On the rice wine trail

The Ja­panese is­land of Hon­shu is fer­tile ground for sam­pling sake

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - ROBIN POW­ELL

WHAT I know about sake could fit on the sliver of tuna in a food court sushi roll. Ba­si­cally, I like it cold. So it isn’t as if I am any kind of ex­pert when I sign up for a week­long tour of sake brew­eries and bars in Ja­pan. We are a tiny co­hort of two cou­ples and two guides as we tra­verse Ja­pan’s main is­land of Hon­shu from the south­east to the north­west, vis­it­ing four fam­ily-owned brew­eries and some great lit­tle eater­ies. We ex­plore his­toric vil­lages, catch trains so small we are the only pas­sen­gers, be­come fa­mil­iar with pub­lic bath­house eti­quette and learn quite a bit about sake.

The main mis­con­cep­tion about sake is that it’s as boozy as a spirit. Vi­sions of sake-soz­zled salary­men snooz­ing on a mid­night sub­way have many wine drinkers con­vinced sake is a knock­out. Yet straight sake is 19-20 per cent al­co­hol, whereas spir­its are about 40 per cent. Most rice wine is then di­luted to about 16 per cent. Com­pare that with, say, shi­raz, which is of­ten 15 per cent. Undi­luted sake is called gen­shu and, as you would ex­pect, it’s a punchier mouth­ful. It works re­ally well as an aper­i­tif and is on the lists of a few lead­ing restau­rants in Sydney and Mel­bourne, served chilled.

Hot sake gets bad press in Aus­tralia. There’s a be­lief that the in­fe­rior stuff is heated and the good stuff is re­frig­er­ated. Yet most of the sake brew­ers we meet pre­fer to drink it warm. One of the the­o­ries on op­ti­mum tem­per­a­ture and sake goes to ori­gins — coastal sake should be drunk chilled and moun­tain sake con­sumed hot.

At the Ben­ten Musume brew­ery in the moun­tains of Tot­tori in Hon­shu’s west, hot sake cer­tainly makes sense. Through the open door we can see snow piled up against the dor­mant trees. It’s chilly out there but it’s colder inside, so it’s not un­til the sake warm­ing on a hob fi­nally reaches the right tem­per­a­ture, and the cups are passed around, that my toes stop send­ing ur­gent es­cape mes­sages to my brain.

Ben­ten Musume’s owner, Yoshito Ohta, looks be­mused when I put the tem­per­a­ture and ori­gin the­ory to him over din­ner at a tiny bar-res­tau­rant. He likes his sake hot and sub­tle, so it part­ners food in a well­man­nered way. Our chef, in a white lab coat and tie, works ef­fi­ciently be­hind the tiny bar to serve us a menu of small, per­fectly formed sea­sonal dishes — lo­tus root dumpling stuffed with eel; clam soup with fresh wakame; and fire­fly squid. The sake, which is aus­tere when cold, blos­soms with the heat and the food, and it’s all de­li­cious.

Even the small­est Ja­panese su­per­mar­ket has a good col­lec­tion of chilled and room-tem­per­a­ture sake in sizes rang­ing from 180ml to the tra­di­tional 1.8-litre bot­tles. The lat­ter is not as scary as it looks, as sake doesn’t go off like wine, so an open bot­tle can be left on the shelf all year. (The ex­cep­tion is un­pas­teurised nama sake, which is best kept in the fridge and drunk within a month.) You can even buy sake ring- pull glasses from vend­ing ma­chines (it’s bet­ter than you’d think). Most fun for a sake tasting, though, is an iza­kaya ded­i­cated to sake, such as the one we visit in Osaka.

Chef Ito­gawa at Kom­nobe iza­kaya has a great se­lec- tion of sake cups and jugs, in­clud­ing the beau­ti­ful etched tin va­ri­ety con­sid­ered the best for heat­ing rice wine. He also has fu­ri­ous burns of dif­fer­ent ages and colours up his arms, and a kitchen so small that none of the saucepans can af­ford han­dles. Af­ter a de­li­cious sea­sonal meal, I ask about his food phi­los­o­phy. He­says he just wants ev­ery­one to en­joy sake.

Our tour has been or­gan­ised by Sydney sake im­porter Sakae Taka­hashi, who is a fan of small, fam­ily-owned brew­eries. Most mod­ern brew­eries are stain­less-steel fac­to­ries run by com­put­ers, but those we visit are still hands-on.

The fi­nal one on our itin­er­ary boasts the only nonJa­panese toji (mas­ter sake brewer) in the in­dus­try. Philip Harper fell in love with sake when he came from Eng­land to Ja­pan to teach English in the 1980s. He says there is a sake for all oc­ca­sions and that it’s an easy match with any food. Blue cheese threw him for a few years, but he thinks he’s fi­nally cracked it with a gen­shu sake of not overly pol­ished rice, left to de­velop for longer than usual.

Harper’s take on the hot-cold ques­tion is that you should try a sake at all tem­per­a­tures and work out what you like. He shows us what he means over a feast of sea­sonal snowcrab in a pri­vate din­ing room in our ryokan.

I am con­vinced. Af­ter my week-long tour I now know a whole lot more about sake, in­clud­ing that I like it warm, hot and cold.

ROBIN POW­ELL

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