Friday, March 13, 2015

Kirei, Hiroshima

When I arrived with my friend on Miyajima Island it was almost midday. This was the start of a full day in Hiroshima, a region that feels laidback after escaping the bustle of Tokyo. The day was overcast and quiet, with a low tide. We both thought our timing was perfect to visit Itsukushima Shrine.

The island is one of the three most beautiful sites of Japan, commonly called the Three Views of Japan. Itsukushima Shrine is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its famous Otorii is unbelievably gigantic consisting of massive tree trunks as pillars. The vermillion structure dwarfs anyone that gets close to it.

The Shrine is painted in the same vermillion color as the torii. During high tide it is said to appear as if floating. I wondered how they figured the exact height to raise the shrine so it won't flood when the water rises. I don't see any watermarks above the stilts. I consider it one of the wonders of this place. But there was another wonder I was about to discover.

Tourists, of course, visit Miyajima all year round. Although I could use a good cup of coffee since I haven't had one all morning, I thought it was a blessing not to see any Starbucks anywhere even back on the mainland. But to my delight and surprise a third wave coffee purveyor was right on the island! Miyajima Itsuki Coffee looks like a hipster coffee shop you'd walked into in San Francisco's Mission District. Two young ladies were behind the counter. They were featuring single-origin Nicaraguan so I ordered a pour-over cup and my friend went for a latte. The coffee was good and strong. God I missed coffee. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area I'm used to finding a coffee shop on every street corner. Not in Japan, nor probably anywhere else in the world outside the US.

Hiroshima is famous for its style of okonomiyaki, and Miyajima, in particular, for its oysters. We thought it wise to have both for lunch while we're still here. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is more of a sandwich than an omelette, which is what would describe the other okonomiyaki, the Osaka-style. The ingredients are piled in layers between griddled batters, instead of mixing the ingredients with the batter. What's in the okonomiyaki is pretty simple: a fistful of fresh shredded cabbage, fresh bean sprouts, and griddled yaki soba noodles. When put together by the master okonomiyaki maker and doused sparingly with the appropriate sauce (Otafuku) it's like a gastronomic miracle. Oishi, my friends!

The plate of oysters--it was probably griddled, too, because I can't see any other cooking appliance in the open kitchen--came with another fistful of fresh cabbage threads. They sure love cabbage in these parts. I scarfed down the plate quickly as we had to catch a train to Saijo about 40 miles north inland.

Saijo is Hiroshima's famous Sake Town. The locals have been producing sake here since the 17th century. Eight breweries are tightly clustered together along the main street, with their chimneys breathing down each others neck. For example, the building walls of Kirei and Kamotsuru are separated only by a gap of about a foot. What accounts for this crowding is water. Saijo is surrounded by mountains, which create an environment with ideal low temperatures during fall and winter for making sake. Water from the mountains flows down to Saijo like a basin, with the purest water concentrated on a narrow strip of land. Hence, everyone wants to be right on top of that water source.

Despite its history of being a sake capital, Saijo feels sleepy even in the height of winter's sake making season. The truth is the town's famous brewers squandered their fortunes by depending on high volume, low quality sake. Demand for this kind of sake has been declining. Walking by the kura of such prestigious brewers as Kamotsuru and Kamoizumi in the middle of the day we stopped to listen, there was no sound of activity. Is it too late to reverse the trend? I'm not sure, but the one exception though is Kirei Shuzo, above.

Kirei's name is a reference to the turtle's longevity, which is to suggest that drinking Kirei's sake helps in living a long, full life. Well, Kirei was totally alive when we entered the kura. The workers were busy washing rice in preparation for steaming.

The toji, Masahiro Nishigaki, a stocky, tough looking dude, is doubtless in command of the kura. He and Kirei's sales manager, Ueda-san, spearheaded Kirei's focus on making high quality sake. A wise move because as Japan's sake market has fallen, demand for the best quality sake has not wavered.

At a local restaurant we enjoyed two of Kirei's popular sake, a junmai ginjo and a daiginjo. The dishes were pretty much all seafood and they went great with the sake. Of course, we had oysters, but something more unusual was this flaming conch shell bubbling in its broth on a bed of salt. I couldn't wait to get my hands on them. You don't see conchs in sushi joints anymore in the States. Last time I ordered one was at Sushi Sam's in San Mateo, but that was over a decade ago. Another all-time favorite app is shiokara, raw ika innards marinating in its own juice and probably some dashi. It's a sake drinker's best friend.

Of the two sake that we drank, the junmai ginjo was my preference. I really seldom prefer daiginjo because it's too gentle and soft for my taste. I want to feel the sake in my mouth.

Next morning we were back at Kirei's kura for a tour of the facility and a quick tasting of some new sake. The main street of Saijo was quiet, you'd never know you're standing on one of the sake brewing capitals of Japan.

Perhaps Saijo is more serene now for this Zen meditation center we passed by.

The two new sake to taste were still in sample bottles--a junmai and a daiginjo. They were both really good. The daiginjo, aromatic and refined; while the junmai, more natural tasting and textured. I like the junmai more. I think the consensus was we all liked it. This is the one I would like to bring to the US, especially if they can bottle it in 500ml. For American drinkers, I believe 500ml is just the right sake bottle size. 300ml is too small, especially if there's two of you drinking, while 720ml is a bit much for casual sake drinking. While busy with these thoughts, I remember Ueda-san can put down four 720ml bottles in one sitting.

Standing outside of Kirei's building with Ueda-san, general manager and chief strategist at Kirei. He's a modest man with a ton of self-confidence. He could probably outdrink anyone I know.

This visit to Hiroshima and Saijo was eye-opening. Over the past centuries many have traveled here to drink their famous sake. I'm excited to introduce Kirei's sake soon in the States so fellow Americans can experience real Hiroshima sake made from the pure waters of Saijo.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.