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Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010

Seeking out fine sake at its Saijo source


Special to The Japan Times

As we walked out of the station, the sleepy town of Saijo stretched before us like a cat in the late-afternoon sun.The streets were quiet. Pockets of snow lay in the chilly shadows and melting frost dripped from the telephone wires.

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Key points: Matsuo Shrine (above), dedicated to the god of sake, and a brewery with a characteristic namako kabe perimeter wall.
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In the photogenic winter light, the colors were razor sharp. The white walls gleamed, and the spindly red chimneys of Saijo's sake breweries were framed against an immaculate blue sky.

The whitewashed and wood-paneled buildings along Sakagura-dori (Sake Brewery Street) invoke a sepia-toned past of streets filled with horse-drawn carts and hawkers selling their wares.

Historically, that's not too far from the truth. In the Edo Period (1603-1867), the town was a shukuba (post station) where travelers could rest as they journeyed to or from Kyoto on the historic Saigoku Kaido (Western Country Road). In those days, it was known as Yokkaichi — literally, "Fourth-day Market" — with luxurious lodgings for samurai and nobles, as well as rustic inns and tea houses catering to the general public.

Saijo then had a renaissance in the 1900s when a railroad station was built — not that it unduly disturbed this remote locale in present-day Hiroshima Prefecture.

We'd planned our trip weeks before as a 24-hour break from Tokyo, a chance to slow down and sip some of the sake that has been Saijo's pride and joy since 1650.

Surrounded by mountains, the town sits in a basin-shaped plain and daytime temperatures typically rarely top 5 C at this time of year. Luckily, the weather during our visit was munificently mild. The day was rolling along smoothly, and my traveling companions beamed with excitement.

There was just one glitch: I felt miserable. Ordinarily, this kind of thing would be right up my alley. I'm a tremendous sake fan — the kind who asks about rice varieties, pasteurization and pairing with food. Unfortunately, a cold I'd caught a few weeks back still had a tenacious hold on me.

Despite my cough and runny nose, I soldiered on. Our first stop was the Kamotsuru Shuzo brewery, where we sampled a lineup of 12 sakes from tiny plastic cups — including a fruity daiginjo (the highest grade of sake) with flecks of gold leaf floating in it. A group of kimono-clad young women, fresh from a seijin-no-hi (coming-of-age ceremony), giggled demurely as they shuffled along beside the tasting table.

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Hot'n'high: The mama-san at Yoshi, Saijo's oldest okonomiyaki specialist, shows us the secret to Hiroshima-yaki.

From Kamotsuru on our way to Kirei Shuzo, we passed by the ruins of the Honjin tea house, which once hosted the dignitaries who passed through, and a wall bearing placards inscribed with the Chinese character for sake drawn by notable Japanese authors such as Endo Shusaku.

At the entrance to Kirei, we noticed a sign that read, "Persimmons are recommended for the prevention of hangovers, and also sobering oneself up. The intake of alcohol lowers blood sugars; however, the sugars, pectin and vitamin C contained in persimmons help return them to normal levels."

"Good to know," chuckled an habitually thirsty member of our group.

"I'll remember that next time," I laughed.

Later, at Kamoizumi Shuzo, we took a brief tour of the brewing facilities. It was nearly 4 p.m. and all the stainless-steel machinery was silent. The next morning would see the start of a new batch of daiginjo and the room would be abuzz with activity; the brewers would prepare for the monthlong process by washing, steeping and steaming the rice.

By evening we were eager to take solids and try some of the local specialties — fat Hiroshima oysters and Bishu Nabe, a satisfying melange of thinly sliced chicken kidneys, pork belly and mixed vegetables, all simmered in sake. The dish was invented by sake workers who craved a hearty meal at the end of their long and strenuous days during the brewing season.

Everyone in Saijo, as we discovered, has a different theory about how Bishu Nabe should be made.

"Some people think it's a soup," our perky young waitress explained as she sauted slivers of garlic in oil. "But that's wrong. It should contain very little liquid."

The delicious aroma of garlic and browning meat wafted up from the pot.

"The most important point is to use a lot of vegetables," she continued, smiling, as she heaped on piles of cabbage, chingensai (spinach-like) greens, carrots and onion. "Then you add just a cup of good-quality sake and let it all steam together."

The stew was so simple but full of flavor — a perfect match for the clean and lively Kirei Junmai ginjo we were drinking.

"I promise I'm not contagious," I apologized, just before launching into a furious coughing fit.

Paul seemed unconvinced and eyed me warily. Miyoko nodded sympathetically. "Do you know the saying, 'Osake-wa hyaku yaku no chou?' " she asked.

"Sake has the power of 100 medicines," I answered proudly and lifted my glass. "Cheers to that."

The next morning, we wandered past JR Saijo Station to check out the imposing, crimson-roofed Mitate Shrine and its diminutive neighbor, Matsuo Shrine. Though small in size, the latter is one of the city's most significant places of worship, dedicated as it is to Matsuo-sama, the god of sake. Before the start of Saijo's Sake Matsuri (Sake Festival) in early October — when more than 200,000 people arrive from near and far to sample hundreds of varieties of sake from its nine breweries — the brewers make offerings to Matsuo- sama and pray for another good year.

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Drink stations: A mural at JR Saijo Station (above) shows how sake was made in the town almost 400 years ago. Right: These loaded tables and simple spittoons at the Kamotsuru Shuzo brewery show how tastings are set up today. MELINDA JOE PHOTOS
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We had an early lunch at Yoshi, the oldest restaurant in Saijo that specializes in authentic Hiroshima-yaki — thickly layered, savory pancakes brushed with a sticky-sweet sauce that are generically known as okonomiyaki. We watched hungrily as the mama-san built up ours higher and higher on the flat iron griddle in front of us in strata of noodles, cabbage, pork, beansprouts, eggs and onions.

She explained that three things are necessary to make proper Hiroshima- yaki: a generous quantity of cabbage, iron weights to apply pressure from the top — and patience. "You must wait until you think you can't wait any longer," she said. "Then, Hiroshima-yaki is ready."

In due course, our bellies full to bursting, we set out to visit the remaining six breweries. We took a cue from the locals and stopped to fill our water bottles at each of the natural wells along Sakagura-dori.

At Hakubotan, we tasted freshly made koji — rice inoculated with the mold spore Aspergillus oryzae, which converts starch to sugar — and daiginjo that had been pressed that morning. At Fukubijin, we coveted a silver sake-warmer from the 19th century, beautifully filigreed and ingeniously compact, that had been made to enjoy sake under the cherry blossoms. At Saijotsuru, we had just enough time to buy several small bottles of their award-winning brews before hopping into a taxi to take us back to Hiroshima Airport en route home to Tokyo.

"Your cough seems better," Miyoko said.

"Indeed," I smiled. "Osake-wa hyaku yaku no chou."

Getting there: From Tokyo, take the shinkansen to Hiroshima (4 hours). Saijo is then 35 min. on the Sanyo Line. Alternatively, fly from Haneda to Hiroshima (1 hour 20 min.), and Saijo is a 20-min. taxi ride from the airport. For more details, visit www.hh-kanko.ne.jp/ To find out more about Saijo sake, visit saijosake.com/


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