Okay, so today I went to Nara. If you don’t know about Nara and the surrounding areas, I advise you look at the wikipedia pages to get a good glimpse of what it entails, suffice to say, most of it has well over a thousand years of history behind it.

I got a lot to say about it, from Buddhism, to tourism, to culture and all that stuff. Maybe even photos, though if you’re not already on my facebook list, you’ll probably have to ask. I found most people who care about that stuff who read here are already on my friends list, but I digress. Why I’m here now, I’m here today, writing is due to the influence of something far greater than any religious or historical site to me, namely sake. (I’m being tongue in cheek here, as in reality alcohol cannot be unraveled from the fabric of both, except for perhaps in the case of Islam, but then again, Selim the Sot anyone?)

Nara is one of the more important sake producing areas of Japan, not so much for the volume of modern production or the fame of it’s breweries (though some are famous), but due to the fact that it is consider the place where sake was invented, and the oldest shrine of it’s tutelary deity still stands. As such, when I planned my tour here, obtaining some samples of the local product was second on my list after taking in the sight of the oldest wooden buildings in the world. I was not to be disappointed.

In a small shopping area next to the Todai-ji parking lot there was a small store that sold sake exclusively, mostly from Nara. The owner was young and incredibly friendly. All the bottles he had in stock, he would allow customers to taste a sample of, and he kept his merchandise fresh and regularly rotated (I must tell you *why* it is paramount that your sake be fresh, but that is another story altogether). Me and my friend sampled a few bottles, and while his tastes tend to the large and well known world of Junmai Ginjos and Daiginjos, mine goes into the .001% world of all sakes made, namely koshu (old sake) and kijoshu (think a sort of Port or Madeira equivalent in sake terms). It’s incredibly hard to come by even in specialty liquor stores, so when I saw he some in stock, well, my interest was piqued.

I ended up trying a getting the oldest bottle he had on his shelf, one that was originally brewed back in 1992 and tank aged for 17 years. When my partner sniffed it, he said it “Strong, isn’t it?”, and being an older Japanese man, it more or less translates to “Jesus H. Christ, that stuff reeks to high heaven, you have some odd tastes, my friend.” (Japanese men beyond a certain age express things in an economy of words, and finding out the nuances of expression takes experience).

I got him a bottle of Junmai Namazake (of which I’ve forgotten the name), fresh from the toji (brewmaster) and got myself the bottle of koshu.

The bottle is from the Hyaku-raku-mon line, which roughly translates to “The Gate of a Hundred Pleasures” (given correct poetic license). The website is here:

http://www.hyakurakumon.com/

It’s kinda a lame site, but if you hunt around, you’ll find they have no reason to add bells and whistles, their product speaks for itself.

In any case, this bottle ain’t listed on their site, only the 5 year aged one is. I figure since the store owner is tight with all the local brewers, he gets the limited edition deals, because goodness knows, this was one of the more expensive bottles there outside the high grade Daiginjos. The five year old was next to the seventeen year old and the difference was palpable, from the the deeper and richer yellow of the color, and the sharper and stronger taste of the older.

The color is a wonder to behold, a deep deep yellow, with amber and green tones depending on the light, like liquid gold. The smell, well, one doesn’t need to bring their nose to the glass after pouring. You can smell it’s pungent aroma from arm’s length when airated thusly, like a dusty library with the windows thrown open to the spring breeze for the first time in years. The taste is also a hammer. Strong and musty, but in a sublimely pleasant way, like if Moroccan leather could be a tasting note. It’s on the drier side, for sure, but a subtle sweetness lingers on the tongue afterwards. As it warms in the glass, the sweeter notes become more and more apparent. I couldn’t place it exactly until now. There was this purple flower in Hawaii during my youth, and the bottom of the stamen contained a small amount of sweet nectar that we would dab on our tongues in boredom and lust for sweetness. The sweetness most resembles that small flower’s nectar.

Now that my third glass is almost room temperature, I can say this, the odor is like that of a sweetly smelling flower that was used as a bookmark in an old leather bound book. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.

Dear God, I’m going barmy (if the constant use of parentheticals didn’t tip you off). The rest of the bottle goes with enka tomorrow night. It’s time for a shochu palette cleanser.

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So, I’m watching the annual Red and White Song Contest on NHK, a tradition amongst most of the people here in Japan. Five hours of a mix of various genres of music with odes to what’s happened during the year.

I’m really enjoying the Enka parts as well as some of the rock groups. They had this Japanese-Brazilian group that did an interesting mix of J-Rock, Favela Funk and traditional Okinawan music. I’m realizing that my favorite trad music of Japan is Okinawan stuff on the sanshin. It’s just so lively and earthy as opposed to the somewhat detached and formal stuff for the koto, shamisen and shakuhachi. Another interesting performance was by Jero. Jero is a young black guy originally from Pittsburg who’s become famous in Japan for singing Enka. It’s somewhat like if a 21 year old guy from Tokyo moved to America and became a beloved Delta Blues or Country and Western singer. He’s damn good, though. He gets the Enka feeling and sound down pat. I should post some examples of the genre sometime later.

I’ve eaten some soba, as is the New Year’s tradition.

I guess the main thing I want to write about is the sake I’m drinking tonight. I went all out and bought a pretty expensive bottle, at around 30 dollars equivalent in price. Basically it’s of a type of sake that’s I’m possible to have in the states, namely koshu, or aged sake. The vast majority (around 99.5% of sake production) is released quickly after being made. Koshu, and and it’s relative kijoshu, is usually aged for several years minimum before being released. Aging changes the profile of premium sake from flowery and fruity to something much more heavier and sharp. It’s something of an aquired taste.

The bottle in question is jizake (a regional brew). It’s actually pretty hard to find non-regional premium brews outside of the main urban areas. Hence, that means it’s made and mostly sold in Mie Prefecture. The brewer is Hokosugi, which translates roughly to “Japanese Cypress”.

According to the label it’s aged 7 years, but without digging out my grammar dictionary I can’t tell if it’s aged in bottles or tanks. My guess is bottles due to the light profile and color. So how does koshu differ from your ginjo? Most premium and non-premium sakes are clear, or very lightly tinted. Koshu is usually a rich yellow to a reddish-brown. This particular example is almost a Chardonnay yellow. The nose is mixture of used bookstore and English leather. The flavor is what’s most interesting, as it shifts as the temperature rises. Just out of the fridge, it’s sharp, tasting of mushrooms, aromatic wood smoke, with a sweet honey finish. As it begins to warm, the sweeter aspects take over and and it feels less and less dry. It takes on the flavor of almost a cross between dark chocolate and single malt Scotch. Finally at near room temperature, a taste redolent of dates and raisins emerges.

In all an awesome and unique drinking experience. Which is impossible to have in the US, save outside of two import shops, one in San Fran and one in New York City. I highly recommend the type if you’ve ever in Japan. It’s actually pretty hard to find, even in Japan.

Oh, I almost forgot. New Year’s resolutions. I plan to finish that damn novel and write more poetry. My output is up, but it’s still far beneath what a serious writer should be churning out. Also I plan to buckle down on my Japanese. I need to get certified level 2 before I leave.

Well that’s all. Seeya.