Most adults visiting Japan try it at least once – sake (or nihonshu as it is called in Japan these days), a Japanese fermented rice alcoholic beverage made from rice. Even though it is more similar to beer it is often likened to wince, but the manufacturing process is quite different. As you can imagine from something as traditional and steeped in culture as Japanese sake, the manufacturing process is tremendously complicated, it would be impossible to describe it here. In order to understand sake better I took a guided tour at one of the few Tokyo breweries, the Sawanoi Sake Brewery in western Tokyo’s Ome City, Sawai. Since the process involves mostly fermentation of highly polished rice, there is not much to see inside the factory itself, and I can think of few things as un-photogenic as a sake factory, especially since in order not to disturb the sake they prefer to keep it as dark as possible. These photos are actually much brighter than it was in real life, it was very very dark inside the brewery. In the old days the sake was fermented in large wooden barrels but these days metal vats are used. It is said that a big sake drinker who lives to a ripe old age might be able to finish one of these huge vats by himself before he dies. Sake is usually not labelled by the year like wine, but this factory did label their bottles, the oldest I could find in their stores were from 1999.
The brewery was founded in the 15th year of Genroku, under the reign of emperor Higashiyama (1702 A.D.) and started giving guided tours in 1971. Our guide was one a natural speaker and gave us a quick tour of the factory as well as a rather complicated brief on the chemistry behind the fermentation process. Most Japanese were scratching their head as the part, just like I was! The end of the tour was the most popular though – the sake sampling! We were told to pour our own glasses, which most of us did, to the brims. I could see on the sad faces of some participants that they had arrived by car!
You might have seen the round balls made of cedar tree boughs hanging outside traditional Japanese restaurants. They are called sugidama or sakabayashi. They are traditionally made and hung up by the sake breweries as a sign that this year’s fresh sake is ready for drinking. When hung up they are green, but over the summer and into autumn they gradually turn brown and you can tell by the color how fresh the sake is. Sake doesn’t really get old, if store properly, so a brown sugidama is not a bad thing! Quite a few restaurants that have sugidama use the same one year after year, but sometimes you will see a fresh one that is actually green! One thing that surprises some people when they buy their first traditional sake is that what looks like a screw cork is actually not resealable: you basically have to finish a bottle within a few hours of opening it if you want to drink it at its best!
The quality of the water used in sake brewery is tremendously important and we got to see the old well used by the factory, from a cave deep inside the mountain, behind the brewery. Below the cave and the factory there was another outlet for the spring water where anyone is welcome to try it and it tasted fantastic!
The factory is easily accessible from Sawai Station on the Ome line, but the tours are usually sold out on weekends, so it pays to book well in advance.
I took these photos after the rain we had during this year’s Shibuya festival let up. The omikoshi of the famous Dogenzaka neighborhood that traditionally starts in front of Shibuya station and goes up towards Shinsen station was out in force, the only concession to the rain being the plastic wrapped around the paper lanterns.
The origins of the name Dogenzaka is contested, but the slope can be named after an old temple that used to be located on the top of the hill. During the Edo period the road was surrounded by wild woods and fields with a clear view of Mount Fuji at the end. As Edo became Tokyo in the later part of the 19th century Dogenzaka became a market place for farmers selling their produce and Shibuya was developed as modern westernized town with electric street lights and everything. These days it is hard to believe that Dogenzaka was ever anything else than highly developed commercial district, but in fact there is a short row of five buildings that are almost 90 years old and survived several earthquakes and a World War. I will save that story for a later blog post though. There are a few interesting photos on this site of old historical Dogenzaka.
I was suprised to read that 758 people are officially registered as living in Dougenzaka, I think quite a good percentage of them joined in the Shibuya festival and helped carry their omikoshi, men, women and quite a lot of kids! They did a great job stopping the traffic while the omikoshi slowly passed.
Someday I would love to talk to someone who was born and lived all their life in Dogenzaka. They must have some incredible stories to tell!
In Tokyo’s Aoyama/Omotesando district there are tons of hidden gems for tourists and local that stray off the big roads and enter the maze of tiny streets and alley where the real heart of Aoyama is. Despite Aoyama being one of the most famous address in Tokyo, it feels very secluded and remarkably empty to wander around the back streets at any time of the day. The streets are absolutely loaded with top notch boutiques, fashionable hair dressers and great tiny (and not even that expensive) bars and restaurants. I guess it must the fear of getting lost that keeps people away because even after visiting the are dozens of times I still have to keep a mental track of where I am going and in which direction I am heading. But there is no harm in getting lost and wherever you end up is bound to be good, whether it is Omotesando, Shibuya or Harajuku.
A few weeks ago I took a wrong turn on my way home late one night and stumbled upon the Portofino center. It was just after a major rain and the rather splendid architecture with the wooden details were shining in the light reflected from the street lights. It felt like I had stumbled upon a hidden treasure! I returned a few day later and took these photos of the Portofino buildings, and of the wedding hall so beautifully reflected in the windows. The Saint Grace Cathedral (which of course is not a real Cathedral, it is just the name of the building and the wedding event planning company that runs it. Japanese people are quite in love with the romantic idea of a gorgeous western wedding so all around Japan there are these little faux churches to cater to the soon to be wedded couples. Although it might look a little like a movie prop, the place looks fantastic when used in wedding ceremonies and considering the costs involved in flying a wedding party to a proper church abroad, it is quite reasonable (and ecological). Almost every night you can see couples practicing for the wedding ceremony or doing the photo shoots in the beautifully lit night.
The easiest way to find this place is to go to Ao Building in Aoyama, and then turn left just to the side of it, walk straight into the maze of streets and keep an eye out for the towers. It is easier to find at night! The place is quite new and not very established yet but there are restaurants, clinics and wine bars, so far.
At the budo, or martial arts, tournament and exhibition at Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine a few weeks ago I saw this wonderful performance of Yabusame or mounted horse archery. I have written previously about the glory of Yabusame (I am completely in love with this sport) so if you are interested in the details of the sport head over to that post from 2011. This year’s Yabusame at Meiji Shrine was slightly unusual due to the high number of very talented female archers. You could tell from the excited reactions of the audience when they were being introduced that female archers make a wildly popular sport even more popular! The biggest drawback with Yabusame is that it is a very audience unfriendly sport. For the effort involved in setting things up and the costs involved, very few people can actually see it and the most devoted audience members had already staked out their spots on the grass 5-6 hours before the event even started! The action is also very rapid – the announcer will announce that an archer has left the staging area on the left, you hear the thunder of the hooves and in a split second the horse thunders past you – a cheer from the crowd if there is a hit, once, twice, maybe three times. It is all over very quickly and if you lose you concentration you might miss the best bit. I was plonked firmly at the front end of the audience section, wedged between two other photographers so I go to see the horses right the moment before had reached full speed, but even with my fast camera I missed many passes. Still, there is no sport on Earth like Yabusame and it’s an incredible rush to be within touching distance of horse and rider thundering past!