near by building. Sakes were further broken down by price. I was handed the tasting sheet and told to start tasting. I quickly surmised there were 511 sakes at this tasting. That is much larger than the largest tasting in NYC – the Joy of Sake. Even so, how does one navigate a tasting of 511 sakes? any way you can.

The only way I knew I was going to make it thru was by mastering the fine art of spitting. Funky ashtray-like spittoons were provided and I quickly got the hang of it. Since I was starting early, the spittoons had a hollow ring to them when I spit. I was just feeling lucky that I wouldn’t have to clean them out.

takenotsuyu2.jpgI started the tasting in the larger Junmai/Ginjo grade room which had 2/3 of the sakes offered. I took a stroll and around and was pleased to see several sakes that I had seen before in the States.

The first sake I tried was a delicious Takenotsuyu Junmai Ginjo fromKatafune.jpg our friend Mr. Aisawa in Yamagata prefecture (SMV: +1.5, Seimaibuai: 55%, ALC: 17.5 %). This brew is made with full on Yamagata grown Dewasansan rice. The Sake has a light touch on the palate, but has a strong backbone with 17.5% Alcohol. With a nice balance and a touch of sweetness, this sake is terrific.

Next I tried the Katafune Junmai (SMV: -2, Seimaibuai: 65%, ALC 15.6%). This sake was awarded ‘best in show’ at the press and industry tasting the day before, and I can see why. The smooth flavor profile had a great arch of flavor on the palate and a good acidity providing excellent balance. I think this sake is only available in Japan.

gekkeikan_office.jpgAfter I finished my rounds in the Junmai/Ginjo room, I was anxious to find the Daiginjos and Ichishima Sake Brewery President Mr. Kenji Ichishima was very kind indeed to help me find my way to the second half of this tasting in a nearby building that was formerly a Gekkeikan administration office. It was a beautiful walk on a sunny day in very stark contrast to the downpour we has at the temple yesterday.

dassai_39.jpgIn the Daiginjo room, I honed in on some real gems. Right away i spotted a great sake that is impossible to find in the US. It’s Dassai Junmai Daiginjo 39 (SMV: +4, Seimaibuai: 39%, ALC: 15.8%). This stuff is really one of my all time faves. gassan.jpgIt’s a superb junmai daiginjo, but, believe it or not, it’s not their most refined sake (That would be the über-elegant Dassai 23). It has all the sophistication but with a firm foothold in flavor, so it’s not too lacey or floral. Great stuff.

Next I tried Ginrei Gassan Daiginjo (SMV: +5, Seimaibuai: 40%, ALC: 16.5%) from Yamagata Prefecture. I met Junichi Suzuki, 9th Generation Brewer and he recommended his Daiginjo – I’m glad he did. This sake was delicious. Smooth and round with a long finish.

sake_samurai_cup.jpgOne final note on this tasting was the observation that they know how to do it right here. The execution of the tasting event itself was spot-on. It was well organized with plenty of documentation on each sake for geeks like me who love to review the stats and percentages. Each sake was labeled with a number for easy identification. A great selection and easy access to all samples. Bravo! but beyond that, every taster got a special keepsake with the price of admission – their own Sake Samurai tasting cup. Now what could be better than that?

with_the_brewers.jpgAs the tasting wound to a close, I felt real appreciation for the opportunity to be here and experience this. Once more look around to take it all in and a hearty thank you to my hosts, the members of the Japan Brewer’s Association Jr. Council.

My morning and early afternoon were filled with sake tasting – but my watch was telling me it was time to rush off to another event for the evening… a sake pairing dinner at Chion-in Temple. Can this Samurai keep up…?

Sake Samurai Ceremony

shimogamo.jpgOn Oct 19th, 2007, my first full day in Japan, I had the honor of being named a Sake Samurai by the Japan Brewer’s Association’s Jr Council. Ok, this experience was definitely once in a lifetime. The day started with my arrival by taxi at the UNESCO World Heritage site known as Shimogamo Shrine. It was pouring rain and I was feeling a little down we we weren’t going to have perfect weather, but as I started walking the grounds, I stumbled on a japanese wedding ceremony. The bride and groom looked so happy and full of life, I felt invigorated and the rain seemed somehow more romantic than before.

accepting_the_tenets.jpgSoon, Mr. Saura, President of both Urakasumi Brewery and the Japan Brewer’s Association Jr Council found me and led me to the starting point of our ceremony. After brief introductions and some instructions on what to expect, we headed single file through the main gate and into the shrine. We removed our shoes and had our hands purified with water by the shinto priest. We were then lead into the main chamber of the shrine for half an hour of formal worship. The Priestess rang bells over our heads and each guest had the honor of presenting a branch to the altar with a deep bow. signing_the_book.jpgThe music they played on what looked like a bamboo flute was haunting and spiritual. As I sat there trying to take it in, I couldn’t help but wonder for how many hundreds and hundreds of years this ceremony had been preformed on this very spot.

After formal worship, we processed to a raised platform off the main shrine. This is where the induction ceremony was to take place. There were 5 people receiving the title of Sake Samurai today. Mr. Takahashi, Mr. Wakuda, Ms. Seno, Mr. David Wrigley and myself. One by one, we were called up to the platform. The first order of business is to accept the three tenets of being a sake Samurai as read out by Mr. Saura, they are:

  • with_saura_san2.jpgLove both sake and the beautiful culture of Japan.
  • Strive to gain a deeper understanding of sake culture and work on behalf of its further development.
  • Spread the word about Japanese sake around the world with pride and passion.

After accepting these tenets, we were each invited to write our name into the book of Sake Samurais. Then, Saura-san stamped our certificate as well as the book with a seal. We there then, one by one, presented to the crowd and assembled photographers as a new Sake Samurai! At the final stage, all new Sake Samurais were invited back up onto the stage for a final Kanpai!

my_view_of_photographers.jpgAfter the ceremony was over, we processed to the main gate for a formal group portrait. The rain continued to fall hard and we were barely protected from the rain as we sat under the protection of the main gate roof far above us. Despite the rain, the photographers crowded around to snap our picture. After the photo, we came in from the rain for a the press conference.

kyoto_geisha.jpgThe day drew to a close with a magnificent Kaiseki Dinner. There was course after course of delicious Kyoto delicacies. The feast began with the traditional breaking of the barrel by the 5 new sake samurai. now, that was a lot of fun. We had real Geisha in attendance who entertained with song and dance and helped pour sake. That was yet another of many firsts for me on this trip. amazing.

I also had the opportunity to finally meet Beau Timkin of San Francisco’s True Sake. Special thanks go out to Beau-san for all his guidance and support on this day. I also especially want to thank Mr. Saura for all the hospitality and all the brewers who are members of the Japan Brewer’s Association Jr Council for the invitation to Kyoto and for this tremendous honor. I will certainly continue to work hard to promote sake both in person and on-line. I think sake as a great future in the US and I’m happy to be a part of it.

When I made it back to the hotel, my mind was awash with impressions of this day. I tried hard to collect my thoughts, but jet lag had caught up with me. As I drifted off to sleep I was delighted about they day but couldn’t help but wonder what further adventures awaited me this week in Japan…

Sake Samurai!

Samurai_logo.gifTomorrow, I’m leaving on a jet plane for my first ever trip to Japan. That statement, in and of itself, is exciting.

However, when I think about why I’m going to Japan, words can’t quite express what I feel.

In short, I’ve been invited to Japan for a tremendous honor: to become a Sake Samurai. This is a title given by the Japan Sake Brewers Association to folks who promote sake and Japanese culture. My invitation letter explained this:

The Japan Sake Brewers Association Junior Council has established a program to confer the title of Sake Samurai upon select individuals in grateful recognition for their love of Japanese sake and contribution to the dissemination of the joy of Japanese culture and sake around the world.

Working on UrbanSake.com has been a genuine labor of love and, if anything, I know I am truly passionate about sake. An honor such as this only makes me more committed to spread the word on Nihonshu, but it also encourages me to find new ways to grow interest in and appreciation of sake here in the States and beyond. I believe the internet is a powerful tool that can be used to make this happen.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll be in Kyoto and environs for 1 week for the conferment ceremony, sake tasting and some sightseeing. If time and computer access allow, I’ll be posting updates from the field, so please stay tuned. A special thanks to everyone who has supported and encouraged me on my sake Journey. I know the best is yet to come. Kanpai!

Sushi Yasuda

sushi_bar_at_yasuda.jpgScott took me out for a special dinner and we went to perhaps the most well known sushi restaurant in New York: Sushi Yasuda. Because it’s such a famous temple to the art of sushi, it’s been on my “must try” list for a long time. What amazing Sushi and Sake combinations await me here!? Such a famous place must have a top notch sake list to pair with all that sushi. I was very excited.

takenotsuyu_Junmai.jpgHowever… things didn’t go quite as planned on the sake front. Let me start off by saying the sushi was delicious. If anything threw a monkey wrench in my experience at Yasuda, it certainly was not the presentation, quailty or taste of the fish. My first order of business at any Japanese restaurant is to look at the sake menu. To my surprise, I only found 5 or 6 sakes offered cold. huh? …and of those sakes, there were some solid, upstanding choices, but nothing out of the ordinary. What’s going on here? I was looking at Ichinokura, Otokoyama and even domestic Ozeki. Does not compute!

Most of the top tier Japanese restaurants I’ve been to pride themselves on an extensive sake list. Most even have a sake sommelier on staff. At Yasuda, of the few choices I had, I decided to go with the one I knew the least and hope for the best. I ordered myself a serving of the Takenotsuyu Junmai (Yamagata, SMV: +2 , ALC: 14.5%). The Takenotsuyu was served in a beautiful ceramic carafe and I took a sip… Then it hit me like a ton of bricks! finally, it all made sense. This Junmai was mild and unobtrusive, light and drinkable. Yasuda is about the fish, the whole fish and nothing but the fish. The thinking must be that any flashy sakes would upstage or overwhelm the fish. I guess this is kind of along the lines of “never wear white to a wedding” lest you upstage the bride on her special day.

sake_carafe_and_cup.jpgWell, this is Yasuda’s place, so I decided to chill out and let him offer the sakes he thinks thinks place his fish in the best light. The Takenotsuyu was so mild, it worked like a tasty palate cleanser between bites of buttery fish, but really put the fish in the foreground, sake in the background.

The atmosphere at Yasuda was minimalist and quiet. I quickly got the sense that this was a high profile “special occasion” destination restaurant. The clientele seemed less die-hard New York City foodie and more well-to-do tourist or Birthday/Anniversary Couple. Consequently, the service seemed geared for the uninitiated sushi goer. Despite this, and all my other quibbles about the sake list, the experience was authentic and delicious.

In the final analysis, however, given the lack of Sake options at Yasuda, I won’t be chomping at the bit to go back anytime soon. But no worries – there is always a line out the door of folks wanting fish and sake just the way Sushi Yasuda is serving it.

I Have a Dream… Sake Day 2007

October 1 is International Sake Day a.k.a. “Sake No Hi”. Even I will admit Sake Day is not yet as well known as other Hallmark-type holidays such as Valentines Day or Groundhog Day… but I have a dream, people! One day, Sake No Hi will rank up there with the other holidays of note or, at the very least, be more popular that Arbor Day. Wouldn’t it be great if Sake Day packed every sake bar in town just like St. Patrick’s Day packs the Irish pubs with green beer drinkers on March 17th?

tamanohikari_softpack.jpgWell, until that day arrives, I have the Mutual Trading Japanese Food and Restaurant show to fall back on. This show is a fantastic event open to the trade that showcases japanese food, restaurant supplies and first and foremost (in my mind) sake. Mutual Trading is a big company and they import some top drawer brands. There were about 15 booths to explore and here are some of the highlights.

My first stop was at the Tamanohikari booth. There I met Mr. Ujita, Tamanohikari President and Mr. Mabuchi, Export General Manager. I’ve had tamanohikari on many occasions and I really enjoy their well regarded daigino. However, something else at their booth caught my attention. It was a sake soft pack – not unlike the juicy-juice pack your mom packed in your school lunch. I’ve never seen anything quite like it up close and in person. Not only would this be great on picnics or in places where glass bottles are not permitted, this pack comes with instructions on making “sake slushies”. According to the directions, just pop this puppy in the freezer for a few hours, pour out and enjoy!

kikusui_sake_display.jpgContinuing on the unique packaging theme, my next stop was the Kikusui booth. This is another well regarded brand and they offer one of the best known sakes in a can this side of the pacific. Kikusui in a can is strong stuff – a genshu. But in my opinion, you can’t beat the fun of popping open that can… and truth be told, it really does keep the contents totally shielded from one of sakes big enemies, Light! They also had a unique aged sake or Koshu, also offered in can. In addition, they were offering samples of Kikusui Junmai Ginjo which is a terrific sake with a milder, yet engaging flavor profile.

mr_kakizaki.jpgMy next stop was at the Asamai Brewery booth, makers of Amanoto, another well respected brand over here. I met Mr. Kakizaki, President of Asamai Brewery and he enthusiastically introduced me to the latest and greatest Amanoto had to offer. I sampled their terrific Honjozo (seimaibuai: 60%, SMV: +4, Alc: 15.5% ). It was bold with lots of backbone and a pleasant touch of rice in the nose. I was also lucky enough to taste a the terrific Amanoto Daiginjo (Seimaibuai: 38%, SMV: +2, ALC: 16.5%). This sake went above and beyond and really seemed to melt in your mouth. Check them out if you get the chance.

The Mutual Trading Sake day event also had me tasting tremendous sake from other brewers, too. I had Dassai, Nanbubijin, Muromachi and Born to name a few. Tasting these superior sakes had me convinced once and for all – Hallmark had better make room on their shelves for those “Happy Sake Day” greeting cards.