Kobe and Osaka, Japan

June 24, 2009

Kissed? Check. Touched? Check. Drunk? Not until I turned 40! I had to go all the way to Osaka to get sloshed. All for the sake of sake!

O, sa-ke! Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum in Kobe

It all began innocently enough in Kobe. My host couldn’t decide what place to show me. So with a little help from my trusty Lonely Planet, I suggested the Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum. Being a culture vulture, I was elated by a museum visit. Plus, admission was free!

The brewery was inconspicuous, hidden among factories in Nada district, a rather heavily industrial area and known as the sake capital of Japan. It was worth the getting-lost-and-asking-around.

The museum exhibited life-like mannequins in dioramas showing the steps in making sake – from rice to wine – with English explanations on video screens. The process was incredibly tedious before machines took over the job. Even in the olden days, people would go to any length for an upper!

Sake-Making Diorama at Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum
Punky Brewer: Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum

Rice was steamed, moulded, hydrated, stirred, fermented, and pasteurized. All these took about a couple of weeks. The resulting concoction was poured into barrels and the flavorful aroma reportedly drew rowdy cheers from the brewers.

Roll Out the Barrels: Hakutsuru Sake Brewey Museum

But of course, the proof of the pudding was in the eating. Or in this case, drinking. After going through the two-level museum, a reward awaited in the form of a sake sampler. My very first sake was surprisingly sweet. It was perhaps of the nigori variety, which I found to have just the right combination of sweetness and sting. It was love at first sip!

Love at First Sip! (It doesn’t look it though….)

The sake shot came in handy for the last stop in the museum – the photo op. Cindy and I, at this point a bit giddy, donned the sake brewer’s blue uniform, complete with a Karate Kid headband, and made our snake karate moves (or was it the leaping crane move?).

The Karate Kids at Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum
Gallon or Gallileo of Sake

I had never tippled; I could only manage a bottle or two of beer at a time even before my bout with pancreatitis. Where was the fun in nausea, barfing, and incoherent speech? But that sake shot made me reconsider, so off to an izakaya in Osaka we went. An izakaya was a Japanese pub – usually an after-work refuge for “salarymen” to down their stresses with sake or beer. I saw lots of young people of college age too. It was clearly a place where the Japanese let their hair down – chatter, laughter, and shouts of kampai filled the dimly-lit room. Unlike its cruder Filipino counterpart, the “beerhouse,” an izakaya was more like a family restaurant: amiable ambiance, wholesome fun (in my experience, anyway), and good food.

A hole in the wall? It’s Toho Kenbunroku!

Our hosts brought us to Toho Kenbunroku, a chain izakaya. It might have looked like a hole-in-the-wall from the outside, but I instantly liked the atmosphere. The youthful servers were efficient yet casual enough to banter with. Bamboo poles separated tables to allow some privacy. The clientele was obviously in high spirits (pun intended).

The yakitori (skewered chicken) and tsukemono (pickled eggplant) went down well with sake. I had one too many shots; I started to feel like I was spinning around, with all due respect to Kylie Minogue. I suddenly acquired the gift of the gab. What else I did, I would not divulge here. Suffice it to say that it was all a blur. But in a nice way.

The Drunken Master at Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum

The next time I’d find myself in Japan, I’d definitely make a beeline for an izakaya. All for the sake of sake. Kampai!