Jul 04

Sake 101 – Tasting Sake in Tokyo

We’ve always loved sake – since we used to hit the karaoke bars with friends in Sydney’s Kings Cross years ago. We wouldn’t think of eating Japanese food with anything but sake*, but, unlike wine, we knew very little about sake until recently. Being in Tokyo seemed to be a good excuse to learn, so we did two things.

We went to sake shop Hasegawa, pictured above, owned by sake expert Koichi Hasegawa, at Omotesando Hills, for a sake tasting. Hasegawa has English-speaking staff and a bar offering ‘sake flights’ – a selection of 3-4 glasses of different types of sake, so we got to taste seven different sakes in total including a delicious fresh sparkling sake.

We also had a chat to Tokyo-based sake expert Melinda Joe. The bar editor at bento.com and a regular contributor on food and drink to CNNgo.com and the Japan Times, Melinda also blogs about sake at Tokyo through the Drinking Glass.

What is sake exactly?
Sake is a brewed alcoholic beverage made from rice and water, but it sounds terribly boring to describe it that way. The amazing thing is that these simple ingredients can yield such a wide spectrum of flavors.

How would you describe it to someone who has never tried it?
Difficult to answer, as there are so many kinds of sake out there, with different flavour profiles. In general, sake is higher in alcohol than wine, much less tart, and with more pronounced sweetness.

How is sake made?
It’s a complex process that can take anywhere from a month to almost two months after the rice grains are polished. I think the most important point is that, unlike grapes, rice doesn’t contain sugar, which is necessary to make alcohol. In order to convert the starch in rice into sugar, sake makers cultivate a mould called koji-kin onto a portion of the rice grains. (For more info, see this.)

Are there as many different types of sake as there are wine varietals?
There are thousands of different sakes on the market, but there aren’t as many as wine. In terms of production, there are five very broad categories (see here for more detail), but there are loads of subcategories as well. Take a look at my recent sake article on CNNGo.com to see what I mean.

How do you judge a good sake? Is there a vocabulary for sake as with wine?
Let your own palate be the guide! It’s basically the same as tasting wine. Traditionally, people describe the flavour profile of a sake in terms of five attributes: sweetness, acidity, dryness, astringency (kind of akin to the sensation from tannins in wine), and umami, the rich flavor of deliciousness found in foods like cheese, tomatoes, and mushrooms. Unlike in wine, length in the finish is usually not considered a desirable quality. There are loads of expressions in Japanese to describe sake’s other characteristics, but there is really no right or wrong way to talk about sake!

When should we drink sake and can it be matched with food in the way we pair wine and food?
I think sake is best with meals. Sake can pair with almost any kind of food. It’s a terrifically food-friendly drink and you don’t have to limit yourself to Japanese food. Lots of people are experimenting with pairing sake with different cuisines, and that’s very exciting. In San Francisco, for instance, Beau Timkin of True Sake does these great pairing experiments, where he pits sake against wine and beer and matches sake with various cuisines.

Tips for matching sake and food?
Sake is high in amino acids and so pairs brilliantly with umami-rich foods like fish, meats and cheese (yes, cheese!). Like with wine, you should think of matching weights when matching food and sake. For example, I wouldn’t put a light and aromatic Daiginjo sake with a beef stew, nor would I recommend a funky aged Koshu with white-fish sashimi, but you really have to experiment for yourself. The good thing is that sake will give you a lot of latitude with regard to pairing.

Is there any etiquette involved in drinking sake?
In Japanese culture, it’s polite to pour sake for others, so you’re not supposed to pour for yourself. It’s a nice custom that encourages interaction. Keep in mind that it’s quite easy to get drunk. Sake is usually 15-16% alcohol and some can be as high as 18%, so pace yourself and drink water. Failing that, try to make sure that everyone else is as wasted as you are.

How can a novice to sake learn about sake in Tokyo?
John Gauntner does a professional course in English twice a year in Tokyo. Highly recommended! See John Gauntner’s Sake World, Beau Timkin’s True Sake, Tim Sullivan’s Urbansake, Etsuko Nakamura’s Tokyofoodcast, and Robert-Gilles Martineau’s Shizuoka Sake, to name a few. (Also see Melinda’s sake blog Tokyo through the Drinking Glass and her articles about sake for the Japan Times including her recent story on sake and piece about rice).

What makes sake special?
The more I learn about sake, the more it fascinates me. I actually spent a week in Osaka last year helping out at a brewery and I have the utmost respect for the people who make it.

Your favourite sake-drinking spots?
Seigetsu in Kagurazaka is a lovely little izakaya with good sake and an English menu; ditto Aburiya Fudo in Azabu Juban. Buchi in Shibuya is a standing bar that serves one-cups. A super-casual place (more like a bar) that’s very down-to-earth is Ippo in Ebisu. (Ippo is featured here on CNNGo TV; Melinda is at the sushi bar!) They also have great fresh fish and one of the guys there speaks English, but the sake list is bilingual. Kuri is a sake specialist in Ginza and Shimbashi — very nice, great tasting flights so that makes it easy for beginners. The Shimbashi branch is more comfy and more spacious. I also love Yoshimoto in Shinjuku and Seigetsu in Kagurazaka. Note that Finding English-speaking staff can be challenging, but the places above have English menus.

The best place to buy sake?
Hasegawa has branches in Tokyo station, in Omotesando Hills and in Azabu Juban. Hasegawa usually has someone who can speak English on site, so ask the staff for suggestions. If you’re feeling really adventurous, head out to Araiyakushi-mae on the Seibu-Shinjuku line to a store called Aji no Machidaya. They have a fantastic selection of cute and kitschy one-cup premium sakes there. They don’t speak English, but it’s worth taking a gamble on the labels because your friends will love them.

Etsuko Nakamura, who took us to Tsukiji Fish Markets (see our posts, part 1 and part 2) also runs Sake Tours. Unfortunately Etsuko was off on a tour so we couldn’t interview her for this story, but we also suggest you take a look at her site Tokyofoodcast.

* okay, with Japanese beer too.

Jul 02

Tokyo Take-Homes: Kitsch Keepsakes for Kids (and Big Kids)


My, how the souvenirs for kids sold in Tokyo have changed since my mother returned from Japan when I was a kid in the early ’70s, bringing back suitcases bursting with gifts.

Then, my Mum brought me a beautiful white-faced geisha in a fragile glass case with black lacquer trim, dressed in an exquisite kimono covered with cherry blossoms. She gave me a matching silk kimono of my own and kanzashi (hair ornaments), and dressed me up for photos (unknowingly starting an obsession with fancy dress and costume parties, I have now fortunately grown out of).

There were kupie dolls, countless fans, lots of lovely stationery, and I had a collection of 3D postcards of Japanese women in kimonos standing with parasols on pretty bridges and in front of temples that she had posted to me.

The 3D postcards are still popular but now they feature manga characters instead and the Japanese women have been replaced by teddy bears in similar settings, bizarrely dressed in kimonos, as above.

Souvenirs for kids are much more colourful and kitsch these days: robots, plastic figurines, and fluffy toys, kokeshi dolls with bobbing heads, toe-socks featuring samurai warriors, sumo wrestlers, and the ubiquitous lucky cats or maneki neko, which feature on all manner of mementoes, from key rings to charms, fridge magnets to mobile phone accessories.

Naturally, I couldn’t resist buying some for my niece and nephews, but I was kind of hoping I might find an elegant geisha in a glass case somewhere… not that I’m going to cart a geisha half away round the world, but I would have liked to have taken a photo for my Mum. Now, I wonder which storage unit that kimono is in…

Looking for Tokyo souvenir ideas? Do take a look at my other posts on Tokyo take-homes, including Stationery Souvenirs, Quintessential Keepsakes and Supermarket Snack Food Souvenirs.

* while our new friend Matt Alt loves robots, no, Terence is not into kid’s toys, especially Geisha dolls, this post was by Lara.

Jun 30

Tsukiji Fish Markets, Tokyo: Part 2

After visiting the Tsukiji fish markets proper (see Part 1 of this post), our guide for the day, Tokyo foodie and sake expert, Etsuko Nakamura, takes us across the road for a wander around the outer market.

“For me, this is just as interesting, if not more interesting in some ways, than visiting the fish market, and definitely more interesting than the tuna auction!” Etsuko tells us as she leads us on a tour of what is a paradise for foodies, where scores of shops sell everything from handmade knives to kitchen supplies and each shop specializes in a particular product or type of produce.

Four or five shops only sell Tamago-Yaki or Japanese omelette, in different versions, from sweet to salty, plain, with seaweed or vegetables. There are tofu specialists selling every conceivable form of tofu – they even sell tofu ice-cream! Countless shops sell nori (seaweed) and nothing else – the seaweed with wasabi that they were giving away samples of was pretty wild!

Etsuko takes us to a shop specialising in ‘unagi’ or dried fish in all its many shapes and forms, which she reveals is actually seasonal. “It’s so popular in Japan because it’s healthy with loads of vitamin B and is a great energy source,” she says. July is the month to buy it and there’s a particular day when there is so much unagi that the smell is enough to get people down here.

Many of the shops only focus on specialty products from a particular region. One shop focuses on the finest quality beef from Yoshizawa, another on seafood and the colossal summer rock oysters from Ivakaki that we’ve been enjoying while we’ve been here. They’re so tempting some visitors bought them on the spot and downed them at the stand!

Other shops specialise in bonito flakes (Katsuobushi), used to make dashi – the stock that forms the base of many soups and sauces in Japanese cooking. The customers were all regulars getting their stock to make stock.

At a shop specialising in products from the region of Kanogazawa on the coast, Etsuko points out some tarako or spiced cod roe from Kyusho, which she tells us you can eat by itself with rice or can cook and serve with noodles or even pasta. Just when we see the connection to the Italian bottarga (see this post), we spot some bottarga displayed on a stand beside the tarako. “Here it’s called karasumi, and we slice it thinly and serve it with sake – it’s the best pairing possible!” Etsuko says, her face lighting up. Sake is her specialty.

“Ah, this is interesting for you!” Etsuko exclaims, pointing to another display at a nearby shop, “These are the salted ovaries from the fugo (poisonous blowfish). You slice it very thinly and eat it by itself or grilled. They haven’t figured out why preserving the ovaries stops it from being poisonous. It’s very salty but delicious.”

Etsuko takes us into a shop that initially appears to specialise in frozen food, but which Etsuko reveals is the place where Tokyo’s gastronomic chefs come to buy the pre-prepared bits and pieces, ingredients and garnishes that are used to create the intricate dishes that make up the multi-course meals that comprise a Kaiseki feast. “Kaseki was the meal that originally accompanied tea ceremony,” Etsuko tells us, “So the dishes were simple, and pure, but elegant. Now the dishes are so much more elaborate.” These are the places the Michelin guide loves.

We ask Etsuko for a recommendation as to one we should try because we’ve found the sheer number of places overwhelming and it’s hard to know which guides to trust. Etsuko sighs. “It’s difficult. Japanese people simply don’t eat at these places, at the places that foreigners do – unless it’s a businessman trying to impress some people, or it’s a very special occasion. These places are so expensive…”

Etsuko’s response is similar when we ask her for tips for the best sushi after we see tourists crammed into a sushi joint that is in all the guidebooks. She screws up her nose at the particular place, telling us it’s no better than any other sushi joint. Not to mention that the whole sushi breakfast thing is something only the tourists do. You’ll see far more rubber boots at the local noodle joints and sandwich shops at the markets than in the sushi restaurants – for a variety of reasons.

“There are so many great sushi places in Tokyo and no one place is going to be that much better than another one at a certain standard. You can pay anything from ¥5000 for a set to ¥30,000 for sushi in a top place, but locals would never pay that much unless it was a very special occasion or it was a business meal,” she says. “All the sushi is fresh and good in Tokyo. Just go to the places that locals go.” As we discovered, the main difference at the top end is the reputation of the chef and the chef’s presentation of the sushi.

As if to prove her own point, when we ask Etsuko where we can take her for lunch, she leads us out of the markets to a simple teishoku (set menu) place. It’s a sultry day, it’s not yet noon and the outside tables, even those in the sunshine, are packed, along with the tables inside. We bag a table in the shade as soon as one is free, and while we’re downing icy cold beers, long lines begin to form out front.

Each day there are different specials – today it’s sea urchin (which Lara and Etsuko opt for) and a local fish (which I choose) – and each set menu comes with vegetables, sauces, pickles, miso and rice for the equivalent of US$9 or UK£6 per person, along with some of the cheapest beers we’ve bought in Tokyo. There are no English menus, staff don’t speak English (but it would be easy enough to point if Etsuko wasn’t here), and thankfully, there aren’t any tourists lining up, so it’s right off the radar.

If you’d like to hire Etsuko for a wander around Tsukiji fish markets or a sake related tour contact her via her blog Tokyofoodcast or her Sake Tours site.

Jun 30

Taking Stock at Tsukiji Fish Markets in Tokyo

Although many of our readers seem to think we’re on a one-year round-the-world food odyssey rather than a contemporary version of the Grand Tour – we just like visiting food markets and talking to chefs, waiters, restaurateurs, and ‘foodies’, that’s all – I was ambivalent about visiting the tuna auction at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Markets.

Don’t get me wrong, I was eager to see Tsukiji (pronounced su-ki-jee), just not at 4am with a hundred tourists who read about it being the thing to do in one of those Top Ten Tokyo stories or 1000-Must-Do-Things-Before-You-Die books*.

Most wholesale fish markets around the world don’t allow tourists into their auction centres for a reason – because they can distract the auctioneer, they can get in the road of guys busting their butts to earn a living, and, due to the sheer number of tourists who don’t know how to turn their flashes off on their point-and-shoot cameras, they could end up seeing a tuna hook get used on a mammal instead of a fish.

I was therefore comforted when Tokyo food and sake expert Etsuko Nakamura of Tokyofoodcast.com, who offered to be our personal guide to the fish markets, agreed and suggested we meet much later instead. Besides, I’m usually not more than a third through the way of sleeping off an evening at an izakaya when the clock strikes 3.30am.

When we arrived at the all-too-sensible hour of 9am the markets were pretty much free of tourists, most of whom were probably off doing what they were told – lining up outside one of the couple of sushi joints that seem to be mentioned in every guidebook (a sure reason to stay away!), while we hit the markets.

The markets are astounding, a real testament to Japan’s collective love of seafood. Even at what was the tail-end of the working day for Tokyo’s seven major wholesalers, and the 700-odd businesses that buy from them to sell to the city’s restaurants and retailers, the energy of the place was still palpable – as you can imagine it would be at the world’s largest fish market, that sells 7% of all of Japan’s seafood!

On the day we visited, there was a great vibe, which Etsuko said she could sense straight away, and put down to good sales that morning. We’d heard from locals that the workers aren’t particularly friendly to visitors, who they see as a hindrance more than anything, getting in their way and occasionally injuring themselves.

However, one fishmonger who had a whole tuna on his bench enthusiastically called us over to have a closer look at the fish when he saw us. The tuna – a “small one” at 70 kilos – had already been sold to a couple of sushi places and they were starting to portion the fish when we arrived.

We watched the guy expertly quarter the tuna, and then, with a smile, he unexpectedly passed me a plastic take-away tray, poured some soy sauce in it, and with his huge knife cut a few slithers off the tuna and put them in the tray. It was, without doubt, one of my most sublime eating experiences ever. “Wow! That’s never happened before,” said Etsuko, who has been to the markets more times than she can count, “It’s amazing that just yesterday this fish was swimming in the ocean.” And that’s how it tasted, pure and fresh, like the cleanest of sea waters.

The vendor was pleased we were impressed and offered me the head of the tuna to hold for a photo op, and gestured for us to have our photo taken together. Etsuko said she didn’t know the guy. Maybe he mistook me for an ageing celebrity chef!

As we leisurely wandered through the markets, Etsuko pointed out different types of fish and seafood, their value, how they’re used, and shared some anecdotes. The fishmongers continued to work, although no doubt at a significantly more relaxed pace than a couple of hours earlier, as they cleaned, filleted, packaged and and labelled their sales. Some were taking a coffee or breakfast break, others were enjoying a quick read of the newspaper before finishing up for the day.

While the tourists were now ensconced in the popular sushi joints, we headed off to explore the rest of the markets. We’d already enjoyed the best ‘sashimi’ ever and were keen to see what else the markets had to offer. More on that experience in our next post.

Tips for Visiting Tsukiji Fish Markets:

  •  Skip the tuna auction in the wee hours and visit the market around 9am when the pace is more relaxed, fishmongers are friendlier, and there are fewer tourists
  • Wear practical, closed-in, flat-soled shoes so you don’t slip (there’s water everywhere) – flip flops and open shoes are not allowed.
  • Don’t take large bags that will get in the way, and definitely no backpackers; they’re not allowed either.
  • Don’t wear anything special as you’re sure to lean up against icy, wet, seafood stands as you try to stay out of the way.
  • Even at 9am, the fishmarkets are still a little chaotic – this is a busy workplace after all – so have a few coffees before you go so you’re alert.
  • Keep your wits about you – it’s a dangerous place – there are trucks, forklifts, trolleys, and carts constantly moving here and there, and some seriously sharp knives being used!
  • Whatever you do, don’t touch the seafood! Tourists were purportedly banned from the auction for a while after one idiot apparently licked a very expensive tuna for a photo op!
  • While you could visit on your own (it’s not the confusing “maze” it’s often described as being – seafood stalls are logically ordered in rows, so start at one end and zig-zag your way to the other), you’ll get far more out of the experience if you visit with a knowledgeable local guide such as Etsuko.
  • Save an hour or two for the outer food market, which is just as fascinating and fun.
  • The nearest metro stop is Tsukiji on the Hibiya line, which is just one block from the outer market. It’s a short stroll to the Ginza from the market so you could explore that area when you’re done.


* The rules changed restricting the number of tourists entering the auction area, for the reasons I mentioned above, as well as reasons to do with sanitation and the temperature of the facility changing due to all those warm bodies. Rumour has it that the rules could change again and tourists might be restricted all together from the auction area, so check the official Tuskiji Fish Market site before you set your alarm clock!

See Part 2 of this post here.

Jun 29

Tokyo Take-Homes: Stationery Souvenirs

Stationery makes a terrific souvenir, especially for long-term travellers, because it’s not only pretty, but it’s practical, affordable, and weighs nothing at all.

I’m an incessant scribbler, so wherever I go, I’ll buy a few notebooks. Postcards also make a light souvenir for the kilo-conscious traveller. I also use postcards as ‘thank you’ cards and to send ‘home’ with gifts. Notepaper always comes in handy and gimmicky cards like the sumo wrestler cut-out card and the fan card, above, make presents in themselves. Stationery stores in Tokyo also sell calendars, address books, calligraphy sets, fans, boxes, knick-knacks, and these days even mouse pads.

The Japanese are masters at creating paper or washi – the finest paper of all that’s almost like fabric – and creating things with paper, and Kyukyodo are the specialists with a long tradition of producing exquisite paper products. They opened their first store in Kyoto in 1663 and their Tokyo shop in 1880 in the same location as the current Ginza store, where I bought most of the lovely things above. The same family still owns the business too! Kyukyodo is always busy with Japanese, including kimono-clad women stocking up on washi paper and seasonal cards. They also wrap beautifully so when they ask you if it’s a gift say it is even if it isn’t!

I bought some wonderful postcards of woodblock prints, also above, which you can find at Kyukyodo and Tokyu Hands, as well as museum gift shops. You’ll also find old and new prints at Hara Shobo in the booksellers’ district, and, if you’re after collector’s quality prints, from Ebisu-Do Gallery which also sells reproductions by the likes of Harunobu, Hiroshige and Hokusai.

You can also buy stationery at Tokyo department stores Mitsukoshi, Matsuzakaya, and Matsuya, as well as Tokyu Hands and Loft at Shibuya-ku.

Where do you like to buy stationery in Tokyo? All tips welcome in the Comments below.

Looking for Tokyo souvenir ideas? Do take a look at my other posts on Tokyo take-homes, including Quintessential Keepsakes, Supermarket Snack Food Souvenirs, and Kitsch Keepsakes for Kids.

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