Greetings Gumi folks, your whisky liaison and friendly neighborhood Dre is taking over Sake Gumi this month!
It's the same feeling as when you played Pokemon Red on your Game Boy back in 1996, the billboard you passed by causing you to reminisce on days past. Or at some point, somewhere, maybe at a friend's house or on a random TV channel you flipped to as a kid, you caught your first Studio Ghibli film and somehow you've recently found it again. That intangible and intimate emotion that carries the weight of the years and in its wake a wistful longing for a time and place with happy memories or personal associations. That feeling is Nostalgia. I was bursting at the seams with it through my travels, yet I'd never even been out of the country until now. So how can a person experience nostalgia for a place they’ve never been to before?
Well for me it's quite simple. Through the amalgamation of stories I've absorbed created by storytellers and artists who channeled their visions, emotions, experiences, and life philosophies through the cultural looking glass of the land they love. It’s a place where the spirits of the land, sea, and sky are still alive and the folks who live there still regularly interact with them. A place where the earth is still considered sacred and the people embody a deep love and respect for the land that they live.
You can see the history from the way the streets are laid out and the way the houses are designed to how little temples dot the landscapes every few miles. The language is old, flowing, and syllabic. Shrines filled with statues of gods and spirits can be found right in the streets and alleyways of the city. So if you know where to look, the yokai and kami are never far away. There’s no trash on the sidewalk (or anywhere for that matter), and the thought of theft never occurs to people so there's no need to lock up your bike. It's safe enough for young children to walk around fearlessly running errands on their own. The easy and constant access to vending machines means that if you ever experience hunger or thirst and are able to collect at least a hundred coins you can purchase something to sustain life a while longer.
To young me, this place sounds like a world out of mythology or a book series. The part of me that once upon a moon wanted nothing more than to travel and see the sites, places, and cultures of the world filled with the wondrous optimism of childhood. Teenage me unfortunately began to feel the walls of poverty and society closing in. Understanding more and more every year that the country I was born in in wasn't built for people like me, to say the least. Adult me is now filled with jaded perspective, fully resigned to the specific plight that only a black activist in their thirties could wholeheartedly grasp. As of now, that tiny cinder of optimism that I held onto for the sake of that child was reignited to a warm candle flame when adult me got invited to visit the very place that sounds like somewhere out of a storybook. A place where nature and modern life meet on equal terms. A place where everything still connects and the continuity of place and history can be glimpsed on the surface. That place is Japan and more specifically in my case, Fukushima.
I was relieved that I wore thick wool socks as we took our shoes off and softly padded up the stairs of the izakaya, located in the backstreets of Koriyama City a few blocks from our hotel. I’d never been to this type of place and was surprised that the rustic wood made little sound as we were guided to a hexagonal table, made purposefully large for communal merriment. Intentionally placed in the center rafter, next to a number of paintings, odds, ends, and knick knacks, a being from the old world rested quietly. Its long straw-like hair only partially obscured the elongated red nose of the Great Tengu mask, its fierce eyes staring defiantly towards the entrance. A fitting guardian for my first night drinking and eating with new friends soaking in the simple enjoyment of the sounds and sights. especially the ones I couldn't understand.
Of course my hotel window, lined with its gold and brown curtains, faced the perfect direction to catch the sun climbing over violet-tinted mountains to peek through and say hello the next morning. After breakfast we piled into our tour bus to start our trek around the prefecture sliding over its snow brushed mountains and passing by tiny dotted communities like a metallic caterpillar on a mission.
The first brewery we visited on our journey was Kokken Shuzo. Its weathered wooden gates spoke and told a story all their own as our procession crunched through the thin layer of snow covering the sidewalk. The tatami mat room where the head brewer told us of his family and how long they’d been making sake sat only a few yards from a koi pond, inhabited by local fish who’d chosen that exact spot to take in the dappled sunlight reflecting off the water. From there we toured the section of the brewery housing the polishing machine and freshly polished rice, walked across exhilaratingly precarious boards on the second floor to witness the size and scale of the brewing vats before getting to taste sake fresh from the press. The scent of grill smoke, containing our lunch, hung thinly in the air as we walked the few blocks to break bread with the brewers at our next destination.
The next brewery, Aizu Shuzo, is now run by the two sons of the family. Adjacent to where we ate our meal of grilled unagi served in delicate lacquerware, sat the preserved communal space where their family had lived over 300 years ago. Mere feet from the well that they’d been brewing sake from for just as long. The well itself radiated history, and touching it was like listening to a story told through your bones far too difficult to communicate accurately with words. The building is made from interlocking beams, logs and boards, whose tension has been keeping the brewery standing for generations. Each one a testament to traditional Japanese engineering and likely will still be doing their jobs long after my body has gone to the ancestors.
After departing Aizu Shuzo we were brought to the village of Ouchi-Juku nestled in a valley covered in white powder neighboring a smooth untouched field of snow that stretched for miles in each direction like a vast pearlescent lake. The single dirt road, now slushy with ice and puddles, bisected the small village proudly flaunting thatched roof houses straight from the Edo period and still stacked heavy with snowfall. In antiquity Ouchi Juku was once a ‘post town’ in which travelers could find food and lodging while making their way through the region with many of the people who currently live there or nearby still running traditional inns and shops right out of their homes. Beneath those thatched roofs, while dodging falling cold drops we browsed the inhabitants wares of snacks, charms, and keepsakes.
While searching for easy to transport souvenirs we met two elder women tending their stall selling beautifully-crafted fruit and vegetable plushies. The dry cold bothered them little, if at all in their kimono and small jackets, making them look content and dignified with the wisdom of their years. Yugo-san, one of the organizers for the program, explained to the pair that I was visiting Japan for the first time all the way from the American west coast. They looked me up and down, and with a particular resonance in their voices that reminded me too much of my own late grandmother, they in unison bowed and said, “yokoso!” I bowed low in return and gave them my best ‘thank you” in Japanese. Internally, the child, teenage, and adult me were all humbled to the core, feeling warmth spread through my chest like hot tea.
Ouchi Juku’s road ended at ice encrusted wooden steps built right into the mountainside leading up to a graveyard and shrines overlooking the winter vista below. The image akin to an ink painting brought to life from an ancient scroll. We paid our respects, took our pictures and walked slowly back to the tour bus with a feeling of calm elation. Watching the lingering sunset rays cast orange and purples hues seamlessly blending the shadowy winter whites and blues of the nearby snowfield as we sailed away.
Much to my surprise the next hotel we stayed in, located in Aizu Wakamatsu, was a ryokan, a traditional Japanese style inn. Each room looked like a set piece plucked from a movie with a low table for entertainment, tatami mats, and cushions set just so. A wicker table sat cutely with matching chairs and tea set staring out of the wall length windows onto the mountainside thick with trees and brush all twinkling with gentle snow. A waterfall and small river sang a constant hum below, right next to the outdoor onsen where I spent more than a few hours living out a long held dream. After a gorgeously curated feast and a long soak I sat at the wicker table and quietly took tea and a good book, occasionally listening to the forest and river converse beneath. Allowing the pleasing chill breeze leaking through the window to caress the goosebumps on my skin.
Parting from my beloved onsen was bittersweet the next morning as we loaded up for the next leg of our journey. The trip was anticlimactically short and we exited our bus in the parking lot based where what looked to be a human constructed lake. The trees dipped their branches low in the water as if reaching for a drink, each one gnarled and coated in multi-verdant moss and likely as old as the grounds themselves that we tread upon. It wasn’t until our second bend in the easily defensible single road did I understand that we were walking the length of a vast moat encircling one of Aizu Wakamatsu’s most prestigious sights. Tsurugajo (Tsuruga Castle), built during the 1300s and a living relic of days long past, its black stone outer walls looming high while its white tower shone in the midday sun.
We continued on to the castle museum with a note to return and pay my respects. Tsurugajo itself still held all the markers of its military practicality and its aesthetic sensibilities. Every room was expertly drafted for efficiency and space located across from small rectangular cutouts from the wall embedded in larger windows for musket and arrow fire. Our tour guide showed us the armory, filled with instruments of grim purpose making it chillingly clear why there’s only one way into Tsurugajo Castle. On that same way back, in full view of the castle windows we gave respect to Inari-Okami, and walked along the road away from the beautiful tale-filled trees and all the other preserved entities from eras long past.
The last stop on our bus tour was Yamatogawa Shuzo in Kitakata City, part sake museum, part tasting wonderland. Laden with farming tools over one hundred years old, barrels that have stood the test of time, photos in timeless sepia tones taken of brewers, bottles and landscapes. Of course located on the brewery grounds is the well that has been used to draw water for sake brewing over the centuries. which, in the tasting room, has been outfitted to pump local water automatically, giving you the chance to taste the local water pure enough to drink straight from the tap. The sake brewed can be tasted alongside the water it's made from and while drinking you can walk outside to gaze upon the mountain and tributaries that the water is traveling through. From ground to glass.
Our trip was scheduled to end with Yamatogawa, but thanks to circumstance I was lucky enough to be invited to one more brewery before coming home. As we drove through miles of rice fields whitened by more snow, I sat imagining the landscape ebbing and flowing through its seasonal color schemes, though it was mere minutes before we arrived. Daitengu, located in Motomiya City has been making sake for over 140 years highlighting the local rice and water supply. Saori, the 5th generation head brewer, was kind enough to show us around and educate us on the history of the brewery and share photos of the brewing cycle before letting us try some of her sake experiments. Unfortunately our time was limited so we didn't get to stay as long as we would have liked, but it was an enriching experience nonetheless. I found it auspicious that this chapter began with the Great Tengu watching over me at the izakaya and was bookended by saying goodbye at a brewery named for the Great Tengu.
A quick Google search will show that Fukushima is most known for the 2011 earthquake and subsequent damage to the region – a stigma that the people have been doing everything they can to shed for the past decade. The stigma is so widespread that very few in the West know that Fukushima makes some of the most prestigious sake in the world, winning competition after competition for over eight years in a row. From Daishichi Sake Brewery who focuses on traditional brewing practices and has served their sake to Dutch royalty, to Daitengu Shuzo who brews sake with yeast shot into space, the brewers of the region are dedicated to their craft. They work as much as possible with locally sourced and grown ingredients and collaborate with local farmers and people in their community, all while still using brewing methods old and new to make their crisp and refined brews. My trip to Japan was everything I’d hoped it would be giving perspective on people, place, and culture.
While sitting on the long flight back to the States, I reflected on everything from the sights and sounds to the tastes and sensations, hewing the experience into my memory like a carving on a tree. I gained a new appreciation for tradition and how it can be shaped and adapted over time; and respect for those who spend their lives preserving the culture around it. Most importantly, I’ve unlocked a new ‘why’ for everything that I do. An inspiration that runs blood-and-sweat deep, fueling my passion for creation. And just like the artists from my youth that I love, it’s my hope that my passion shines through the page. It’s also my hope that reading this will prompt you to cast off the stigma that such a picturesque place like Fukushima has been burdened with, and make your own journey to witness its mountains, fields, forests, cities, and people for yourself. Maybe even give an offering before you go like I did, and meet a kami of your own. And if any of your electronics need it, don’t forget to bring an adapter.
Naraman Muroka Junmai
Yumegokoro Shuzo (Fukushima, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 55% Gohyakumangoku, SMV:+4, Acidity 1.5
Yumegokoro Shuzo is said to have gotten its name when the 7th generation owner, who in his dedication to brewing sake forwent eating and sleeping, took a nap and was visited in the dream by Asahi Inari. The god taught the man secret brewing techniques and advised him to name themselves Yumegokoro (Dream Soul). This muroka (non-charcoal filtered) junmai has notes of melon and stone fruit on the nose with an earthy, balanced sweetness on a structured palate that leaves you wanting more. It’s great chilled or warm, and the brewer recommends this sake with grilled fish, and sashimi.
Daishichi Yukishibori Kimoto Nigori
Daishichi Shuzo (Fukushima, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 69% Gohyakumangoku, SMV: 1.5, Acidity: 1.4
Daishichi’s reputation is well established for having their sake served to both royalty in Japan and abroad and specializing in the traditional kimoto method brewing. They are also the innovators behind the Super Flat Rice Polishing method that preserves the rice’s original shape, leaving more of the shinpaku intact. I chose the Daishichi Yukishibori (Snow Pressed) Kimoto Nigori for this
month since I’d never seen a nigori sake brewed using the kimoto method until now. Yukishibori is slightly effervescent, and has a wonderful yuzu-like acidity which balances out the sweet notes of apple and melon while adding nuance to the creamy notes of banana and yogurt. Makes a great aperitif or digestif – served chilled.
Odayaka Junmai Ginjo
Niida Honke (Fukushima, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 60% Organic Miyamanishiki, SMV: N/A, Acidity: N/A
Niida Honke is a brewery dedicated to sustainability and community. They own their rice fields that use natural cultivation methods and forgo the use of organic fertilizers in favor of natural compost produced from the rice fields themselves. They also host community events, intent on educating anyone seeking to learn with their “Rice Field School,” in which people can experience rice cultivation. Odayaka is brewed using 100% JAS organic Miyamanishiki rice, giving it a light and refreshing profile to start. We get notes of honeydew melon and steamed rice. Serve this one chilled with herb baked chicken, roasted meats, and vegetables.
Daitengu Usake Spring Junmai Ginjo
Daitengu Shuzo (Fukushima, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 60% Yume no Kaori, SMV: +6, Acidity: 1.7
Saori Kobari, the toji of Daitengu, brews this sake four times a year to celebrate the changing seasons using Yume no Kaori (a rice local to Fukishima), spring water from Mt. Adatara, and a local yeast strain called Utsukushima Yume. Light, fresh, and off-dry, it complements lively dishes with fresh ingredients. We get notes of melon bread, grass, and blueberry on the nose with notes of yogurt, navel orange, and a bit of savory bell pepper on the palate. It took me months to realize that Usake sounds like Usagi (rabbit)!