Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Downpour

A summer of constant rain in the Kanto plain inspired the Ajimi Team to seek higher ground when planning a recent vacation. Up we went by midnight bus from Tokyo to arrive at dawn in the mountain town of Hida Takayama (飛騨高山) thence several days later to Matsumoto (松本)for what we hoped would be four days of hiking in the hills, interspersed with onsen visits and great regional cuisine. But the rain followed us, and whenever we passed a television set it was showing images of the entire midsection of Japan awash. We did make an attempt on our second day in Takayama to follow the trail of shrines and temples that meanders through Higashiyama (東山) but the downpour got the better of us and we were driven indoors.

The town of Takayama is often referred to as "Little Kyoto," both because of the Higashiyama district patterned on the more famous one in Kyoto and because of the wealth of historic architecture that lines the streets at the center of town. A large number of old merchant dwellings and storehouses are used today as retail establishments ranging from twee boutiques to sake breweries where -- you guessed it -- the Ajimi Team managed to overcome its disappointment over the foul weather.

One very nice thing about certain Japanese towns, Takayama included, is the way they are integrating regional cuisine into their tourism promotion. Almost every town in Japan is "famous" for one kind of food or another and, although local lampposts and tourist literature can be festooned with images of the relevant fruit, grain, animal, flower or tuber, encounters with the actual foodstuff can be rather underwhelming (although we learned later on this trip from a resident of Chiba prefecture that certain famous watermelons in that part of Japan really are remarkable in their delicacy and sweetness and we should make a special trip to experience them next July). The Hida region is famous for its beef, the yumminess of which we will report on later. But we were pleasantly surprised by the ubiquity and quality of the jizake (地酒) or local nihonshu and the multifarious circumstances in which one could sample it.

A local sake association publishes a lovely guide -- only in Japanese as far as we know -- to 13 Takayama sake breweries, including descriptions of their products and suggested pairings with local cuisine. The Ajimi Team didn't make it to all 13 breweries, but we settled in for extensive samplings at several and three tasting experiences were especially noteworthy.

Our first stop was at Sansha (山車) where the main attraction was their signature sake ladled from a small cask for a bargain 250 yen per serving. We sank into comfy benches surrounding an unlit but cozy hearth. The woman serving us explained that this was "old style" nihonshu, and we labeled this and several other sakes we would sample in Takayama "pre-central-heating nihonshu" with a lingering sharpness that would come in handy during cold mountain nights. Beyond the counter was another area with the original boiler, curing tanks, a picnic bench, several chairs, and a collection of dilapidated machinery whose original function was a mystery. We enjoyed several additional cups of Sansha and namazake (生酒 - NB: the storm was raging at this point) sitting back in the storage shed amid the not-unpleasant aroma of machine oil.

At the other end of the spectrum, both in terms of the taste of the nihonshu and tastefulness of the surroundings, was the Niki (二木)brewery. There, the heavy beams and white plaster walls of the tasting room echo the style of traditional Takayama mercantile architecture, but are a recent addition to the original 200+ year-old building. We ordered a flight of 5 samples, all lovely, but lighter and more floral than the Sansha. The staff there were very welcoming and gave us an English translation of a chart outlining the sake brewing process.

Then it was on to Kawajiri (川尻), an older style sake brewery with a couple of details that set it apart. First, they offered coasters for each sample that were miniatures of their respective labels, very handy for making notes and remembering what the hell one is drinking on what might very well be the nth brewery visit of the day. Second, they had a stuffed tanuki. Any experience, we believe, is enhanced by the presence of a stuffed tanuki. This tanuki was sans chapeau but was otherwise accessorized like the pottery variety, clutching an account book and sake flask. Here, we tasted the very robust Masamune (正宗) which is aged for two years after a brewing process that lends it it both a light yellow cast and a dizzying 20 proof alcohol rating.

Each year, from early January to mid-March, the sake breweries of Takayama open their doors to visitors. For further information about visiting these and other breweries, click here.

VS

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