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Sake January 4, 2011

Posted by Dru in Food.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Sake” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/s2liAm-sake

One of the most famous drinks to come out of Japan has to be sake.  It is a clear alcoholic drink that is enjoyed in various ways.  It is often said to be “rice wine” because of the taste.  The subtle differences in flavour and ability to pair it with most types of food, depending on where it’s made, creates this comparison.  However, unlike wine, it is brewed like beer.  The main reason no one would ever compare it to beer is because beer is carbonated.  In reality, sake cannot be compared to anything.  No one would ever consider comparing an apple and an orange, so we really shouldn’t be comparing sake with anything at all.  In fact, saying the word sake in Japan would only make people confused.  The true translation of sake is “alcohol” or an “alcoholic drink”.  The true translation should be “nihonshu”, Japanese alcohol.

Nihonshu can be found in almost every city in Japan.  Local nihonshu, however, is sometimes hard to find.  If you travel to Nigata, north of Tokyo, or the Kyoto region, you should be able to find a plethora of local nihonshu brands.  There are essentially only four varieties of nihonshu, Jumai, Honjozo, Ginjo, and Daiginjo.  Like wine, if you don’t drink a lot of nihonshu, it will be difficult to tell the differences in each type.  In Japan, the easiest way to tell what type of taste a brand has is to check its “level”.  Japan has a level classification to define how spicy or how sweet a bottle of nihonshu is.  A high number implies a spicy taste, while a negative number implies a sweet taste.   Playing it safe by buying a “0” is okay, but generally, like wine, spicy nihonshus are good with meat, and sweet ones are better with fish or vegetables.  When drinking only nihonshu, it’s up to your own personal taste buds to decide which is best for you.

In Japan, and around the world, you will be able to find various types of nihonshu.  Price makes a huge difference between a good and a bad nihonshu.  Paying less than $10 a litre will almost always guarantee bad sake.  In Japan, you can buy sake from a roughly 300mL jar for about 200 Yen.  This is probably the worst thing you can do.  The nihonshu is mass produced to such a degree that it generally doesn’t taste good.  For a small bottle, roughly 355mL, you can expect to pay at least 500 Yen, but that can also go up to 1000 Yen.  When leaving Japan via the airport, you can find several 750mL bottles running around 2000 Yen.  These are all valuable bottles and you can never go wrong with them.  I have never personally purchased any special nihonshu bottles, such as those in a ceramic jar or ceremonial barrel, so be aware that it may or may not taste good.  Do note that prices in North America should be at least 50~100% more than Japanese prices.

There are many ways to drink nihonshu.  You can look all over the internet and find different opinions on how to drink it.  Essentially, nowadays, most of the people I have talked to enjoy cold nihonshu.  Heated nihonshu is generally for the winter season, and there are specific types of nihonshu for the winter season.  When going to an izakaya, the most common way to be served nihonshu is in a shot glass.  This is also how I generally enjoy nihonshu.  It’s simple and it keeps the flavours in tact.  You can also drink nihonshu from a “choko” which is essentially a small ceramic tea cup.  This is the very same cup you will see that comes in a “sake set” where you get a bottle and two cups.  While this is nice, a shot glass is more versatile.  There are some special cups used to drink nihonshu.  “Sakazuki” is a saucer like dish, about the size of a small tea saucer.  It is almost exclusively used in ceremonies and highly unlikely to be seen in a restaurant as it can only hold a small amount.  More commonly seen in Japan is a “Masu”.  This is a small wooden box made of hinoki or sugi.  Generally, these are fragrant woods that add to the flavour of the nihonshu.  High end restaurants may use real masu boxes, but regular izakayas tend to use plastic versions that are lacquered.  It’s customary to put a shot glass inside the box and fill it till it is overflowing.  The best way to drink the nihonshu is to sip it from the glass until it’s possibly half empty.  Then, you can pour the nihonshu that’s in the masu into the glass.

Nihonshu is one of my favourite drinks in Japan.  I don’t really drink enough of it, to be honest.  Like any alcohol, it isn’t for everyone, but if you only drink the cheap stuff, you won’t like it.  It can be an acquired taste as well, so just do your best and over time, maybe you’ll grow to like it.  This is only a basic introduction, so please read some of the following guides if you want to find out more.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sake (sake basics)
http://www.jetro.org/trends/sake_intro.php (a good introduction to sake)
http://www.sake-world.com/index.html (everything you need to know about sake)

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

Matsuyama July 14, 2009

Posted by Dru in Japan, Shikoku, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Matsuyama” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-cN

Matsuyama is a city located on the western side of Shikoku.  It is, by some standards, considered the largest city on Shikoku, but this is debated with the city of Takamatsu.  The city itself has a very small feel, yet has enough shops to keep city folk happy.  It is also an excellent place to see different things at a somewhat relaxed pace.  You’ll be able to see a castle, onsen, parks, and temples, all in one city.  If you don’t have a lot of time, Matsuyama is a great place to see everything in a couple of days.

The heart of Matsuyama has to be the castle.  Matsuyama-jo is located on Mount Katsuyama.  This is a relatively small mountain that provides a nice getaway from the city itself.  There are about four different routes to climb Katsuyama to reach Matsuyama-jo.  Heading to the east side of the mountain is by far the easiest way to get to the top.  You can ride the gondola, or take the chairlift.  Both take roughly the same amount of time to reach the top.  The chairlift is a single chair that slowly climbs the mountain.  It is a very Japanese style of moving people.  It is very peaceful, providing beautiful views of the city as you climb the side of the mountain.  Riding the gondola is better if you have many small children with you.  The gondola is usually packed, so the view depends on where you are inside the car.  At the top of the gondola station, you’ll be greeted by many shop keepers trying to entice you to buy one of the citrus fruit drinks and bring a bottle home with you.  It is a nice refreshing drink, especially if you decide to hike up the mountain, but a little expensive.  Depending on the day you visit the castle, you might also find a few activities in the outer courtyard.  On the day I visited, there were opportunities to dress up in period clothing, such as a samurai, or in an old style kimono.  The castle itself is a well preserved original.  As I mentioned before, Shikoku has many wonderful and original, castles, unlike Honshu, the main island.  This one is no exception.  Upon paying the entrance fee, you will have a great opportunity to have spectacular views of the city.  The inside of the castle is extremely busy.  You must remove your shoes and wear slippers as you walk through the castle.  Unlike Kochi-jo, there isn’t much to see or do in this castle.  It is too busy to place dioramas, so you can only enjoy the original architecture and views from inside the castle.  It was amazing to see the Japanese people lining up in a very orderly fashion to leave the main tower of the castle.  If you have the energy, I would also recommend hiking down the mountain and taking a look at a shrine located halfway up the gondola.  If you head to the south side of the mountain, you can also visit Bansuiso.  It is a French style villa that is now part of an art gallery.  Unfortunately, I didn’t visit this gallery, but if I do return to Matsuyama, I will.

Matsuyama has two stations named Matsuyama, JR Matsuyama and Matsuyama-shi.  When you travel to Matsuyama, it is important to know which one you are at.  JR Matsuyama is a nice station, but it is highly focused on travellers only.  There are very few things to do around the station itself.  Located a fair walk west of the station is Matsuyama Central Park.  It is a more secluded park that is probably used by locals rather than everyday tourists.  It does have its own “castle”, but it is modeled after European castle walls, rather than Japanese style castles.  Matsuyama-shi station is more interesting.  It is the start of Matsuyama’s long shopping arcade.  As I have said, countless times, shopping arcades in Japan tend to look and feel the same.  Matsuyama’s shopping arcade is no different.  It is definitely worth a visit as it is somewhat unique.  I would probably take a quick look through the arcade, but focus more on the area just below Matsuyma-jo.  Around the gondola, you will be able to enjoy a more touristy and local experience.  This is also the location of the Matsuyama Guesthouse.

Matsuyama Guesthouse was my home for one night.  As a tourist on a budget, hostels are a great way to save money.  Although the sign says it’s a guesthouse, you can also rent rooms for one night.  The day I arrived, the hostel filled up completely.  There were two long term guests.  One was a New Yorker who had lived in China for a couple years.  He was just starting out in Japan, and decided Matsuyama would be his base.  There were also a couple of American hikers who were hiking all around Shikoku, but had to stop and return to Tokyo as they needed to get back to work.  An older Australian couple also came by.  They shared their stories of travelling throughout Japan and how they were going to another country, maybe Korea, to visit their son.  I also got to meet a Dutch “kid” who just finished High School and wanted to spend his GAP year in Japan.  At night, they had a special party for either Kids Day or Green Day.  In May, Japan has Golden Week, 5 consecutive days off, including the weekend.  With so many new guests, I guess we had to party.  We had some homemade okonomiyaki, cold sake, and some umeshu.  It was a wonderful time, but unfortunately, I couldn’t stay more than one night.  They were fully booked the next night.  The host of the hostel is very friendly and very kind.  Her English may not be perfect, but she tries so hard and she is always smiling.

Overall, Matsuyama is a wonderful city that is a must visit if you go to Shikoku.  While in Matsuyama, I would also recommend heading over to Dogo.  It is a very short tram ride, and I’ll talk about that next week.

Please feel free to visit Guesthouse Matsuyama and read their blog.  Unfortunately, their blog is only in Japanese, but the pictures are always nice.

Website: http://www.sophia-club.net/guesthouse/
Blog: http://www.sophia-club.net/blog.php

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

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