We are in the waning days of my time at IUJ. The temperature has dropped into the reasonable range, the trees are beginning to show bits of color, and the rice fields have morphed slowly from the verdant young green sprigs of summer to the gold-tinged heads of autumn.
This region of Japan is known for a premier variety of rice, koshihikari, as well as its lovely byproduct, sake. Through some kind of longstanding faculty-alumni legerdemain, the members of our summer English teaching staff are treated annually, it appears, to a trip to a local brewery and a shared no-host dinner thereafter at which we can avail ourselves to seemingly bottomless bottles of the local vintage, courtesy of two IUJ grads. I was more than delighted to partake of this long-standing tradition, and so last Saturday afternoon off we went.
Sake, the national beverage of Japan, dates back at least to the time of Christ and probably before, coming as many things do around here from an earlier Chinese tradition. The distillation process is complicated and its explanation is better left to the experts, but the relevant bits are that there are many many varieties of sake in Japan and it is an honorable and respected part of the culture and national life. In terms of its punch, sake (which actually translates as “alcoholic beverage;” the drink itself is known as “nihonshu,” or Japanese liquor) has about twice the alcohol of wine (running roughly 18-20 percent), but considerably less than our Western distilled spirits such as vodka and scotch. (I was warned to watch my consumption, and I did. That being said, there is no shame in Japan that accompanies serious inebriation.)
So, officially suited and sanitized, the faculty crew embarked upon our visitation to the brewery:
The tour took about an hour and required three different sets of foot ware. We went up and down sets of stairs, we went into cool cellars and hot drying rooms, and we peered at a lot of incomprehensible machinery, all duly explained in the Emperor’s Japanese. I just looked for interested camera angles, and came up with a few.
Here’s the thresher or the separator or whatever the thing is that sorts through the rice:
and then below it, the obligatory Japanese warning sign:
I was charmed that this brewery managed to blend its new equipment with a reminder, still standing in the back, of the earlier machinery that had brought this brand to greatness:
Of course there was the obligatory “oooh” and “aaah” over the size of the tanks and the appreciation of what is going on inside:
I was particularly charmed by the little shrine built into the very wall of the brewery, over an entrance into one of the larger rooms. The figures and small pieces of paper indicate hopes for good harvest, a good production year, and overall general prosperity for the organization and its employees. The Shinto tradition is alive and well.
About this time our collective attention began to lag, particularly since there didn’t seem to be any samples forthcoming, so instead of listening closely to the particulars of the latter parts of the tour, some members of our creative and resourceful posse began resorting to funny poses:
Ahem. Finally, once the sake has been brewed to perfection, it goes to age in these charming barrels which have been designed to look exactly like those from the days of yore. We were a little discomfited to learn these were, underneath the cool wrapping paper, made of stogy styrofoam:
Okay. Enough science. Time for chow. A little distance away, a lovely restaurant in the village of Koide had been working feverishly all afternoon on our behalf. We were greeted with this offering and dug in with great enthusiasm:
Much to our surprise, shortly after we arrived the president of the brewery showed up to join us for dinner. He sat at my end of the table, and after his numerous protestations about his bad English, we had a marvelous conversation about the sake industry, his children studying in the UK, and the differences between Japanese and foreign workers. He has a serious academic background in organic chemistry and worked for many years at Suntory, one of the largest makers of distilled beverages in the world, before coming to run this operation. I was honored to make his acquaintance, and he said he would try to come join my class next summer.
Here’s a shot of the happy diners, just about the time things got rowdy. The president is at the back, on the right. You’ll note that another brewery employee, truly committed to total customer satisfaction, is in the process of giving Gretchen a shoulder massage. (I didn’t manage to catch his attention, but not for lack of trying.)
You’ll also note that we were sitting on the floor all night, cushioned only by thin mats in the traditional manner. I took great pride in the fact that I squirmed far less over the course of the evening (some three or four hours) than my considerably younger colleagues. We are so pampered in the West.
So there you have it. A lovely outing, a delicious dinner and a wonderful look into this most ancient and honorable Japanese beverage. Kampai!
I love the variety of sake cups!
What’s the story with the size and shape of the traditional little cups?
I really don’t know the story behind the cups, except to say that they are offered to patrons in a variety of shapes and colors. If anyone knows more, please chime in.