Shopping for Sake: Isetan, the Musical

chillin_at_isetan.jpgAfter my adventures in Yamaguchi, it was back to Kyoto for a final few days in Japan. After a week of thrilling ‘firsts’ (first shinto ceremony, first bullet train, first brewery visit…) it was time for another very important “first”… my first visit to a Japanese Sake Shop! Attached to the huge Kyoto train station, is a department store called “Isetan“. As is the case in many Japanese department stores, they have a huge lower level space dedicated to food with aisle after aisle of prepared take away delights. I’d never really seen anything quite like it.

I was happy to discover that Isetan had a sizable sake section! Seeing row after row of sake bottles on display on wide well lit shelves, I really had thissake_selection_isetan.jpg feeling that I had reached the mothership! um, I was kinda in Sake heaven. I mean, you can’t really go to The Cellar at Macy’s and take your pick from 300+ sakes! The sales clerk was probably laughing at this wide eyed gaijin running from shelf to shelf fawning over each bottle. If my visit to Isetan was a musical, this is where I would break into song, dance around and put on the big show-stopping production number! well, luckily, I was able to refrain from singing, but I was singing inside! Isetan had a good selection of 300 ml, 720ml and 1.8L bottles.

cute_fugu_one_cuo.jpgIf anything I was surprised at the number of 1.8L (called “ishobin”) bottles for sale. In the States, this size tends to be comparatively rare… and unfortunately for me, ishobin are not suitcase friendly! Since Isetan is attached to a major train station, there were many ‘gift giving’ friendly sakes, small bottles with extra special wrapping geared towards giving as an “omiage”. As is the custom in Japan, when people travel, friends back home might expect returning travelers to bring them a small token gift from the place they have visited. So, if you’re at Kyoto station ready to return home and you forgot your Omiage, Isetan food court has you covered! And what better gift than sake!

Isetan, not only catered to sake-loving travelers in search of gifts, but also those who may want a little sake somthin’ somthin’ for themselves! Enter the “one cup”. If you ever needed any proof that Japan is an awesome place worth of admiration, the invention of the “one cup” is it. even_more_ishobin.jpgThere was a good selection of cute one cup sakes here that are perfect for sipping on the bullet train as the countryside flies by at 175mph. One cup sake has become a bit of a trend in recent years, and many breweries have released their sake in cute, well-designed single serving cups that just scream out to be collected.

After I had loaded up on some (portable) sake to bring home from Isetan, I had time to hit one more shop, so I headed out by subway in search of another sake shop! I ended up finding Meishukan Takimoto. When I was actually there, I didn’t know the name, as I can’t read the kanji, sake_shop_x.jpgso I called it Sake Shop “X”. Sake shop “X” was pretty different from Isetan. There was sake everywhere, but I would 85% of it was 1.8L ishobin size. Also interesting that most of the sake here was not refrigerated.

I wanted to talk to the sales staff and introduce myself and explain about my blog and samurai ceremony, but I chickened out at the last minute due to lack of faith in my ability to communicate in Japanese. I did work up the nerve to ask about a very unique package of sake I found. Holy Capri Sun, Batman, this packet is perfect for the lunch box. bullseye.jpgI also used my visit to Sake Shop “X” to buy some nihonshu accoutrement. I remember John Gaunter saying in sake class that the bullseye sake cups were hard to come by in the States. So I found a large size one to bring home with me. This is the kind used in most judging sake competitions. cool, eh? I also picked up a couple small bullseye cups, too. Well, at this point I was getting weighed down with lots of sake and I needed to head back to my hotel. If I was going to fit this sake into my suitcase, it would take a serious song and dance routine.