Sake Legends in Japan

Ep.1: The Sake Store of Life “Kakumei-Kun”

Written by Keita Okubo

Hello, my name is Keita Okubo. In my articles for SakeTips!, I want to introduce “sake legends”: special people who have mastered sake in unique ways in Japan.

For the first article, I write about an owner of a liquor store who risks his life to spread his favorite sake far and wide.

“Staking my life, I want to do whatever I can for sake.”

Although Tetsuo Saito has been fighting a  serious illness for a long time, he opened a sake store specializing in jizake (local sake) by himself in order to repay for what saket has done for  him.

Knowing that he moved and reopened his store Kakumei-Kun (Revolution Boy) after having it renovated, I visited there to see him for the first time in a while.

 

Kakumei-Kun – A Rooter for Small Breweries

 

Mr. Saito previously worked for a famous liquor store in Yotsuya, Tokyo. He’s also known as a person who found Ibi, a currently popular brand in Japan. As he had been suffering from a severe illness since 2010, he was determined to open Kakumei-Kun in 2014. He mainly sold sake only for members via shipping because he should have gotten medical treatment during that period.

The picture below shows his new store located at a shopping arcade in Koiwa, Tokyo. I was surprised that his store has become a “proper” store, because the previous store was just a 107 sq. ft. room in an apartment.

It has a fancy red curtain at the entrance.

Long time no see, Mr. Saito. He’s almost lost the sight in his left eye; his right eye vision is also declining. He needs a magnifying glass to read the information on labels.

 

Kakumei-Kun’s Extraordinary Passion For Sake

Kakumei-Kun professes itself as “a rooter for small breweries.” Mr. Saito deals only with sake that he bought directly from  breweries he has close relationships with. While he handles a small number of breweries, he has joy for each product. As I ask, “How is this sake like?” he gives a deep and passionate explanation about not only its flavor but also the brewers’ personalities and reasons why he sells it. He spends too much time explaining each bottle making me worry about whether he will generate enough profit through his business.

Ibi is the signature brand for Kakumei-Kun and is made by Sugihara Brewery, one of Japan’s smallest family-owned breweries that produces only 50 koku (5000 of 1.8L bottles in 2019) per year in Gifu Prefecture. Mr. Saito repeatedly visited the brewery when it almost closed down and exchanged opinions with them. He was a godfather of its new brand and made Ibi popular in Tokyo.

He brought a bottle of Ibi from the back room. He hides popular brands in the back room to prevent them from being scalped or bought out.

“It doesn’t mean that I categorize customers as regulars or first-timers. I try to comply with requests in the case of Father’s Day’s gifts or celebrating a friend’s recovery from illness.”

Mr. Saito showed me Miharu Gohyakumangoku by Sato Brewery (Fukushima), calling it his “fair haired.”

“This is also made by a quite small brewery: young brewers who mainly produce innovative sake. When I encountered this at a tasting event, I thought this was a gemstone.”

After the event, Mr. Saito visited the brewery to give some advice from a liquor store perspective. He recognized that it had progressed dramatically this year.

“Miharu has gentle and graceful sweetness. It spreads mildly and fades away. You never get tired of it because it is smooth and delicious.”

His comment absolutely convinced me to take it home.

 

Kakumei-Kun’s Responsibility as a Liquor Store

You can see many bottles of Hanaabi (Nanyo Jozo, Saitama), one of Japan’s famous brands in the fridge. In fact, these bottles have already been sold. To prevent scalping, bottles on sale are hidden in another place.

“We liquor stores have to take responsibility for the unbalance of popularity between brands. As only a few brands get popular, restaurants rely on those brands. Actually however, restaurateurs should profess a reasoning like, ‘The sake of this brand is best for our dishes. So we must support this brewery even though it’s unknown.’ I want you to help them consider this way of thinking.”

Kakumei-Kun mainly sells and ships to its members. Though it might remind you of an online store, Mr. Saito doesn’t like to sell products to those he can’t see. Because of that, he ships sake to only “trustworthy members” and only uses online methods to contact them.

“Every member including first-timers is a person who can communicate well with me. I want to keep this method of sending the sake to a person who really needs it.”

 

Conversation Makes You Buy Sake – The Liquor Store of “Justice”

 

“I bought a cash register! [He didn’t have it at his previous store],” Mr. Saito says as he read a price list using a magnifying glass.

While making a payment, I found Furosen (Uehara Brewery, Shiga) in the fridge. When I mentioned that this brand was my favorite, he brought an aged bottle with BY21 (Brewed in the period between July 1st, 2017 and June 30th, 2018)  from the back room saying, “Then, you should try it!”

“This is the posthumous bottle by the late ex-brewmaster. Not available even at the brewery!”

I purchased it, why not? Listening to him makes me want to buy whatever. I believe that his passion moves customers. Also, as a layperson, I feel that this might be a liquor store’s duty to do this.

A store selling sake at reasonable price is good. A store dealing with many products is good. A store open all year round is good.

I want to buy sake from “a human being.”

Kakumei-Kun is one of the liquor stores that I wholeheartedly respect.

If you visit for the first time, please take care about the following:

  • Japanese language only.
  • Please contact him to make sure if it is open before visiting.

 

Question From Mr. Saito to Sake Fans throughout the World

 

I got a question from Mr. Saito to you – who know a lot about alcoholic drinks throughout the world.

“How are Five Chateau Bordeaux and Romanée-Conti dealt with in your country? In Japan, they are served only at special restaurants and bars that don’t accept first-time customers. I ask this because your answer can be helpful for Japan’s sake breweries that have not decided to advance overseas.”

Most domestic sake breweries in Japan are struggling with international marketing. Your opinion will be appreciated.