Mar 31, 2010

Sawanoi Championship Cup

Sunday fell on the last day of the Fifth Tamagawa Boat Race Sawanoi Championship Cup, hosted by Ome City and co-sponsored by Ozawa Syuzou. Employee A (somehow the employee in charge of blog writing for Ozawa Syuzou is called "Employee A") invited me to join her in going for the boat races. It was the first time for me to go for the boat races.

We met at 10 a.m. At the gate, seemingly a one for vehicles concerned, Employee A said something to a man who appeared to be a gatekeeper. And he opened the gate and allowed us to enter.

That was a big area.
Oh, I found Sawanoi, over there!

Employee A and I came to a big building in the area. There stood a man, seemingly a guard, in front of the building. Again, Employee A murmured something to the guard, and he opened the door close to him, even showing courtesy by leading us to the elevator and pressing the elevator button. Employee A, you're quite reliable.

After getting of the elevator, we headed for the special spectators' room along the long corridor.

The big window of the room looked on the large pond where the races took place.

There was a vending machine that provided people in the room with soft drinks free of charge! (It is inappropriate to call this machine "a vending machine" because it is not selling drinks but giving us free drinks.) With a good seat, nice view, and free soft drinks, all what I had to do was just relaxing and enjoying the race.

After we saw a few races, we went to a restaurant in the area for lunch. I ordered the Today's Lunch, which is a pork cutlet rice bowl. As might be expected of a menu during the Sawanoi Championship Cup event, this lunch was accompanied by a small cup of Sawanoi Hanami Shinshu (花見新酒).

After lunch, we continued watching the races. Later, the ex-Employee A and president O (president of Ozawa Syuzou) joined us in watching the races.

The ex-Employee A and president O later went out of the room since they had to prepare for the commendation ceremony that would occur soon after the last twelfth race. Then, we moved from this comfortably warm room to the open stands exposed to the cold wind.

The stands were not comfortable but a nice place to hear the sounds of the motorboats and watch the races at a short distance. We could feel the power from the last race.

After the last race, soon we moved to the place of the commendation, where the today's winner Mr. Kentaro Yoshida appeared. That bird (costumed person) was Wakey by name. President O gave the winner Mr. Yoshida an extra prize, Sawanoi sake. And, at last but not least, that charming lady acting as master of the ceremony was Miss Miori Nagashima.

We, president, Employee A, ex-Employee A, and I, were to go to Tachikawa for sake drinking. But before leaving the boat race site, they had some clear-up work to do. So, I was waiting for them to finish their work.

While I was waiting and walking around here and there doing nothing, that MC lady came over here. I could talk with her for a while and, of course, I didn't fail to explain the Sawanoi Community and Tokyo Sake Site in the Internet.

"Ichibay, you were talking with Miori, weren't you? You looked so spoony," said Employee A. "It is very natural of me to react in that way," replied I without being embarrassed at all.

Mar 24, 2010

Antique Izakaya Bar "Kagiya"

The izakaya bar "Kagiya," being said to have been built in a town of Edo (old Tokyo) in 1856, now exists in Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum in Koganei City, Tokyo. The exterior and interior of the building of this izakaya represents their restored states as of the time of around 1970.

Usually, this building is an exhibited item of the museum and you can't sit in this izakaya bar for foods or drinks, but they opened it especially on March 21 and 22 of this year. So, we went there on 21, and ordered and drank some sake at the counter in this bar.

I felt as if I were drinking in an izakaya bar 40 years ago. This was an interesting experience.

The photo below shows a kan-doko (sake warmer). This sake warmer holds some water in it, which is placed on the gas stove. When the water inside becomes hot, you can put bottles filled with sake in this sake warmer to warm the sake. This sake warmer has six places to hold sake bottles, but this bar uses only up to four places at a time. If all the six places are occupied by sake bottle, the temperature of the water inside cannot be maintained at a good level for warming sake.

The warmed sake at this izakaya bar was very nice. The sake is reputed Sakura-Masamune from Nada, Kobe Prefecture.

Mar 19, 2010

Niigata Report 3 -- Visit to Ichishima Shuzo

Freed from the pressure of taking the Niigata Sake Expert exam, Monday, on March 15, I, with my friends, visited Ichishima Shuzo in Shibata City, Niigata Prefecture.

Shibata Station is located at a distance of just about a 40-minute train ride from Niigata Station on the JR Hakushin line. Shibata Station was rather a small station, but it looked clean and new. The roundabout in front of the station has quite a large area for taxis to park and looked broad. In front of the station was a ryokan (Japanese inn), and in front of it lay a sidewalk. The sidewalk was under tiled roofs, and so were the bus stops that were placed around the roundabout. They looked somehow gorgeous as a design of the surroundings of a small train station. Were the financial conditions of the city good, or was this due to good taste of citizens in the city? Anyway, I loved this relaxing atmosphere as an entrance to the city.

As soon as leaving the station behind, we caught sight of the big advertisement board bearing the brand name of Omon (王紋). This is the advertisement board displayed on a building of Ichishima Shuzo. Actually, we could reach the brewery just in several minutes from the station. On the way to the brewery, we saw magnificent shrine buildings on our right. This shrine is called Suwa Shrine, and later we knew that the area including this shrine and Ichishima Shuzo is called Suwa-cho, and the brewery were making sake under the brand name of Suwanomori before.

When we got to Ichishima Shuzo, a staff woman came out and showed us the inside of the brewery. We had made a phone call to the brewery in advance so that they could make arrangements for us. But, they seemed to accept, on a daily basis, visitors who wanted to see the brewery and they were accustomed to handle such visitors. So, we didn't have to have made an appointment. We could enter the exhibition room displaying tools used in old days and other display rooms showing historical material, old kimono clothes, and other antiques, but we could not enter rooms where sake production process was occurring. However, of course we didn't miss the most important part, the tasting of sake. The sake we tasted is shown in the video below.

After the tasting, I bought three bottles of sake and five cup sakes. Then, we had lunch at Ochadokoro Ichishima (御茶処いちしま), a restaurant and cafe set up in a Japanese-style house. The 1800-yen lunch course we had was as shown in the photo below. Rice gruel including carrot, chicken, and potato (?), which I ate after sprinkling roasted sesame seeds and red pepper on it, was especially nice. According to the waitress, the recipe of this rice gruel has been handed down from generation to generation in the Ichishima family. Green powdered tea and a small amount of sweets were served to wind up pleasant lunch time.

Mar 18, 2010

Niigata Report 2 -- Niigata Sake Expert Certification "Gold Grade" Test

Niigata Seishu Tatsujin Kentei (Niigata Sake Expert Certification Test) began to be held annually from the year before last. This certification test checks Niigata sake knowledge of the examinees. There are currently three expert grades: bronze, silver, and gold experts. The bronze expert test is the easiest and, in the gold expert test, the highest grade test, examinees are tested also for their ability of sake tasting. I went in for the bronze the year before last and for silver last year. Fortunately, I passed both. On March 14 of this year, I again visited Toki Messe Niigata Convention Center to take an exam for the gold.

The examinees for the gold grade were to be judged by the contents of their essays submitted beforehand and by the performance of a sake tasting ability test, which was conducted on March 14. In this sake tasting test, the examinees tasted 10 sakes.

Most of the 58 examinees are male, and there were probably two or three female examinees among them. They were divided into three group so that each group has 20 members except the last group of 18. Each group was called in sequence to the tasting room.

Now, I explain how the test was conducted below.

The tasting room was further divided into two partitions. In the first partition, there were two tasting benches consisting of several contiguously placed tables. On each tasting bench were two rows of sake bottles and in each sake bottle row were arranged 10 sake bottles. So, there were four sake bottle rows. The bottles in each row were labeled as "イ" to "ヌ" (katakana characters). The sakes in this partition are called group A sake. When the 20 examinees enter the first partition, they were given tasting glasses and then they went to the front of sake bottles so that 5 people stood in front of each row.

In front of me were the bottles labeled as "ト" and "チ." When the time keeper called out, "Start," we began the tasting using the tasting glass handed over to each person. After tasting the sake with "ト" and "チ," I moved to another bottle that was not being tasted by anyone else. Thus, I tasted 10 sakes.

When tasting the sake, we were allowed to take notes of impressions or characters of each sake. We were given 15 minutes for the tasting of group A, and informed of the time when it was five minutes and one minutes before the end of the group A tasting. When the time keeper called "Stop," so did we.

Then, we moved into the next partition. This place had similar setting to that of the previous partition: the same table setting and same arrangement of sake bottles. The only exception is that the bottles in this partition were labeled as "1" to "10." The sakes in this partition are called group B sake.

As we did before, we tasted the 10 sakes and took notes of impressions or characters of each sake. Then, we filled out the answer sheet to match the sakes in group A with those in group B in one-to-one correspondence (on the answer sheet were fields indicated as "イ" to "ヌ" and the examinees were to write the correct number in each field). We had also 15 minutes for group B, but this time included the time required for filling out the answer sheet, so I started writing the numbers in the sheet when I heard the last minute call.

Thus, the above was how the test was conducted. Actually, the test was very difficult and I had a hard time. It was difficult to find remarkable characters in each sake. There are only two or three sakes I think I could match correctly. I felt the given time of 30 minutes was quite short.

I am not sure what the admission criteria of this test are, but anyway I did my best and I can do nothing about the future outcome. If I fail to pass the test, at least I will need to train myself for the next year's test in a systematic manner to develop my sake tasting skills to a higher level.

Mar 16, 2010

Niigata Report 1 -- Sake Festival 2010

Niigata Sake no Jin 2010 (Niigata Sake Festival 2010), which was held on March 13 and 14 at the Wave Market Exhibition Hall at Toki Messe Niigata Convention Center, was featured a commercial television station shortly before the event. And probably because of this, or because of the attendance of a popular singer Ami Suzuki, there were a lot of visitors. According to someone concerned, the event has gathered about 87,000 visitors during the two-day period. A lot of people from Korea and China are also said to have organized tours to attend this event.

When I attended the event in the past two years, I was hanging a tray from the neck, on which I put my sake cup, digital camera, memo pad, etc. while tasting various types of sake from different breweries. However, this year I anticipated the venue was very crowded, so I didn't bring the tray. Also, I took a note of the impression of sake in the past year's events, but I didn't do so this year because writing down my impression on the memo pad seemed somehow cumbersome in the crowded place. I decided rather freely enjoy sake tasting this year.

Now, let me remark on Niigata sake this year. On the whole, the sake was sweetish to me. If I describe the taste of the sake favorably, I can say many of the sake were mild and soft in taste. But I felt something is missing in taste, and I felt like, "Is this Niigata sake I drank before?" I think I can't drink very much of such sake.

When I told about this to a staff member of a brewery, he told me that they polished rice down to low milling rates, and the sake tasted sweetish because such sake exhibited sweetness of rice more. Also, he said sake tended to become sweetish when the economy was dull. However, I probably looked unsatisfied by his explanation, and he brought me a different bottle to taste, saying, "Then, what do you say of this sake?" And I stayed unsatisfied, and then he brought me the next bottle. Well, I understood at least that they are very sensitive to criticism from sake drinkers and are prepared to humbly accept such criticism.

Anyway, I had an impression of Niigata sake, which is different from that of clean and dry taste, which was once thought typical of Niigata sake. Is this because of new rice varieties including "Koshi-tanrei" or increased possibilities of sake brewing due to progress in brewing technology? Or, is this because of new challenges they are making so as to respond to new consumer trends?

This time, we stayed in Niigata Prefecture from Saturday to Monday, and on the last day we visited Shibata City, a next city to Niigata City, to visit Ichishima Shuzo. The sake I sampled at the brewery was typical Niigata sake in taste. The taste was clear and dry. So, I felt somehow at ease.

Mar 9, 2010

Puppet show in Kawano district, Okutama Town, Tokyo

On March 5, my friend and I visited the Kawano district in Okutama Town, Tokyo, where a traditional puppet show was held. In the show, each puppet was manipulated by one person with an unusual method. The puppet manipulator uses both hands and both feet while sitting on a small box-shaped stool which is equipped with wheels. Thus, the puppet manipulator can move freely by the wheels while working the puppet.

On that day, we drove the car past Okutama Station, a terminal station of JR Ome Line, and went further westward along the lakeside of Okutama Lake. After driving across several bridges and through several tunnels, we went through the Kawano Tunnel. Here, the raised land over the tunnel juts out into the lake, and Kawano Seikatsu-kan, the venue of the today's performance, is located on this jutting land.

There was a parking lot just close to the exit of this tunnel, and, later, we were to park the car in this parking lot, but at that time we went further westward for Yamanashi Prefecture side, along the Ome Kaido street, for lunch. Beyond another bridge spanning the lake, there were several restaurants. We entered the one named "Jinya."

Sitting at a table in the restaurant, we heard several kites cry up in the sky. They were wafting on the wind, slowly enjoying a circular flight in a clear sky. The only earlier visitor, who seemed to be a taxi driver from his attire, was hanging about in the restaurant, looking bored. On the street, there was generally a quiet atmosphere except when vehicles passed occasionally.

Both of us ordered soba-teishoku (soba lunch set), which included a bowl of rice, soba noodle, tukemono (vegetable pickles), and konnyaku sashimi, priced at 1400 yen for one helping. The soba had moderate body and was tasty.

After finishing the lunch, we drove back to the parking lot near the Kawano Tunnel, and parked the car there. Kawano Seikatsu-kan was in the distance of a three-minute walk from the parking lot.

The building of the venue was small and it seemed to have two main meeting rooms. The two Japanese style rooms, which seemed usually to be partitioned with removable fusuma doors (sliding doors made of wood and paper), were used as one at that time. One of the rooms had a stage on one side, and a drop curtain was hanging down. We enter the room about 30 minutes before the opening of the show, but there were those with photo and video cameras were occupying their own places. Fortunately, they all were setting their tripods in the rear of the room, and there was much space for us to sit down in the front. So, we occupied quite good places.

There were four plays that day: Goshugi Sanbanso (御祝儀三番叟), and three stories of Hitomaruhime Michiyuki no Dan (人丸姫道行段), Akoya Jigai (阿古屋自害), and Gokuya-yaburi no Dan (獄舎破段) from Hyuga Kagekiyo Ichidaiki (日向景清一代記). However, before starting these plays, major members of those concerned appeared on the stage and neatly sit there in a row. In the center of the row, a puppet, which was probably regarded as the manifestation of the god, was placed, and one of them made a respectful bow to the puppet. Then, he scattered rice on the stage and then to us in the auditorium. Then, they drank a toast of local sake Sawanoi, and clapped hands.

The drop curtain was closed, then wooden clappers were beaten and the start of the show was announced.

The first play Goshugi Sanbanso was a short religious and ceremonious dance, in which the player preyed for the safety of the show and good health of the audience. The puppet looked pretty but the movement was quite dynamic. It danced a pleasant dance, sometimes showing a comical expression on its face. I felt this dance had purified the place.

Following the Goshugi Sanbanso dance, all the subsequent three plays were from Hyuga Kagekiyo Ichidaiki, which depicted the life of a samurai who lived in the late Heian Period (12th century). He was in favor of the Heike clan, which was then in confrontation with the Genji clan. Even after the Heike clan was annihilated by the Genji, he kept attempting to make a telling reply to the Yoritomo, the head of the Genji. But he was finally caught and put in jail by the Genji.

Of the three plays, Hitomaruhime Michiyuki no Dan and Gokuya-yaburi no Dan were performed by students of the local primary and junior high schools, and Akoya Jigai was performed by puppet manipulators from Kawano Kuruma-ningyo Hozonkai (Conservatory Institution of Kawano Kuruma-ningyo).

Not to speak of the performance by the adult, the children's performance was also great. Rich expression in the movements of puppets had power that drew the audience into the story. Since manipulating the puppet with four limbs while sitting on the wheel box, the puppet manipulators had limitations to their movements, but I could see they rather made good use of such limitations in their performance. I think this is a method of expression.

In a scene from Akoya Jigai, the woman named Akoya, who had two children by Kagekiyo, killed them with a knife and then killed herself. Seeing the ghastly manslaughter and suicide performed, I felt like I wanted to withdraw my eyes from the scene for a moment. The performance had such reality. I think an interesting point of this art is that sometimes puppets look like more human than real humans.

This art is supported and maintained by extraordinary efforts made by people in the local districts. The group named Kawano Kuruma-ningyo wo Tsutaeru Kai (Group Bequeathing Kawano Kuruma-ningyo) organizes Kawano Kuruma-ningyo Kodomo Kyoshitsu (Children's Class of Kawano Kuruma-ningyo), in which Kawano Kuruma-ningyo Hozonkai (Conservatory Institution of Kawano Kuruma-ningyo) teaches children from the local community how to manipulate these puppets.

It is difficult for the children to gather for practice of the art because of the poor transportation (actually, we had to visit this place by car because of poor availability of the route bus service). Their activity relies on the support of parents and other people from the local districts. For example, they help send children to and from places of practice and performance, help with preparation and clear-up for practice, and so on.

Now, I have something to wary about. It is the issue of depopulation and aging. With the help of parents, members of the Conservatory Institution are giving instruction in techniques of this performing art, but the children may have to leave their small districts for their study or jobs in the future when they grow up. If you expect that the children will come back home to these places after all to continue making efforts for the preservation and patrimony of this performing art, you are too optimistic. But, I think the tradition of a performing art peculiar to a locality must be maintained by people living in the place. If this Kawano district wanes due to depopulation and aging, the continuation of this performance art is also at stake.

I strongly hope that valuable cultural assets like this performing art of Kuruma-ningyo will be handed down from generation to generation and be preserved for good and all. Each of diverse traditional performing arts in various places reflects the cultural climate of the place. I recommend you to visit any local place, actually see one of their performing arts of the place yourself, and experience its loveliness.

Mar 5, 2010

How to Enjoy Warmed Sake

My deceased grandfather liked drinking sake, especially warmed sake. He had his own electric tabletop stove with a heating element and used it to warm sake. He would set up his stove and place a small kettle or pan containing some water on it. Then, he warmed the water. After the water became hot, he would put a tokkuri (earthenware sake bottle) containing sake in the water. He seemed to enjoy all these steps by himself while watching TV or eating some snacks at the kotatsu (low table covered with a quilt inside which heating is provided).

Now, we have the microwave oven with which we can nuke sake quickly and easily. But, one thing that makes warmed sake fascinating is that we can enjoy waiting for sake to be warmed sometimes patiently or sometimes impatiently. We can take a few sips of the sake to check its temperature and taste halfway while it is being warmed. It is also fun to learn how the taste changes along the change in its temperature, to just chat with friends while eating something, or to do something whatever we like while warming up the sake. So, in such ways, I can have a pleasant time while preparing warmed sake.

By the way, I don't have a tabletop stove and I have been thinking what the best equipment for warming sake on a table is. In my opinion, the requirements are as follows:

1. Sake must be warmed in hot water not with direct fire.
2. The equipment must be placed and used on a table (you need not go to the kitchen to use the microwave oven or gas stove when warming up the second or subsequent servings).
3. A tokkuri containing sake must be able to be warmed in whole (any other container for warming sake should not be needed).

So, I need to get something that satisfies the requirements above in the future. But, now, I am using a small electric pot as seen in the following video:

Mar 2, 2010

Sake Cup with Red Crab on It

Last Saturday, after having lunch at Kajikaen, an old Japanese style inn, which is near JR Mitake Station in Ome City, my friends and I enjoyed walking along the Tama River.

Intermittent gentle rain on that day did not make it difficult for us to stroll leisurely. Because of a cold climate of the city nestling in mountains, Japanese plum flowers were yet to be in full bloom. However, the rain giving moisture to the air was somehow spring-like, and the air seemed to have increased in the degree of opaqueness, which is characteristic of this season in Japan. We rambled while feeling slightly warmish air, which seems almost tangible. Bark of trees, partly wet and partly dry with rain, looked even seductive.

Along the footpath, we could find some teahouses or cafes, which were apparently operating for sightseers. Any one of these teahouses or cafes must be a perfect place to rest while looking down the stream of the Tama River, but I usually visit Sawanoi-en run by Ozawa Syuzou Brewery when I visit this vicinity.

We slowly walked and finally reached Sawanoi-en, which was rather un-crowded probably due to the rain of this day.

As usual, we headed to the sake tasting corner. I drank Kamekuchi, Iroha, Soten Nama, etc. This place always offers 10 or more types of sake brewed at Ozawa Syuzou Brewery (pay tasting). A cup of sake is sold at 200 to 500 yen, including 100 yen for a sake cup. So, you can drink each of the second and subsequent servings at the price of 100 to 400 yen. The Brewery's Daiginjo Bon is priced only at 400 yen (the sake cup holds about 90 cc). In addition, you can keep the cup at home, and later you can bring it to this place to save the price of another sake cup.

So, do not forget to bring your sake cup when it is highly likely for you to drop in Sawanoi-en after your visiting the Okutama or Ome area. However, actually, I often forget to. As a result, now I have five blue-crab sake cups (the cup has an image of a blue river crab on it) on my cupboard.

By the way, I found a red-crab cup this day at the sake tasting corner!

The red-crab cup was not for sale. You can be given one red-crab cup in exchange for ten conventional blue-crab cups. Someone said that Sawanoi-en started such exchange to promote the reuse of blue-crab cups. But, the reuse must be suspended until their customers collect 10 cups! I need to collect five more. OK, I will visit Sawanoi-en until I collect 10 cups!