The first sake/nihonshu that I loved

Wow, I’m so happy and excited tonight. I was doing some exploration in an old photo archive, and I found the photos that I’d been looking for … for more than two years.  I will try to tell a story about sake (in Japanese, nihonshu/日本酒 ). It’s definitely a love story, from the beginning. And a few photos.

2015 February, a sake brewery tour

Louise and I had moved to Tokyo in late summer of 2013. I’d been hoping all year to travel with Etsuko NAKAMURA on one of her sake brewery tours. The timing of tours in winter 2014 wasn’t a good fit for our lives, and I was a bit sad. But we would save our yen and our pennies and perhaps go on a tour in 2015. The saving and the planning worked: the time of the 2015 tour of breweries in the Tohoku region of NE Honshu was a good fit.

As the tour’s starting day approached in February, I was anxious. How would I introduce myself? How would an introvert survive 5 days with a group of strangers (who were exceedingly warm and friendly and certainly weren’t a worry, hindsight tells me, gently)?  Hrrrrrm, it would be really great to be able to have a very short story about the first sake that I fell in love with.

In my memory…

… ah, it really was a fabulous bottle. I’d been to the brewery and tasted several sakes in its tasting room. I chose my favorite to bring back to Minnesota to share with friends at a dinner party. It was the one that I would have sworn had grapes in it, along with some other amazing fruit. But I really had been to the brewery, and I was assured that it had no grapes or other fruit. Rice, only. (And the other important sake ingredients, analogous to the German Beer Purity Law’s ingredient list: water, yeast, and koji mold.)

2005 March, visiting a friend in Japan’s countryside (a.k.a. the inaka/いなか)

It was my second trip to Japan. Business brought me to Tokyo originally. A friend from St. Olaf College, who I’d sung with for several years in Magnum Chorum, the alumni choir of the college, was Rob Atendido. Fipino by family, thoroughly Minnesotan in culture and language, Rob was now teaching English in Sakaiminato City, in Tottori Prefecture on the Sea of Japan side of Honshu. After business was finished in Tokyo, I flew to Yonago Airport to meet Rob and see his world. Of all the Japanese that I’d worked with, only one had ever been to Sakaiminato or to Yonago; the other 20+ people had never visited Tottori. (“Without shinkansen rapid train service, visiting such a place too much of a hassle,” was a common answer.)

I wrote a small photo-blog-caption-thing at the time, documenting the fun.  You can find it at:


One day, we drove to visit the nearby city of Matsue. It is the hometown of Yukihiro Matsumoto, the creator of the Ruby programming language. And it had a castle! One of Rob’s colleagues, Nomi-sensei, grew up in Shimane and would be our guide for the day.

One of the stops on our tour, near the Matsue Castle, was a sake brewery. We couldn’t tour the entire place, but the tasting room was open. Here’s what I wrote:

> > We hopped off the boat near the half-way point so that we could wander around part of Matsue's business district and then grab lunch. We stopped at a sake brewery to learn a little bit about making sake. They didn't have any materials in English, so Nomi-sensei filled us in. > > > > [This is a photo of the tasting room]( There are five major kinds of sake. Unfortunately, I don't remember their names: light and clear, aromatic, aged, full-body, and a cloudy style that looked similar to the cloudiness you'd see in an unfiltered German wheat beer. Both Nomi-sensei and Rob had to drive, so I was the only one tasting. I tried them all. (All were chilled, none warm.) The light & clear version is the taste I'm familiar with. The aromatic kind was amazing: I would have sworn that there were grapes in it; it reminded me quite a bit of a Riesling. I ended up buying a bottle of the 2004 award-winning brew. I had no idea how I was going to fit it into my already-stuffed suitcase, but it was worth the hassle: _this stuff is good!_ > > >

That was such a wonderful day on an amazing trip, far outside of the gigantic Tokyo city sprawl. If you have a chance to visit the rural areas of Japan, the “inaka”, please do it. This is a beautiful country, all the more so outside of the major cities and tourist-frequented areas.

2008 November: Cleaning house

After the dinner party with fruity sake from Matsue, I’d kept the bottle. In case, well, you know: to be able to buy another! I wasn’t sure how I’d do it. Or when. But … it would happen, I would make sure of it.

However, there came a time when it was necessary to clean the house. And to get rid of stuff. The sake bottle … hrrrrrm, a photo or two would be good enough to keep the memory alive, right?  Yes!  It will be sufficient! Photos, 1, 2, 3!

2015 February: Preparing for the Tohoku Sake Brewery Tour

"Where are those !@#$! photos of that first sake bottle??"  -- Me

Haha, I was laughing tears of frustration, trying in vain to remember where I’d stored the photo of that sake bottle. I couldn’t even remember when I’d taken the photo, which was the key to figuring out where to find the photo.

I never did find it. And the brewery tour was amazing, many thanks to the hard work of the tour wrangler, leader, shepherd, and teacher, Etsuko NAKAMURA. Thank you again.

Aside: if you’re considering a visit to Japan to tour sake breweries

… then if you were to ask my opinion, I’d have to say that the testimonials about Namakura-san’s sake brewery tours are not hyperbole and are not exaggerated. My tour was extremely well-planned and -executed. Even if there weren’t a single drop of alcohol consumed (hahaha, perish the thought, one third of our group were Brazilians!), the tour would have exceeded my high expectations.

One day, I’ll write up my memories and share photos that I hadn’t already tweeted back in February. Meanwhile, a member of my tour group was a British wine writer, Anthony Rose. He wrote a 4-part series on his blog about our tour’s adventures: “Sake from the Frozen North”.

Meanwhile, I’m writing this in the past tense, right?  So that means that I and my liver survived the trip.  ^_^

2013-2015: Sampling sake … how many?

I’ve sampled some. It’s homework. It’s study. It’s work, really. Important work!

While getting ready for the Tohoku brewery tour, I was wondering … how many sakes have I tasted? I didn’t know. My first guess was, hrrrrm, perhaps 40.

But technology is a wonderful thing. I still couldn’t find that !@#$! photo of my first sake bottle, but I had little difficulty finding the photos taken with my mobile phones. I combed through the archives of my old Android phone and the newer iPhone. I found a few. Then more. Then … whoa, really?  REALLY?

To be honest, some of the photos are duplicates of the same bottle. Front and back labels, right?  But, some are photos of a menu where I’d had one taste that night. Or two or more.  So, counting sake-related photos is only an approximation of the number that I’ve actually tasted. Though, to be honest, I don’t have any photographs of bottles of sakes that my friends ordered and were kind enough to share a sip with me … it’s all so complicated, right?

On the night before departing for the tour, my photo collection count was 209.

2015 September: The first bottle’s photo is found, found at last!

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I’ve had some bad sake, both in America and in Japan. But the good stuff, where “good stuff” means “I’d drink more than one, it’s delicious” is pretty easy. Perhaps it’s living in Yotsuya, on the eastern side of Shinjuku Ward in Tokyo? Everyone else that I work with in the office is Japanese, and 100% of them say that Yotsuya’s food and drink is surprisingly good. Good enough that they don’t mind 90 minute one-way trips from home to the office in summer’s hottest & most humid days if it means dining out after work in Yotsuya.

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After all of the reading that I’ve done about sake includes at least five books.  I’ve visited four sake breweries (and am registered for a day-trip to visit #5 on the west side of Tokyo). And I’ve tasted a couple (hundred).  But through all of the study and discovery and joy and wonderful tastes and happiness with friends new & old … the question remained: What was that first delightful sake from Matsue in 2006???

I now have the answer to that question.  I found the photo. Actually, I found all three.  ”Kokki Daiginjo Shizenshibori”.

I am so very happy to understand now that that first eye-opening, “This is fantastic!” sake was a daiginjo. Daiginjo is the top class of sake, as defined by Japanese law by the amount of rice that is milled (or shaved or polished) from the kernel before starting the brewing process. Daiginjo means that at least half of the outer part of the rice has been removed and therefore 50% or less remains.  Congratulations, any brewer starts by very intentionally discarding at least half of the most expensive ingredient.

On the tour, we learned that daiginjo grade sake is more than just high quality ingredients and then milling away half or more of the rice. Nearly all of the really good stuff is made by hand. Washing the rice to remove the dust from milling? By hand. Soaking the rice to control moisture content? By hand, with a stopwatch. Put into and taken out of the steamer? Manual labor,with buckets and shovels. Transported to other parts of the brewery?  By hand, usually. Koji mold starter and yeast starters? Prepared manually in small batches.

Even the labels are often applied by hand. If it’s your top-of-the-line product, you treat each bottle like you are the proud parent of a fine daughter or son. I tied the neck wrapping decoration on a bottle at the Dewazakura brewery; I got a big smile for good effort, but, honestly, the top did need an adjustment before it could join the other bottles.

During day one of the brewery tour, we were given a lecture by John Gauntner, “the only non-Japanese certified Master of Sake Tasting in the world, as administered by the Nihon Jouzo Kyoukai, or Brewing Society of Japan.” And a great book author and blogger. And he’s a terrific person to chat with, about anything about sake or about nothing in particular. John’s advice about the sake grade system for the impatient student: “If in doubt, buy a daiginjo sake (prounounced die-gin-joe with a hard g in the middle), because it is sake to die for.”

Back in 2006, I’d sampled perhaps five sakes from a single brewery. Aside from a handful of wine tasting opportunities while in California, I’d never done such a thing before. As sure as rain is wet, my favorite was the aromatic and fruity daiginjo, the stuff to die for.