Culturally speaking, Japan has held a very high ranking in my book. It is certainly a combination of factors: history, culinary arts, beverages and landscapes.
Over the last few years I’ve made it my crusade to dig deeper into Japan since I found out my spirit animal is sake, a mystical alcoholic beverage composed of a handful of ingredients and a lot of soul. I eventually found a way there to bathe in this captivating civilization.
Throughout the centuries, sake has been perfected and refined while carefully retaining its biggest attributes. Sake, or Nihonshu as it is referred to in Japan, is highly diverse within regions or prefectures due to the typicity of its ingredients. Water for instance, determines the weight in the palate. Why, you might ask. Well, simple: snow melt provides soft, velvety water whereas water sourced from rivers and creeks are richer in minerals, contributing to a heavier mouthfeel. Rice, yeast and koji also bring different attributes to the party.
In order to understand sake, it helps to understand the deep roots that Japan has to offer. After enjoying sake for a number of years both as a personal pleasure and an educational aspect, it was only natural to visit the motherland. When the opportunity arose, I jumped at the adventure without hesitation. Visiting a country in which the language and customs are completely foreign is certainly as exciting as meeting Elvis Presley.
With only a short notice and the excitement of an 8-year-old kid visiting Disney World for the first time, I reached out to one of my favorite sake breweries, Ichishima Shuzo, located in the central western part of Japan in a magical prefecture called Niigata.
Historically, this region has been an important port that faces the Sea of Japan. This region is blessed with a number of monumental mountain ranges including Echigo Mountains, standing more than 6,500 feet tall. Due to the Siberian monsoons that bring a generous amount of snow when it melts, it provides soft water ideal for sake production. Niigata prefecture has one of the largest rice paddy field acreages in Japan, and it also counts a high concentration of sake breweries that champion a layered, floral and seductive style.
The trip consisted of landing in Tokyo’s Haneda airport, one of two major landing spots in the city. From there, I would cross the country via Shinkansen (bullet train), spending one night in Niigata and returning to Tokyo where I was invited to judge at the Japan Wine Challenge, the oldest competition of its kind in Asia.
In theory, it all sounded fairly simple and spelled out. I contacted Kenji Ichishima, 13th generation of the family and president of Ichishima Shuzo. He offered to assist with accommodations and gave me instructions to meet him near the brewery where he would pick me up.
So, off I went. I landed in Tokyo around 6 a.m. after a quick 11-hour flight. At first glance, it felt like a scene taken from “Total Recall,” futuristic and completely foreign. I grabbed a coffee at a tiny kiosk and headed to buy the train tickets. That’s when I realized I was in for an adventure.
I proceeded to the ticket stands, all touch screens and no attendant. I must have stared at the screen for about 10 minutes, trying to make sense. There were colors, numbers, and shapes, but no instructions.
An older gentleman finally approached me, and, with his best attempt at English, he offered to help. By pointing at the maps above, he told me I had to jump on the train to Tokyo Station and then take the Shinkansen to Niigata from there, and so I did.
Tokyo Station: picture Grand Central Station in NYC on steroids with hundreds of people moving at a fast pace and synchronized just like schools of fish being narrated by David Attenborough on a Planet Earth documentary. At first glance, certainly overwhelming, but once you settle at a spot, it is the most beautiful ballet.
The food offerings within the station were varied and quite exciting, anything from mysterious sushi boxes to the most beautifully wrapped sweet confections. In Japanese culture it is imperative to show up with gifts when you travel to meet someone; this explains the beautiful packages of cookies and other sweets.
I felt drawn toward a small hole in the wall where a handful of different seafood and rice snacks waved at me. I made it through the line and pointed at three random selections, paid and got back on track on the quest for the bullet train to Niigata.
After a few minutes of suspense, I located the tickets and the gate. With a few minutes to spare, I decided to indulge on the snacks and uncover the mystery, which turned out to be delicious baby octopus, smoked salmon and pickled vegetables.
The Shinkansen was as fast as I imagined. In no time, it crossed the country from east to west, and views were worthy of framing and showcasing at a gallery. Deep forest, contrasted by a set of mountain ranges, made for a very pleasant ride. It was a Saturday in August; the passengers in the majority appeared to be businessmen on their way back home to visit their families, a pleasant sight to complement the scenery.
Upon arrival in Niigata City, I wandered around the station for a few minutes looking at the offerings while trying to find my way out toward the taxi cabs.
The hotel, located in Niigata City proper, was a quaint property in the historical downtown. I must have arrived around 11 a.m.; the uniformed and hospitable attendant said the room wasn’t ready until 3 p.m., so I decided to leave my bags and walk around town.
The weather was a welcoming 90 degrees with a heavy dose of humidity. I was so excited that I went with my sports coat on for a couple blocks until it started to weigh me down.
It appeared that the town was preparing for a festival, which turned out to be some sort of summer celebration. A handful of people were setting up tables with diverse offerings. I saw street signs with arrows pointing towards the sea, and that’s where I headed. A sprinkle of people of all ages, from kids to the elder ones riding bikes, and people on foot were part of the landscape.
A couple blocks later, in one of the most striking memories, an 80- to 90-year-old lady crossed my path. She bowed at me and smiled, and that was it; I felt at home. I smiled and bowed back; then she continued her trek up the slim sidewalks.
The next block held an imposing shrine with a few visitors and a peaceful air hard to describe. I eventually made it to the water only to realize I’d rather spend more time at the Gokoku Jinja shrine, where I returned.
I stumbled upon a tiny store inside a house, which displayed a sake symbol. Naturally attracted, I looked at a few bottles; a mother-like figure with a smile from ear to ear greeted me in Japanese. Trying to remember a couple words but without success, I proceeded to speak in sake terms. She said she had a few of her favorite local brews for sale. I tasted a couple, just memorable.
Niigata’s cuisine is seafood-centric but the soba (buckwheat) noodles are the pride of the locals. I came across an inviting, small locale, where a handful of families were enjoying the fare. I sat at the bar with a view of the kitchen. The server, approached me and relayed there was no English menu and no pictures of food to which I replied, that’s is completely OK.
In a Russian roulette fashion, I closed my eyes and pointed somewhere along the middle of the menu. The server looked at me in disbelief, and I confirmed. She nodded. I added a glass of sake and smiled. Only a couple minutes later, I realized the cooks were making a large batch of noodles to order complimented by tempura enough for a family of four. Here’s where I realized I probably ordered too much. As I suspected, it was my order.
I took a deep breath as the other diners stared at me, probably hoping I had three more people joining me. With nothing but time and a solid, jet-lagged appetite, I went for it. Still to this day, the best soba noodles I’ve come across.
After checking in the hotel and catching a bit of shut eye, I went for a walk; I was simply too curious to stay in. The town was alive, to say the least. A couple blocks away I heard live jazz and immediately gravitated toward the music.
A young group of mid-20s artists playing in the corner sidewalk managed to get a good size crowd that consisted of young kids all the way to grandparents. Everyone seemed to enjoy it as the band went wild, and a couple teenagers danced to the beat. If I wasn’t in love before, now I was completely hooked. I kept walking after a few songs and found a traditional sushi joint with a different feel — no bar, it consisted of small booths with bamboo doors and a doorbell-like system to call the server. Pictures on the menu and an extensive sake list were a bonus!
On the way back to the hotel, I heard someone speaking English from afar, for the first time since I landed. I decided to investigate and stumbled across a traditional Irish pub, tiny and crowded. A group of international characters waived me down. The welcoming committee consisted of foreign teachers now living in Niigata City. There was a Texan, a Californian, an Italian, an Englishman and an Irishman surrounded by a group of locals practicing their English skills. I enjoyed hearing their stories and love for this part of the world and shy of finishing my second pint of beer, it was time to say bye and catch up on sleep. The next day was an exciting one.
Sunday morning, the plan sounded simple: head to the train station, head to Shibata city, roughly three stations later where Kenji awaited, to go see the brewery.
I packed, caught a cab, made it to the station and got my ticket, I was in front of the train with two minutes to spare. The train door was closed, so I waited for it to open but it never did. I later learned because of the heat wave the door remains closed, and there is a button to press to open the door but I wasn’t looking for it, and there wasn’t anyone around to assist.
I called Kenji who recommended I take a different train that would get me about a station away where he would pick me up. The view from the window showed an array of rice fields, and tall and skinny houses with beautiful and elaborate black rooftops.
The anticipation was killing me, this was my first time being at a sake brewery. This brewery in particular had been a favorite of mine because of their style and delivery. A modern label shields more than 220 years of production.
Ichishima Shuzo was established in 1790 and is the first brewery to have a woman Toji (brewmaster). I imagined what I would encounter, perhaps a large and sterile production facility with hundreds of workers; I just didn’t know.
Kenji picked me up at the station, and on the way to the brewery he pointed out the rice fields that at some point belonged to the Ichishima family and are now owned by local farmers and still used for his family’s sake production.
Finally, we arrived; there it was. You could feel the deep roots of this building. A small but complete museum displayed ancient artifacts and achievements of the brewery. In the back and consisting of two levels, was the production facility. This wasn’t brewing season, which is dictated by the winter months, based on low temperatures, but you could smell the sake, a familiar aroma that was both soothing and mouthwatering. After a brief tour, we traveled to the back of the brewery, a peaceful and harmonious room with a view to the gardens that resembled a scene from “Kill Bill.” We sat down and enjoyed an indescribable fare that consisted of tiny colorful vessels with food ranging from duck to fish, fruits and sweet treats followed by a green tea ceremony guided by Kenji. This experience was certainly worth traveling for; the views, the people, cuisine and warm hospitality will always linger fresh in my memory.