Sunday, 26 May 2013

Sake Tasting in Fushimi

One of the great advantages of living in Japan is access to some of the best seafood in the world. Jules and I have always enjoyed sushi, but have also really taken to eating raw fish served as sashimi. Whenever we are out in a group and the sashimi is served, inevitably there is also a round of sake (fermented rice wine) to accompany it. Having been brought up in a country with a long wine growing heritage (the grape variety), it was at first a little difficult for our palettes to adjust to this distinctly different taste. However, we have persisted with sake and have increasingly come to appreciate its refreshingly dry potent qualities. We have discovered that this traditional brew can indeed have all of the complexities of a fine wine and that it certainly improves with age. Another clear similarity to wine is that in the end price does matter!

Having gained most of our knowledge about wines by touring around local wineries in South Australia, we thought that we might do something similar here in Japan, by exploring some of the many sake breweries centered around the local Kansai area. We had previously visited Nada near Kobe, famed for its 40 active breweries busily producing some 30% of Japans total sake production. However, this time we set out to explore the Gekkeikan Okura brewery in the town of Fushimi near Kyoto. This is one of the oldest sake breweries in the region, having established itself in this location way back in 1637. The brewers were originally attracted to this spot because it was a key point for transportation between Kyoto and Osaka, but even more important to them was the quality of the local ground water. As we entered the traditional wooden building, we were offered a chance to sample the natural water bubbling from a spring and it was indeed deliciously cold and clear. It may sound strange to refer to water as ‘delicious’ when it is has absolutely no taste at all, but having sampled a cup, it makes you realize that most of the water we normally drink clearly lacks this level of purity. With pristine water and quality rice providing the foundation for a great sake, it’s no wonder that the brewers were so attracted to this area.

As with most of the sake breweries that are open to the public, we were provided with an insight into the long and prestigious history of sake production in Japan, which largely consists of viewing old fermenting barrels, ceramic bottles and a range of implements that were traditionally used throughout the process. While from overhead speakers, age-old sake brewing songs could be heard, capturing the atmosphere of a bygone era. Here we also learnt a little about the gentle art of drinking sake ... sometimes chilled, at room temperature or occasionally heated. The vessel in which sake is served can also vary from small ceramic cups (shoko), saucer-like plates (sakazuki) and even small wooden boxes (masu) traditionally used for measuring rice. As with most Japanese rituals, the partaking of a simple alcoholic beverage is by no means a straight forward act and has been long steeped with formalities that need to be observed.

 Inevitably the tour directs you to the place where most of the visitors want to end up … the tasting room! Here, kindly old gentlemen take you through the range of the more popular products produced today, even if it is on a much more commercial scale than in the past. There are of course the more traditional styles with their vodka-like qualities and an alcoholic rating to match … quite strong and very dry! Then there are the milder varieties that are more like dry vermouth and then there are slightly fruiter versions that make the potent drink even more palatable. With an alcoholic range of between 15-17%, they all carry quite a kick, but the old gentlemen were particularly keen for us to sample them all. Sensing that Jules was finding the stronger variety a little too dry, we were introduced to a ‘surprise’ additional ingredient … plum wine! Quite sweet by itself, but as an added ingredient to the sake it certainly hits the mark. It seemed that these days it’s quite acceptable for sake to be served with various mixers or even as a cocktail ingredient … times have indeed changed.

At this point we cruised out of the brewery flushed with newly found knowledge of this traditional Japanese beverage, not to mention quite a few shots of the local product. We had not only been impressed by the quality of the sake from Gekkeikan Okura, but also by the friendliness of the staff and the obvious pride they had for the ongoing traditions of their brewery. As we wandered through the old parts of town, with its wooden buildings, temples, canals and narrow lanes, we could certainly appreciate the importance that brewery has long held within the Fushimi community and the status it continues to hold many centuries later. While the market place has certainly broadened due to the invasion of a range of international imports, the production of sake here still remains as economically and culturally significant as ever.