The last part of my recent trip to Japan proved to be an incredible adventure covering more territory than anticipated. Upon returning to Tokyo from Tochigi where I was visiting Tonoike Shuzo, I met with a great friend, Andrea, who splits his time between Rome and Tokyo filming movies and living life at its best.
We met at a fantastic meeting point that houses small restaurants and bars. We opted for his recommendation of this tiny wine bar run by a master at his craft. The place has six seats and no menus. Basically, you tell the owner, who is there every day, what you want. He asks a couple simple questions, red or white, dry or sweet and he delivers. His wine selection changes daily with options from all over the world. No wonder he was packed; repeat guests crowd his establishment searching the next recommendation. The ultimate sommelier indeed, only in Japan.
After a couple of glasses, Andrea invited me to a restaurant opening party for an Italian place called Clandestino. Without much expectation, we entered the quaint eatery, only to find a room packed with more than 40 Italians laughing and enjoying themselves. It was just like being back in Italy and reminded me of Bottega di Vini in Verona. You couldn’t help to smile, we posted at the bar where glasses of Soave and Dolcetto arrived followed by Uovo al Tartufo, otherwise known as heaven. A lightly poached egg with shaved black truffles served in a glass jar, just incredible. As the reception evolved, tiny desserts started flowing alongside Grappa served from a ridiculously large 9-liter bottle with a tiny spout. Unbelievable. Having made some friends and been transported to Italy, I headed back to my place. Once again, an early morning was in sight.
The sun came up way too fast, and in no time I was at the airport catching a domestic flight to Kansai Airport in the south of Honshu. When I landed, there was a familiar face, long-time friend Minakata San and his 7-year-old Yuki. Minakata San’s family owns Sekai Itto Shuzo, a sake brewery located in the heart of Wakayama City operating since 1884.
Although I’ve been a huge fan of their sake for years, I had never had the pleasure of visiting their brewery. Wakayama Prefecture is located on the southeast tip of the main island of Honshu, blessed with plenty of mountainous areas, an incredible ocean front and hospitable and generous people. Wakayama is the fruit basket of Japan supplying the country with citrus and stone fruit, thanks to their fertile soils and climate.
It is no surprise that Sekai Itto produces some incredible fruit sakes aside from their premium line of Junmai, Ginjo and Daiginjo grades.
We headed straight to the brewery where we toured the facility and got to meet the head toji (brewmaster) Tsuda San, a young, smiley and highly knowledgeable guy who graduated from the Nanbu Toji Guild in Iwate.
During my visit, they were focusing on preparing the rice for the next batch, washing and steaming with precision and dedication. A real treat to meet young brewers that make you feel like the art of sake will prevail for generations.
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We then headed for lunch at one of the favorite local spots, Gimpe, a small yet soulful fish restaurant where we were treated to outstanding tempura, udon and sashimi with Minakata San, his wife and Yuki. Shorty after, I inquired about the Wakayama Castle, which stands tall and proud in the Wakayama City landscape. They said, “Let’s go and visit,” without hesitation. We toured the castle followed by a tea ceremony that I will not forget. Matcha and small pastries certainly complemented the already perfect day.
The day continued with a thorough tasting of their portfolio highlighted by the Minakata Junmai Ginjo and the Yuzu sake, then just when I least expected it, we went to visit the Kimiidera Temple that oversees the city and houses the largest Buddha in Japan. A spiritually charged visit worth the trip.
That night, Minakata San decided to take me on a tour of the city to explore the local fare and beverages. We stopped at a traditional izakaya where we enjoyed some small bites and sake, followed by a visit to a sake bar overlooking the river that reminded me of Compline in downtown Napa. There we finished, as every night should end, with a heartwarming ramen bowl.
Wakayama had by all means undeniably won my heart. I left the following morning for Osaka only wishing to come back soon.
After checking in at the hotel downtown Osaka, I ventured out into the busy streets, indulging in one of my favorite dishes native to the area, Takoyaki. Tiny, pancake-like balls filled with octopus and spices that rock my world every time.
That night, I decided to jump on a train to Kyoto. Being less than two hours away, I couldn’t resist. Last time I was there was about two years ago and I miss it every day. I walked the city absorbing its culture and energy, and then I stopped at Morimoto Kyoto, Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s newest location. Certainly a homey feeling with some of my favorite Morimoto dishes, sake and Shochu.
After checking the train schedule, I realized I had to run and catch the last one back to Osaka. Luckily, I made it and enjoyed a great night sleep. The next day consisted on heading back to Tokyo to enjoy the last hours of this bountiful country before heading back home.
The trip, which consisted of six cities in five days, gave me further understanding about the culture, food and sake, which thankfully seems to be in great hands. Kanpai!