Sake Corner #6

Urakasumi aged Sake was my favourite Sake at the recent sake tasting event hosted by the Japanese government at Crown Casino. At that event, I was lucky enough to meet and talk with Sake Samurai Irie Keisuke about the Urakasumi brewery. Brewers from Urakasumi were also at the event.

Rich in tradition, the Urakasumi brewery has been in the Tohoku area, very close to Ishinomaki, for generations. Their storehouses were very badly damaged during the earthquake and tsunami. Many of the brews survived the quake, but storage labels were shaken off preventing identification and therefore sales. Irie-san said that I must try their Dai Ginjo Sake, one of the best in Japan but impossible to find due to the above mentioned damage and post tsunami troubles with water and rice. Not the words you really want to hear!

As you know, we visited Ishinomaki recently to deliver personally funds raised by the Gallery, in conjunction with Significant Women’s Network and our clients, to the Citizens Group for the Recovery of Ishinomaki led by Fujita Toshihiko. Part of our trip included a visit to Kotobukiya, a small Sake shop in Ishinomaki, owned by two incredible locals Mr and Mrs Sato, who have fought through the tsunami disaster to keep their business running (you can see their story in the short film Then & Now). Their shop was completely destroyed, and it was only through the assistance of foreign volunteers (read about the story here) and the work of It’s Not Just Mud and some local help that they persevered, rebuilt their shop and didn’t give up on Ishinomaki.

Why am I telling you all this?

Every now and then you get those small occurrences in life that stop you in wonder …how is this possible? How did all these circumstances combine to make this happen? Well, my visit to this small Sake shop was one of those times.

I walk in to Kotobukiya to be greeted by Sato-san, the owner, a genial elderly man whose aura emits nothing but kindness and humility. Introductions done, I pause to admire the beautiful shop, newly painted and shelved, transformed from what I had seen in the ‘Then and Now’ video. The shop is tiny.

On the top shelf is a beautiful wooden box with a simple design of Kanji and hiragana with a red seal. The box reminds me of the artist-signed tomobako we have in the gallery for some of the artworks. You guessed it… the characters were ‘Urakasumi’. A closer inspection revealed that it was the very Dai Ginjo that Irie-san had recommended, bottled January 2012 and probably amongst the last in Japan.

To be so happy about finding a bottle of Sake is not really something one should confess to, but I was ecstatic. It happened to be the most expensive bottle in the shop, so my joy at finding it was matched by that of Sato-san at selling one of his most expensive bottles. I was also able to purchase two other brews that had been recommended to me at the ‘For Tohoku’s sake’ event that I have had trouble finding. To find out about these brews you will have to come to our next Sake Tasting in September (details coming soon).

Kotobukiya is alone in a street of desolate and boarded up buildings, once a thriving retail part of Ishinomaki. Needless to say, it does not have a large number of customers. Fujita-san has printed pamphlets for Kotobukiya to encourage custom and ordering by telephone, and they are starting to receive orders from within Japan. The support for Tohoku is steady and continuing.

Imagine the Satos’ joy if they were to receive an order from Australia!  The telephone number is +81 225-96-2212 for our Japanese readers. If you cannot understand Japanese and wish to assist by ordering some Sake, please contact us at the Gallery and we shall happily help place the order.

 Of course, I had to report my luck in finding the Urakasumi Dai Ginjo to Irie-san. The second last night in Japan, I met up with Irie-san in Shibuya (central Tokyo) for dinner. Shibuya is not really an area renowned for Sake connoisseurship, consumption definitely! Irie-san took me to a restaurant owned by an old high school friend, specializing in food from the Kyushu area, and with two resident Sake sommeliers.

The restaurant, Tora-Ya, was typically small, understated, considered, traditional and refined. A quick glance around made immediately obvious the importance placed on the experience of enjoying food and sake. Dishes and vessels provided were of a very high quality. Knowledgeable and informative staff easily started conversation and the welcome was generous.

First we ordered a beer. The glass it arrived in was paper thin and feather light. These are called ‘Usu Hari’, and made by an electric light globe manufacturer. (The exact brand of glass was kept secret from me by the staff, but it is something quite similar to this.) It was strong, almost unbreakable as I discovered after being challenged to squeeze the glass in my hands.  More surprisingly, it completely changed the taste of the beer; it was lighter, creamier and colder than usual. Asahi Dry from the tap never tasted so good!

We enjoyed a number of different Junmai Ginjo and Dai Ginjo Sake with some sashimi, horse meat (worth trying once), fried dishes and finally handmade soba noodles. Each brew was served in a different vessel -glass guinomi, wooden masu, ceramic. The wooden masu was made from hinoki (native cypress) and, as is the custom, the Sake was poured over the edge so it spilled onto a small tray/saucer underneath forcing you to sip straight from the cup before picking it up and pouring the excess back into your glass – a symbolic celebration of abundance.

After a few drinks and formalities out of the way, Mr Irie began to share his experiences and impressions of his trip to Melbourne. I was thrilled to learn that Irie-san often uses our Sake book ($19.95 + shipping, email as an example of the “benchmark” for Sake promotion. Weekly emails are received from distributors and restaurateurs in Melbourne, and Irie-san said he felt that his trip to Melbourne was one of his most successful and a validation of his hard work.