Tokyo is both a playground and pressure cooker: for the young students, creatives and tourists who explore its pleasures it’s a hyper-theme park, while for the perennially fatigued salarymen and women that help oil its economic wheels it is a stressful place. The city’s drinking holes straddle both worlds, providing social lubrication for the pleasure seekers and offering a release valve for the stressed workers.
O sake, お酒, or liquor, is a vital ingredient in Japanese culture and the country has some world standard beers, while quality whiskeys do a good trade here as do cocktails and the vodka-like shochu, a distilled spirit that has become a staple at drinking parties. Some of the best drinking, though, is to be had in Japan’s finest contribution to alcohol, nihonshu, 日本酒, – or saké as it’s commonly referred to abroad.
Saké, properly known as seishu, 清酒, is a (usually) clear, rice-based fermented liquor that can be enjoyed warm, chilled or at room temperature; it’s available in varying degrees of sweetness and dryness and offers a breadth of quality and flavors not unlike wine. Made primarily of rice and water, the water, known as shikomi yōsui, 仕込用水, is sourced from pure springs and underground wells and the rice, known as sakamai, 酒米, comprises grains that are bigger and contain more starch than the varieties of rice grown for eating. One of the main sakamai used in saké is the harder to harvest, more expensive shuzo kotekimai, 酒造好適米, in its many varieties.
Quality varies greatly, from the futsūshu, 普通酒, that is brewed with quantities of added alcohol, makes up the bulk of sake produced and sold and is best served as atsukan – warm – in tokkuri and choko ceramic carafes and cups or square wooden masu boxes, to disguise any lack of finesse in the saké, to the premium tokutei meishoshu, 特定名称酒, sakes whose ingredients are purer and flavors and aromas more delicate and are best served by the bottle, lightly chilled – reishu – or at roughly room temperature – hiya.
Saké – nihonshu – dates back to the 6th Century and has a long association with Shinto, a fact that is today evidenced by the colorful saké barrels donated to and displayed at shrines. It is used in many Shinto rituals, and is enjoyed by Japanese during festivals such as the New Year oshogatsu celebrations when the spiced toso, 屠蘇, or milky amazake, 甘酒, is drunk.
Good nihonshu is produced in many parts of Japan and is the result of various factors: the quality of rice and water and the seasonal vagaries of the prefectures from which they’re sourced as well as the fermentation processes and skills of the master brewer, or tōji, 杜氏. While the nuances of nihonshu can be daunting, the main thing to consider is how sweet or dry you like your saké. Nihonshu is graded either side of 0, so the higher the + number the drier the drink and conversely, the higher the – number the sweeter the drink.
Additionally, premium tokutei meishōshu,or special designation sake, is categorized according to the way it has been brewed:
Junmai, 純米, describes saké in which no extra alcohol has been added to the brew during fermentation. It has a full body and is quite acidic but is neither too sweet nor dry and has a mild aroma.
Honjōzō, 本醸造, saké has had a little alcohol added to it and as a result is sweeter, smoother, lighter and more aromatic.
Ginjō, 吟醸, is highly fragrant saké that is light and contains delicate flavors. It’s the result of a high degree of polishing (40% of grains removed) and low fermentation temperatures.
Daiginjō, 大吟醸, is milled more than ginjo, leaving only 50% of the rice grains, producing complex nihonshu that is light and fruity, highly fragrant with balanced acidity and sweetness.
In addition there’s namazake, 生酒, which is unpasteurized, freshly produced nihonshu that can have any of the characteristics of the above designations but has a short shelf life.
Let’s look at a few places in Tokyo that are serious about their nihonshu.
A snug bar on the second floor of a seedy looking building in the back streets of Ginza’s 5-chome district, Kuri is all about nihonshu. The tiny shop stocks over 100 varieties and still manages to stock weekly specials and a generous selection of shochu. Best time to go is weeknights when it’s open till 3 am. There’s also a slightly bigger branch in Shimbashi, also on the second floor above a Doutor cafe, with a similar set up, though closing time there is around midnight.
This rustic little izakaya is just west of Shibuya in suburban Sangenjaya. Not only do they stock over 100 varieties of nihonshu; it’s a good place to try namazake and their extensive menu is also full of mouth-watering delicacies. The ‘red devil’ has a warm, relaxing vibe, and despite its reputation the out of the way location gives akaoni very much a local feel.
Located in the grid of streets west of Shinjuku station on the way to the Tokyo Tochō buildings in the Nishi Shin Building, this great little bar/eatery is hidden on the 3rd floor, ironically above a Matsuya fast food outlet. Its understated setting belies the excellent range of nihonshu and delicious izakaya snacks prepared to accompany them.
This bar is in Ebisu’s western neighborhood, an area whose back streets are renowned for its drinking holes and izakaya. Ippo states its intentions on the bright neon sign that adorns the front of the wooden shack that houses the bar. Fish and sake: fresh seasonal fish from the country’s leading fish market and more than fifty types of sake – not as many as of the other bars mentioned, but the menu here is available in English.
Hasegawa is a saké retailer with a number of locations in Tokyo: Head office is in Kameido and there are branches in the basement level GranSta shopping complex at JR Tokyo Station, in Azabu Juban and in the OmoteSando Hills shopping complex – this shop on the 3rd floor also has a tasting bar. If you’d like to do some saké tasting or buy some bottles to take home, Hasegawa is the place to go.
Now that you’re all read up on saké, you’re ready to experiment in the field: Kanpai!