The sign slows down and reads Kanda Station, this is my stop. On an escalator floating up to the street level I check Google maps and confirm that my rendezvous is only a few blocks away. I check again to ascertain the direction, before, then, my phone dies. Damn.
With a ‘head for direction,’ I begin to walk. As my breath trickles steam into the night air I look around, the traffic is busy yet organised, the lights bright but not dazzling, the weather cold but not harsh. Tokyo has a habit of putting her arm around you and although you are part of a much bigger picture here, she makes you feel relevant and somehow safe. Turning down the street I presume to be where I am heading, a group of suits approach me, they respectfully give me space on the sidewalk as if they know me. A minute later I see my destination, Sake Bal Shu Shu, the sign glowing like a pendant in the dimly lit side street.
Peeling back the door I step gingerly inside. Instantly I am met with my grinning host, Kizuki Hommoto owner and chef of the bar, he motions me to take a seat at the bar top,
“Did you find us ok?” he asks giving me a semi-serious look,
“Yeah, I did actually, although my phone died” I respond.
Kizuki smiles, nods before saying, “then you are truly meant to be here. Let us begin.”
I’ll be honest. I know very little about sake.
It comes from rice, is often strong and you pretty much just shot the stuff and it will get you drunk, right?
Appears not. Kizuki gives me a brief and comprehensive summary of sake as he pours my first three samples. The legend of sake surrounds the story of a prince who once used the beverage to intoxicate a dragon in order to save a princess. Not your average fairy tale, but a clever prince nonetheless. He continues to explain that although the process can be complex the ingredients themselves consist of just 4 components: rice, water, yeast and koji (mould spores).
The process of making sake is actually pretty close to that of beer. The rice is allowed to ferment, after, the koji is added with sometimes new rice and additional water; depending completely on the desired result. The liquid is either then filtered or not and voilà, you have yourself sake, sitting often between 15-20% ABV.
1800 years of a refined process in merely a few lines. You’re welcome.
My first three sakes are the ‘premium set’ otherwise known as Daiginjyo, perhaps these should be saved till last I think to myself. Kizuki motions me to begin trying them; surely he has done this for a reason, so I begin to taste.
First floor Yano building, Konya-Cho Kanda, Tokyo 101-0035
As I taste Kizuki tells me these are the most delicate and sought after sakes, with tastes and aromas of floral notes and even rose. I agree to an extent, they are floral but what they all have in common to a degree is a noticeable background flavour, aniseed. Now aniseed is all very well and fine, but it is one of those tastes that can really divide people.
A catastrophic teenage bender on Sambuca can haunt you for years; we all have that one friend.
As I sip I listen to Kizuki and I hear something that grabs my attention,
“Sorry, could you repeat what you just said”, I eagerly request,
“About the rice polishing?” asks Kizuki looking puzzled.
Unbeknown to me, rice can and most of the time is polished within the sake making process. Now, not to be confused with the type of polishing you would bestow upon a prized 2nd place trophy, rice polishing involves an abrasive process in which the outer layers of the grains of rice are removed. These outer layers contain fats, proteins and vitamins that will inevitably add flavours and aromas, by removing these the acquired taste is then purer. The resulting yield though, is as you might expect, lower, making these styles harder on your pocket.
“I get quite a few American customers these days and they love these styles, for their clean and simple tastes. I think it is because they are used to drinking simple low flavoured beers, like Budweiser!” Kizuki goes on to tell me with a laugh.
“Do you get many customers from Europe?” I ask.
“We often get Europeans here also, you know your Spanish or French guys. They like to experiment and will often settle on the more dynamic and thicker sakes, even the unfiltered ones. Other than that we get a few from China and Hong Kong. They will often just pick the most expensive sakes from the list without even consideration.” Kizuki raises his hands in a submissive gesture as he makes his last point; quietly wishing they sought for more.
Next, I am treated to two sparkling sakes. The first is called Mio. Incredibly easy to drink that I have to show restraint, my host notices this though,
“it’s an easy sake to drink huh? We get groups of girls in here who drink a lot of this, sometimes even at lunch- it’s juice!” exclaims Kizuki with a beaming smile.
And he isn’t wrong. The second sparkling produced by Yucho Shuzo and named Alpha is naturally sparkling. Telling me that it should be complex yet drinkable, I cannot fault his comment. The sake in question just seems to keep giving; a plethora of flavours frolic on my tongue.
The night continues, as does the sake.
I try unfiltered and aged sakes, which Kizuki explains hold more savoury characteristics. He nods towards 2 middle-aged businessmen sat to my right enjoying small dishes and sharing warm sake.
“I know these guys they come here often, and put simply they are incredibly rich. They are drinking a cheap unfiltered sake because that is what they like. They care not for the cost of how they might come across to others; sake is treated this way in Japan. No pretention.” Kizuki’s smile disappears for a moment as he tells me this, I feel myself submerged in a culture that effortlessly permeates mystery.
The Final sake that I am told I must try is made only a few blocks from where I sit. Rita is the producer and I am poured a healthy looking glass. I instantly detect an aroma and then taste which takes my brain only a few seconds to interpret.
“I get the taste and even smell of apples. Like fresh green apples” I wryly exclaim, half expecting to look silly.
Kizuki barks something at his assistant before turning to me with the biggest smile I have seen all night.
“Very good! This sake actually has high levels of Malic acid; apples are renowned for having this also. You know your stuff,” shouts Kizuki over a now hissing frying pan, the flash of its flames illuminating his eyes. As I feel the alcohol numbing my senses I begin to wonder; the world of sake isn’t as complex as most people perceive it to be?
The bar begins to thin out and Kizuki leans over and we chat.
Turns out Kizuki once used to be a boxing promoter, with a swift look around he then pulls up a sleeve to reveal a tattoo.
The tattoo is a Russian word and he tells me he would look after Russian fighters here in Tokyo before going into business in Thailand and splitting his time between Tokyo and there.
“So where do you go tonight when you finish up here? Back to your hotel to write up notes, begin this article” he asks.
I look at my watch; it tells me it is almost 10 pm. The night is merely a youth.
“I think I will probably go back, drop my things and head out for some drinks somewhere. Where do you suggest?” I enquire with the hope of some useful Intel.
Kizuki shoots me a cheeky grin the first time I have seen a mischievous side to my host.
“Head to Shibuya my friend, and go to any of the big nightclubs there. Find a western looking girl who is your height or taller than you, she is likely then to be Russian. Buy her some vodka and you will be taking her home after an hour” he says before finishing his drink. I follow suit and finish my drink also.
“ Can you call me a taxi?” I ask.