(To read Part 2 of this article, please click here)
The next day we took a special detour all the way to Yamaguchi Prefecture to visit the world famous Asahi Shuzo; the creators of Dassai. The sake that got me into this industry was elegant in texture and full of green melons, anise and stone fruit. It is the gateway drug known as Dassai 39. I first experienced it at a tasting held by leading expert John Gauntner at the Japan Society in NYC circa 2014. It was a dream come true to be able to step foot in the brewery that started this transformative journey for me. They represent the utmost in mechanization, precision, cleanliness and branding. They produce only daiginjo sake and each bottling has different polishing ratios.
The brewery consists of multiple floors and has a very Willy Wonka factory vibe (sans the chocolate river and greedy children!). Every room we encountered had various ways of sanitizing us. From feet washers to walls filled with blowing air pods… every new section was an adventure. I had so many questions to ask, but felt silenced by the legion of cameras trailing us throughout the visit.
One interesting update is the revelation of their new project in collaboration with the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. They are creating a brand called Dassai Blue which utilizes rice grown in the USA and Yamada Nishiki from Japan. The name comes from the saying “Although blue dye comes from the indigo plant, it is bluer than indigo.” I am not exactly sure what that means, but I can assume it has something to do with these new sakes being as good or even better than the Dassai products we already know and love.
At the end of our tour, my colleague Guilherme (who had been craving dessert since Nara) was presented with an entire bag of Dassai ice cream for us to enjoy! They were also generous enough to give us each with a book on their company and a bottle of Dassai 23.
We took a Hiroshima charter bus to our last brewery visit of the trip, Kamotsuru Sake Brewing Co. in Saijo, Japan. Kamotsuru is most well-known for their Gold Tokusei Daiginjo kinpaku which contains gold leaf flakes shaped like sakura blossoms. They have a beautiful visitor center with a museum that guides each person through the process of sake brewing. In 2014, former President Barack Obama was presented with Kamotsuru sake at a dinner with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The company takes great pride in their legacy, yet they want to educate new consumers and appeal to younger generations.
I was interviewed by a local Hiroshima news channel here and was able to express my gratitude to the brewery and the National Tax Agency for such an outstanding trip. We took part in another evening of sake and conversation at a local Saijo restaurant where mascot Nonta and Higashihiroshima Cat taught us how to cook our hot pot. Interestingly, while visiting the restroom I discovered my first western toilet seat covered with brown carpet (to keep us warm??) and during dinner I learned that Tanuki can stretch his sac across eight tatami mats! I concur that this was a very educational day.
The end of our week consisted of two illuminating days at the National Research Institute of Brewing (NRIB). It was founded in 1904 and is one of the oldest and smallest institutes in Japan. They focus on the analysis and research of alcoholic beverages while also offering training programs for employees in the trade. It was very special to spend time here since they are not usually open to the public. We listened to informative seminars on the history and production of sake. We also pushed our tasting skills to the limit with sensory evaluations used for candidates taking the Sake Expert Assessor certification (these were similar to the tests given to us at BAST by Yosuke Kawase, head brewer of Gekkeikan USA).
On our last day, we used the institute’s main conference room to hold our final educator assessments. They consisted of a 15 minute lecture on an assigned chapter from the Level 3 course and a 10 minute guided tasting. It was highly nerve wracking to present in front of so many leaders in the sake industry, but the minute I stood up and faced the audience, I felt in my element. It was very fun and a true challenge. To our delight, all seven of us passed the certification and are now able to bring this fantastic curriculum to our respective markets. I am thrilled to be working with Fifth Taste on bringing WSET sake courses to the bay area!
After such an incredibly vivid, enriching, yet exhausting week, we took the bullet train from Hiroshima back to Osaka and parted ways.
I have to say, Osaka is the coolest city I have ever stepped foot in! I explored the side streets with neon lights beaming and young fashionable people walking in the shadows. I reached the center of Dotombori with its intense flashy advertising and quaint village-esque riverway. There is absolutely nothing like it! The energy was vibrant and people were having a good time. I watched amateur vocalists sing their hearts out and received an invitation to have drinks with some of them! I declined, knowing I have an intense rowdy side and they were almost ten years younger than me. I remember one of the kids was mind-blown that I was from San Francisco and hanging out in Osaka alone.
I shopped at some crazy snack stores, found an arcade and ate takoyaki all within 3 blocks. I also had the best sleep of my life in a tiny pod bed that literally cost me less than $25 US dollars. BEST CITY EVER!
The next day I traveled to the heart of Kyoto. It was impressive in many ways, but also somewhat disappointing. The media revolving around this ancient capital has given visitors a false sense of authenticity.
Luckily, I knew where to find the essence of old Kyoto. I walked slowly down the streets of Pontocho and spotted that quintessentially styled black hair. I immediately knew it was a geisha on her down time. This district was immortalized in Liz Dalby’s book Geisha where she trained in the geisha arts as part of her anthropology PhD. I spent three lengthy days in Kyoto. It was amazing, but the touristy aspect was a drag.
I did enjoy my pilgrimage to Ippodo tea shop and the Imperial Palace. Nishiki market was a sight to behold and the snack stands leading to Yasaka shrine (around the corner from my ryokan) were second to none. At Yasaka, I had a quick chat with a young man selling sweet potato fries. I mentioned I would be visiting the famous Gekkeikan brewery just south of us. He seemed disinterested, but made sure I knew he was an avid whisky fan. He had no idea about Fushimi or sake production in the region. This short and somewhat meaningless conversation made me finally realize that the average Japanese person is as clueless about sake as the average American! How strange is that? I was inspired to ponder about how much work needs to be done to spread the message of sake. Before I left Kyoto, I gave an offering of ginger amazake to a statue of Kitsune at Fushimi Inari Taisha. Hopefully he will put in a good word for the industry!
Overall, my trip to Japan made me realize that somehow this beautiful culture is a part of my soul and always has been. No matter where I am, I carry around its joy and inspiration. I would love to go back and do more exploring, but the discovery of having what I was looking for all along is fulfilling in itself. This trip was so magnificent that it was very difficult to summarize. I hope I showcased some of the wonder of this incomparable country. Stay safe and healthy everyone!