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Sunday, April 15, 2001

Sake heaven, free on earth

Staff writer

Like wine, different sake have distinct flavor profiles -- some are light and fruity, while others are heavy and rich. Trying to distinguish between different sake in a kikizake (blind taste-testing), however, is harder than it sounds. At Sake Plaza in the Kasumigaseki district, you can put your taste buds to the test while enjoying a variety of nihonshu -- all for free.

Run by the Japan Sake Brewers Association, Sake Plaza is also a great place to learn about sake. The fourth floor of the building houses a library with more than 5,000 reference books, videos on sake and sake labels archived in albums.

In one corner of the library is the kikizake table. To take the taste-test challenge, simply ask the staff for a small ochoko (sake cup) and an answer sheet.

The test is straightforward. You taste 10 samples of five different kinds of sake, separated into two groups of five. Each group contains the same five samples, but arranged in different order. Taste the first five samples and rank them on the answer sheet from one to five according to your taste preference. Then taste the other five samples and do the same, trying to match them up with the samples from the first group.

You have a maximum of six minutes to taste all the sake in one section, and you cannot go back and forth between the two for comparison. After tasting a sample, spit it into the container provided if you don't wish to drink it.

The results of the test are sent to you later by mail.

Back on the first floor, take time to admire the 1,000-odd sake and mirin bottles displayed on the back wall. The lineup is changed every two months, a reflection of the great variety of sake brewed in Japan: more than 6,000 different labels produced by some 2,140 brewers. None of the sake and mirin in this selection is for sale, but the staff can help you find where a particular brand is sold, or you can search for yourself using the center's computer.

About 40 popular brands of sake are also sold at Sake Plaza. (The selection changes regularly.) For 550 yen you can sample five to help you decide which you like best.

Sake Plaza, 1-1-21 Nishi-Shinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 105-0003 (a 5-minute-walk from Toranomon Station on the Ginza subway line). Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; closed Saturday, Sunday and holidays. For more information, call (03) 3519-2091.

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