Kyoto: There’s Sake and then there’s SAKE

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We finally awakened to fall, and it’s been a long time coming. The weather had been unpleasantly warm and humid all summer, and a cooling rain, reduced temperatures, and a crisp sunrise combined for an inspired early-morning walk amidst gorgeous Kodachrome colors.

We began our day’s activity at a dealer’s antique show in the Fushimi district south of Kyoto Station. Our plan was to follow yet another “path” in Diane Durston’s book, Kyoto: Seven Paths to the Heart of the City, and Fushimi is renowned for being the center of Kyoto’s sake production (and has been doing so since 1637). There are 38 different factories currently producing this delicious rice wine locally, and all attribute it to the high quality ground water (and the convenient Takanogawa River for distribution).

Perhaps another reason for all 38 successfully coexisting for so many centuries is the local Fushimi Inari Shrine. To assure fiscal success, local businesses contribute a hefty sum for the construction of huge wooden “tori” gates, elaborately identified with the underwriter’s name, and installed over a series of paths that meander throughout the shrine. To accommodate for centuries of offerings, they’re separated by only 4-6 inches so you’re literally walking through red-orange tunnels. The length of these paths combined would easily extend a kilometer, and several looping routes are available. For smaller benefactors, tories are proportionately sized and dutifully inscribed (for a fee) by the monks. It isn’t surprising why this shrine didn’t charge the usual entrance fee.

Durston’s book features 7 different regions of Kyoto that are often overlooked by the tour buses; there are either more popular sights to visit or the streets are simply too narrow to navigate by those smelly behemoths. Her philosophy is to walk those narrow streets, enjoy the machinami of Kyoto, and discover much about the history of Kyoto itself. The term machinami refers to the rows of wooden houses that line the streets of these neighborhoods. Having been spared the ravages the second world war, these houses continue to reflect the vibrant history of ancient Kyoto. Most of the machinami share common walls, and considering the uninsulated materials used for construction, families were practically living together. In fact, early rulers (shoguns) metaphorically adapted the proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” by employing a self-policing strategy that grouped five houses together into units (generally the three houses sharing walls and the two across the street). These units were partly responsible the safety of Kyoto’s streets because a crime committed by a member of the unit reflected on the other four houses.

Thankfully, these neighborhoods that have retained their cultural integrity and have been protected by local ordinances, preserving both their charm and the industries that characterize them. Textiles and weaving, ceramics, nightlife and theater, and sake production are all featured in their respective neighborhoods, and provide plenty of entertainment for the adventuresome. Furthermore, they’re easy to access by bus, subway, or foot, and a day’s itinerary is easily filled by simply focusing on just one of the areas. And that’s what we’ve been doing.

Sake production varies in potency, flavor, and recipes. Fundamentally, rice is to sake as grapes are to wine. They are both mashed, pressed, allowed to ferment, and enhanced by secret additives that affect flavor. We toured the world-famous Gekkeikakan sake factory because there is a museum and a tasting room which we hoped would elevate us from ignorant to marginally literate. We just barely succeeded and got a taste of what’s to come. What separates one sake from another is the sweetness, and that is indicated incrementally on a uniform scale; both alcohol content and the dry/sweet rating are listed on the labels, and discerning consumers continue to support the 38 different factories in Kyoto alone.

We are familiar with the Gekkeikakan label since it’s the brand of sake generally available in most markets throughout the world. Check out the wine section in most supermarkets and you’ll see it. This is a basic sake and would satisfy most consumers, but what we learned today was how important freshness, pasturization, and the seasonal freshness affect the batch. In order to learn more, Tim and I slipped into a sake bar and requested a line-up of several of his favorites. For a small fee, we were provided a far better introduction to sake than that of the Gekkeikakan museum. Included was a small dish of tofu and pickled something to cleanse our palettes between tastes. It was clear which was our favorite; unfortunately, we couldn’t afford a bottle. So we selected our second choice that, surprisingly, was also the choice of our bartender’s—a seasonal varietal that is only available in October and November. Whether you drink your sake warmed or cold is of no importance; choose whichever you like and enjoy it. All the sakes we tasted were served somewhat chilled and heating sake is generally limited to winter consumption.

We also learned that, like grape wines, the better sakes don’t last much longer than a week as opposed to the imported stuff we keep in our pantry for cooking. This is partly due to the lack of pasteurization and exposure to the elements. So, in the spirit of the samurai warrior, we propose to finish our bottle during our ryokan splurge to Nara on Monday and Tuesday. Stay tuned.

All 18 photo galleries representing 3 weeks in Japan are compiled in our Photo Galleries 2007.