Tuesday 15 November 2011

Saké – the rice wine of Japan

So, having come back from Japan, I am first of all obliged to express my deep gratitude to

a) The Japanese themselves, whose charm, friendliness, helpfulness and courtesy, were limitless, and

b) The Japanese railway system. This is so good - startlingly punctual, clean and efficient - there were moments when, in an unhinged and jet-lagged kind of way, I wondered if I hadn't died and been put on the Heavenly Afterlife Train along with a surprising number of Japanese commuters and my own wife.

Booze? I made a discovery: Sake, with or without the terminal é, is delicious. Previously, if I had any opinion at all about Sake, it was that it was a kind of comedy drink, warm and sweet and made from rice and tupped from a thimble-sized porcelain cup: altogether meaningless in any Western context.

Then we found ourselves a couple of hours north of Tokyo, in one of those hole-in-the-wall bar/eateries the Japanese seem to have a genius for, and the sake was everywhere and being drunk in prodigious quantities, cold, out of glassware. What to do? I thought about hanging on to my comedy drink prejudices, but the chance was too good to pass up; not least because the sake itself was being served from these wonderfully shapely, nearly two-litre-sized bottles (see bleary photo) with elegant Japanese characters cascading down the front, simply demanding to be taken seriously.

So I gibbered and squeaked a bit, and found out that, yes, you could have your sake sweet (and elsewhere I did see it served sweet and warm and out of a diminutive teapot plus tiny porcelain drinking vessel) but you were more likely, given the relative clemency of the weather, to have it dry and chilled. And in a little box. A playful refinement: the little box is emblematic of the crate in which the rice would originally have been stored. You can have your sake poured directly into this baby crate (makes it bit tricky to swallow, especially around the corners), or you can have it in a glass (see other bleary photo) which then sits in the crate and, indeed, is filled to overflowing so that some of the sake ends up on the floor of the microcrate, betokening generosity.

It is not, in other words, like having a quick beer. Sake, made of the rice which sustains Japan and the rest of south-east Asia, is a drink pregnant with significance. You can find sake presented at temples, in bottle form or in barrels, a sanctified wine. You will toast the happy couple at a wedding with sake. You can find it on sale in sleek drink shops and in supermarkets. You can find it in gilt gift packages and you can find it in resealable waxed cartons. It affirms a culture.

So I raised it apprehensively to my lips, not wanting to find it disgusting in any way and as a consequence start coughing and spitting and wiping my nose and doing other such impermissible things, but no: all was good, a whiff of some kind of very dry white wine (what PK would doubtless call a flinty Bordeaux), maybe a gesture towards a vermouth, Noilly Prat, and then a follow-through a bit like a Dry Martini, but without that nail-varnish shimmer you sometimes get from the gin. Frankly, it was terrific, light and a bit astringent, but subtly warming, too, leading to a sense of complete genial clarity and refreshment.

Also, within ten minutes, I was pretty well lit up. On the strength of one large schooner of sake on top of a couple of beers. Sake isn't that powerful (somewhere around 15%) but my ears were ringing, in a good way, and I had some difficulty leaving my seat. 'This is a fantastic drink,' I kept saying, and it is - subtly crafted, beguiling, silently anaesthetic. It would make a perfect pre-meal drink over here, the only problem being the inevitable one of excessive novelty, and looking a bit of a twat, offering sake instead of a glass of cheap Tesco cava. Why didn't I bring a bottle back with me? Damn.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for inviting me to read your blog. This is an excellent article.

    My wife and I toured Japan for three weeks in 2007 (13 cities in 21 days) and you are absolutely right, the rail system is a delight.

    So too are the sakes and plum wines or "umeshu". I fondly recall stumbling into one of those hole-in-the-wall bars in Miyajima island (beautiful place by the way) and getting typsy on warm sake in a small teacup-esque vessel. My wife adored the plum wine and hunted it down in whichever bar or eatery we entered.

    Didn't try the whisky but I did read afterwards that Japanese whisky ranks up there with Scotch in terms of quality.

    Looks like you enjoyed Japan. We have very fond memories of our holiday there and would love to go back.


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