Okay, this is probably going to be a short one unfortunately. Sleep deprivation and a buzz don’t really mix well when it comes to mental accuity, so I’m going to try to keep it to the point.

I’ve posted twice about Suzukagawa before, the local sake brewed up in Shiroko, down by the seaside. Recently they put out the last batch of winter’s production (sake is best produced during winter) to coincide with Hanami (the traditional time to enjoy sake). Their Junmai Daiginjo usually sells out pretty quickly, and I grabbed the last bottle on the shelf. Junmai signifies that the sake is made without any added alcohol at the end of the process (which is not a bad thing, just a taste thing) and Daiginjo means that the rice grain is polished until a minimum of 60% of the outer part is gone. Compared to Ginjo sake, the taste is lighter and more complex.

Unfortunately, this stuff is so good, I’ve already consumed over the limit of where my sense of smell and taste can catch every nuance, so I’ll do my best for now. This stuff is eminently drinkable, as all Daiginjos should be. Like a good white wine, it’s very easy to overdo, but like any high quality sake, it’s a velvet hammer, clean and cool.

The color is clear, with a very slight yellow tinge. The smell is quite light as well, reminiscent of apples, honeydew melon and flowers (I’m not good at sussing out specific flower smell, not being a particular aficianado of them… yet). The taste is light and crisp, yet with the characteristic heavy mouthfeel and lingering aftertaste of Suzukagawa, though both pleasant. The taste is much like the smell, though with a slight citrus touch and a heavier presence of flowers (wildflowers maybe?). In all, recommended, particularly when fresh.

Yeah, Part II of Nara will come sometime. Wait for it.

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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.

Today’s tipple is Otokoyama from *muttersandcoughstohidehisinabilitytoreadthekanji* brewery.

A fairly young koshu from Hokkaido, it comes in an interesting case tied with rope that resembles a traditional carrying satchel for sake. The color is a pale yellow, which denotes it’s slight age. The aroma is light, only slightly more honeyed than your average ginjo grade sake. The taste is cloyingly sweet and heavily honeyed, which hides the high acidity. It brings to mind what a Tokaj wine would be if it were sake instead of made from boutryized grapes. Underneath the honey is the flavor of raisins and an almost imperceptible smokiness that’s overwhelmed as you drink more. The sugar content of this kinda ruins the experience, the sweetness is getting in the way of the more complex flavors.

Still, I’m not complaining. It’s my first koshu in ages. I’ll have to check the label description closely to see if it’s a kijoshu (think a Port Wine version of sake here).

You know, if I have to leave Japan because I can’t find another job after my contract ends, I don’t think I’ll return. Not because my time here has been so unbearably nasty, no, it’s only part of that. Work is hellish here, but my life in my free time is like heaven. Tonight was a fresh tempura donburi at a restaurant where the manager calls me by name, right now is delicious sake and Enka and classic Japanese pop. This weekend I’ll buy more fashionable clothes. No one harasses me about my dandyism or smoking here. People respect readers here. Intellectuals aren’t shunted into their own diseased little ghetto where they can entertain themselves with perverse fads.

It’s been such a change, God help my arrogant drunken soul, but I can’t bear to return to someplace where fat people dress tastelessly and deride more cerebral folks.

As much as I can’t acculturate myself to the different work culture here, or live without grating on my coworkers, I still love it here. I’m an alien, but I don’t want to remake this place. It’s nice as it is, a maddening sanctuary from the homogenization of the lowest common denominator.

Visiting here would be like returning to Seattle. A place in my past where crude indignities and sublime memories mix and merge into a transmuted gold that I can’t bear to pull out of my mental lockbox for too long. I don’t want this sojourn to end, but in a few months it will. God help my drunken soul!

Yeah, I know, drama and all that. Deal, or go and read something where people pretend to be hard, though if you’re all tough, why the hell are you reading blogs?

I’m dismayed to tell you that Yamaya, the local liquor boutique in my town has shut its doors permanently, as such, my recent ventures into fine sake, shochu and awamori will be somewhat curtailed.

I offer up this elegy to the fine shop passed. The vast majority of supermarkets and downscale booze shops here have staff and clientele that couldn’t care less about the state and origin of their wares. I go to the average supermarket and ask for a genshu or a namazake and they stare at me blankly even as   out the kanji on my palms. The shops make most of their money on happoshu which is “beer” that makes Budweiser seem like the storied Czech Pilsner it descended from. Real beer is taxed heavily here, so most “beer” sold is some half synthesized swill (most “sake” too for that matter). Yamaya always had at least on person on hand who was willing to tolerate my questions phrased out in grammatically incorrect Japanese and my obscure brewery whoring, until I finally figured out they focused on in-prefecture kuras (sake brewery), and tried to just get a sense of Mie alone.

Now I am reduced again to hunting the shelves of supermarkets in vain, for something fresh and exciting. R.I.P. Yamaya, you were too soon in passing in today’s recessionary economy.

So, onward to today’s selection. What we have today is “Suzukagawa”. Like most drinks I’ve had, and all that I’ve been profiling here, it’s unavailable outside of Japan. What makes this particular brew so interesting is that it’s basically the local product of the town (though when I noticed the address, it’s closer to Shiroko town than the bulk of Suzuka City). I hadn’t tried it yet, as it’s a bit steeper priced than most of what I buy, and not “unusual”, which is usually what I seek out when I get sake. I got it from JUSCO, from a clerk who didn’t know sake from socks.  Oh well.

The box and bottle are fairly nondescript, each variety being distinguished only by a different color label. As they were out of Daiginjo, I settled on purchasing a Ginjo, with the rest of my money going to a shochu which will be reviewed later. Chilled and poured the next night. The color is completely clear. The bouquet is one of the strongest I’ve encountered; heavy, sweet smelling and fruity. With reflection, one notes elements of honeydew melon and apples, with an undercurrent of bananas. It’s quite an intoxicating smell. The taste is light with a light mouthfeel. It’s sweet, but not cloying. Any particular flavor is difficult to distinguish in the mouth. This is definitely a sake made for the enjoyment of one’s olfactory senses. The otherwise enjoyable experience is a bit ruined by a bitter finish that lingers on the tongue, the unfortunate hallmark of many an otherwise delicious ginjo.

I’ll probably try this again with the Daiginjo grade. It got high marks in the 2006 “Joy of Sake” tastings held in San Francisco.

Well, as I’ve now imbibed quite too much, and probably lent more ammunition to those who assert that I’m simply a souse, I’d like to admit right now to the world, that the more I think about it, the more I’d like my day job to be in some aspect of the premium alcohol and tobacco business. Any pointers anyone?

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.

Writing mostly. Bombed at finishing Nanowrimo, but to tell the truth it served it’s purpose. I’m writing a hell of a lot more.I’m drinking a hell of a lot more too, truth be told. More on that later.

Of course, I’ve yet to solve my problem of not finishing anything I write. So far I got several pieces of of a larger alternate history Vinland Saga, a homosexual romance in Weimar Germany, some poetry of metred and prose varieties, and an incipient series of Raymond Queneau inspired stories starring my old writing circle buddy. It’s a lot. I wonder if I’ll finish it.

Recently work has not been going so well, the floor manager is leaving soon, so he’s basically going on autopilot most of the time and starting to relegate duties to both the local and foreign staff, which means we get to feel the brunt of the main manager with all the all psychotic “don’t let one client out the door without them dropping some yen on the latest program” nonsense with no filter whatsoever. QA is fucking dropping like a rock and inventory and protocol is going to shit. The increased workload and stress is making me react in my usual way, by being a prick online. I need to channel it better than by teasing people who pomposity and self-importance annoy the fuck out of me online.

Recently found a conversation exchange partner. Her English is faaaaaar better than my spoken Japanese. It’s embarrassing for me to practice.

I’ve gotten into the habit of buying novels in English from stores in Nagoya. Literary Japanese is just beyond my grasp to read comfortably, and I need books to devour or I go crazy.

One of the things I picked up was a handbook of sake. Since I’ve picked it up, I’ve been sampling the many fine products of Japan that can’t be acquired easily abroad. For example, right now I’m drunk on Gokyo Ginjo Genshu. Usually priced at about 3600 yen for 720 mil, I picked it up for 1000 yen (around ten bucks). The label was slightly damaged and it was getting old (bottled in mid-July). Genshu (undiluted sake that’s around 20% alcohol content) is damn hard to find in the states, due to its rather rough taste profile. As it is, I got what I paid for. The finish is really showing signs of age with a horrid bitterness. The bouquet is still perfectly intact, though. I huffed this baby for about 3 damn minutes before drinking. Heavy fruits, almost tropical, with banana and guava dominating. Too bad actually tasting it was a letdown. It must have been sublime in it’s prime. The nama (unpasteurized) version is supposed to be one of the best examples of its subtype on the market. That one is actually exported. Good luck finding it, though Gokyo’s perfectly servicable Ginjo, Honjozo and Daiginjo are pretty easily had in any decent import liquor shop in the states as well. Heh, if anyone cares, I could make this a regular part of the blog. Sake and shochu amateur reviews.

Also of note is the fact that absinthe is completely legal here. The selection is small in my town (mostly latter-day Pernod and that Czech swill), but I hope to hit the shops in the Sakae district of Nagoya sometime. By spring, I hope to have some reviews of the good stuff up. Here’s hoping that the Jade company has a Japanese distributor.

One can also have Cuban cigars here, if you’re willing to give a pound of flesh. The plus side is, you don’t have to worry about counterfeits. Even the hole in the wall shop I frequent has completely legit Cohibas and Montecristos. The fuckers basically start at 3000 yen, though. Also, despite Japan being heavy cigarette country, cigars and pipes are virtually unknown here and most folks don’t enjoy the smell, leaving folks like me to furtively smoke by our apartment windows and in pricey cigar bars. The irony slays me.

Finally, women. You know, I think about ’em less than the average guy does, but Japan has been a long drought for me, as this land is devoid of “my type”. The Brazilian girls here in the immigrant community have also been something of a letdown. So I resort to a song that reminds me of a couple of girls back in Hawaii. I wonder how they’re doing now.

I hope when I’m in my 40s, I’m as fucking chill as Gainsbourg.