As we celebrate 10 years of Umami Mart, I want to reflect on the notion of 実家 (jikka, or hometown) and pair sakes from my own hometown, with dishes from our favorite eateries in Oakland. I was born in Konosu in Saitama prefecture in April 1980 – it is customary in Japan for the mother to return to her own hometown to give birth, so my mom left her apartment in Tokyo to have me in this little Saitama town.
At my grandma's house a few day's after I was born.
By summer, we left to meet my dad in Los Angeles, where he was opening a restaurant, so I don’t have many memories of Konosu. But eternally, it remains my jikka.
At Narita in summer of 1980 en route to my new American life.
Saitama is landlocked with neighboring Tokyo, so it serves as more of a commuter town for folks to go to the city to work. The prefecture is not glamorous like Kyoto or charming like Niigata – it’s where Crayon Shin-chan is from (Kasukabe), and where Ichiro Akuto makes his legendary whiskies in Chichibu. When I tell people I am from Konosu, they always say, “Oh, there’s a DMV there!” (incidentally, my aunt worked at that DMV, that’s how small the town is). For me, I recall the vivid greenery, Arakawa River, fireflies, the oppressive heat, and the little ninja (shrine) behind my grandma’s place. To this day, my mom hates the inaka (countryside) and I gather it has much to do with her rural upbringing in Konosu.
Hideko and me in front of grandma's house in Konosu.
When I embarked on finding sakes from Saitama, it was a difficult challenge. It turns out that there are not a lot of sake makers in the region. The cult darling of the Saitama sake world would be Shinkame, which we helped launch several years ago, and always have on our shelves. I’m happy to have rounded up excellent new sakes for you this month, all from Saitama, in a range of styles. When I asked Tetsuya Toyoda of Yao Honten in Chichibu about what he likes best about Saitama, he said, “I enjoy the rich nature and flowers of the four seasons (plum, cherry blossoms, poppies). The water is sacred and it’s very cold so the conditions are good for making sake.”
And we can’t talk about hometowns without incorporating Umami Mart’s own jikka, Oakland. Having called this our home for the last 10 years, we are constantly in awe of the breadth of its culinary offerings. I’ve incorporated food pairings for each sake with dishes by some of our go-to spots in Oakland – stay tuned for events and collaborations with local restaurants this month for Sake Gumi.
Don't miss our members-only event at Daytrip in Oakland on March 1st
We’re proud to be from Oakland, and look forward to another 10 years as your local sake shop.
Me and Yoko (right) in front of Umami Mart
Umami Mart Shochu Director + Yoko’s Workwife
Chichibu Nishiki Junmai Ginjo
Yao Honten (Saitama)
Seimaibuai: 55% Miyama Nishiki, SMV: +6, Acidity: 1.4
Chichibu is known for its pristine outdoors, and having visited the region before, I can attest to its mountainous, untouched beauty. The wolf on the label is said to be a “messenger of God” in the Chichibu region, and this 300ml size was brought in just for Sake Gumi! This sake is clean and crisp, and best enjoyed cold. Get a fruity aroma with notes of pear, and a slight spice at the tail. We loved this with any of Ramen Shop’s salad sashimi plates, or roti from our neighbor Aman.
The fermentation tanks at Yao Honten
Bunraku Nihonjin No Wasuremono “Japanese Forgotten Spirit” Junmai Yamahai
Kitanishi Sake Brewery (Saitama)
Seimaibuai: 60% Gohyaku Mangoku, SMV: +2, Acidity: 1.1
Kitanishi Brewery began making sake in 1849 and is located in the town of Ageo; it is a robust brewery with modern facilities, a tasting room, and restaurant.
Bottling at Kitanishi
Restaurant at Kitanishi
Tasting bar at Kitanishi
This sake fuses together the ancient tradition of yamahai sake-making and the art of calligraphy – the label is by artist Masami Takahashi. Rather mineral-forward for the style, get notes of citrus, mushrooms, and herbs in this yamahai sake. We loved this room temperature with Miss Ollies' famous fried chicken or roast duck by the pound at New Gold Medal in Oakland Chinatown.
Bunraku Junmai Daiginjo
Kitanishi Sake Brewery (Saitama)
Seimaibuai: 40% Yamada Nishiki, SMV: +2, Acidity: 1.5
This is the second bottle we are featuring this month by Kitanishi brewery, and Level 2 members you are in for a treat! The label is designed by Hyomon Enokido and the kanji means dragon. Brewed with local hard water, this sake is crisp and lofty, with notes of marshmallows and honeysuckle. Drink chilled with Daytrip’s deviled eggs, or Bombera’s fish tacos. Like Umami Mart, Kitanishi is embedded in the community as their summer matsuri festivities look explosive. We can’t wait to visit!
Summer matsuri in Ageo, Saitama
Local brewery tasting at summer matsuri in Ageo
Hanaabi Junmai Daiginjo
Nanyo Jozo (Saitama)
Seimaibuai: 48% Hattan Nishiki, SMV: +1, Acidity: 1.4
Located in Hanyu since 1860, Nanyo makes this cult status junmai daiginjo with local Saitama yeast and well water on premise. Get lush flavors of ripe peach, melon, and custard. They used the shizuku method, a labor-intensive filtration process that is free-falling as opposed to the usual pressed filtration, resulting in a richer sake in both aroma and texture. We loved this chilled in a white wine glass with Soba Ichi’s iconic tamagoyaki (egg omelette), Joodooboo’s fresh tofu and various seasonal banchan, or Nam Kao from Vientian Cafe.