An early night was probably one of the better decisions we made yesterday. We met Etsuko downstairs bright and early at 7:00 AM, just in time for a long day of sake tastings and tasteful tourism.
Tsuki No Katsura
First up: Tsuki No Katsura Sake Brewery, located in the Fushimi area of Kyoto. From the outside (above), you probably wouldn’t guess this is a créme de la créme sake brewery, would you? Well, it is. We were greeted by our host, the 14th generation owner, president and CEO, Tokubee Masuda. You can all imagine what an incredible honor this is. And if you don’t immediately realize that, we’ll break it down for you:
|This brewery has plenty of history to back it up; in fact, it’s one of the oldest, founded in 1675.|
|They’re trailblazers, responsible for creating nigorizake, a sweet, sparking form of sake. That same year, they began producing koshu (aged sake).|
|Their products are widely recognized as some of the highest quality sakes in the world.|
|They jumped on the whole organic/local thing about 20 years ago. Yep, they’ve been using only local, organic sake rice since 1990, which makes their sake some of the healthiest fun you can find in a bottle.|
So, back to our immense excitement for hanging out at the brewery for a few hours. We had a full private tour of the brewery; we were able to see the rice from the beginning to the end of the process, watch as it was steamed in the largest pots/vats we’ve ever encountered, down to the moment when we could snag the first taste (seen below with Tokubee Masuda).
We documented some of the various steps of the process, seen throughout the factory. We’d like you to pay special attention to the top, center photo, in which a man is leaning very precariously into a vat of steaming rice. Okay, you should pay special attention to all of the photos now. Especially the Toji, bottom right, who’s responsible for the brewing itself, as well as the management of the factory. One of the true highlights of our tour, however, was the chance to look inside their private cellar. This is where the real gems are: some of these jugs hold sake over 100 years old, in addition to younger varieties (well, younger by the cellar’s standards). Terms like “impressive” and “awe-inspiring” don’t quite capture it. Here in the vault, sake is stored in giant, antique jugs, seen on the right.
Our next stop was the tasting room, where we were able to taste every sake produced here. Well, not so much the 100-year-old ones, but all the new ones, and a couple of aged gems as well: We tasted 5 year, 10 year, and 25 year aged sakes, and were blown away by the taste. See, if not done properly, aged sake can taste, well, not so good. One of the main reasons is where they age the sake: in those antique jugs we talked about above, instead of the bottle (as most people do). Truth be told, there doesn’t seem to be a “right way” to age sake, but their technique has been a signature of the brewery since very early on (and it shows).
After yet another incredible sake tasting, we took to the town of Fushimi for a little exploring. As per usual, we were starting to get a little peckish, but were unfamiliar with the area. When all else fails, try the place with the most locals. In this case, Torisei, where a line out the door was a clear indicator of the awesome yakitori to come. Of the yakitori we tried, dishes like the bacon-wrapped scallops and lotus root stuffed chicken really hit the spot.
The real surprise, however, was the chance to try fresh chicken sashimi, a pretty rare find as far as we can tell. The chicken was killed that very morning, assuring the freshest chicken sashimi possible:
Full and ready for more sake, we then stopped by another well regarded brewery in Kyoto: Sookuu Brewery. What this brewery lacks in size or heritage, it makes up for by being the hipper, more cutting edge cousin of Kyoto’s other breweries. The sakes were all delicious, but what really blew us away was the overall presentation. Their bottling, the tasting room bar, the atmosphere–everything was flawless, the perfect blend of a contemporary aesthetic with undeniable quality. Add in their A-List clientele and you’ve got a really killer brewery.
Not content with our short visit to Nishiki Market yesterday, we headed back to the downtown area of Kyoto for a little more face time with Kyoto’s Kitchen. We walked the entire market, stopping to grab photos of some of the highlights (below), then making our way into Kyoto for a little more exploring.
Kichisen . . .
Blame it on the sake, blame it on our dependence on technology, but this next part is what you’d call an “unfortunate chain of events,” beginning with the sake brewery in Nagano. That’s where Mike’s phone fell out of his pocket, a tragedy only lightened by our sake intake. At that point, Mike’s newly cracked phone was still working perfectly; on our way to dinner, however, the phone decided it was done with us. Unfortunately, our reservation information, arranged by the Tokyo Fixer, was on the phone… Without an address or any idea how to pronounce the restaurant’s name (which happened to be Kichisen), we stumbled around downtown Kyoto making guesses and asking strangers. Ninety minutes in, we decided it was time to cut our losses, and headed back to the hotel.
Kiraku to the Rescue!
On the way back, however, we stumbled upon Kiraku. The restaurant looked good and, more than anything, it was right there, open, no directions required. We went in for some surprisingly tasty okonomiyaki and yakisoba, then called it a night. (Only once we’d reached the Tokyo Fixer to let him know about the whole debacle.)