Monthly Archives: January 2009

Still welcoming in the New Year…

Entry way to sake bar YoramuIn Japan, there is a lovely tradition of celebrating whenever you meet an old friend for the first time in the new year. Of course, the first celebrations are with family and closest friends, but like ever-widening circles rippling across the surface of a pond, a succession of parties called shinnenkai or New Year’s gatherings continue throughout the month of January.

This weekend I met up with friends at the Asian Studies Group for our annual shinnenkai at Sake Bar Yoramu. The ASG is a wonderful group that has added untold joy to my life in Kyoto. Comprised mainly of university professors, graduate students, and anyone else with a lively curiosity about Asian history, music, art, culture, religion and literature, the group sponsors monthly lectures that have taught me so much on all of these topics as well as many others.

Halle O'Neal supports Obama And given the propensity of this group to revel in the details of history and subtleties of philosophy, it’s no wonder that our annual shinnenkai would be a sake-tasting at Yoram’s Sake Bar.

Catherine Ludvig at sake bar Yoramu

Halle O’Neil, a doctoral candidate from the University of Kansas, came dressed in her “Japanese Art Historians for Obama” t-shirt to celebrate that world-changing event taking place this week on the other side of the planet.

As I was arriving, Reggie Pawle, a doctor of Buddhist psychology, was thoughtfully considering some point being made by Catherine Ludvik, a Buddhist art scholar from Toronto fluent in both sanskrit and Japanese and specialist in Benzaiten, the goddess of art and literature. Later in the evening, Reggie told me of a cosmology discussion group in Kyoto that he’d recently heard of. With so many colleges and universities in Kyoto, there are just countless groups and sub-groups focusing on so many different ways to stimulate the mind.

But for this evening’s party, the agenda was not cosmology but the enjoyment of sake — good sake, sake with a robust range of flavors. And for that purpose, Sake Bar Yoramu is the best place to be. A delightful little vest-pocket bar with limited seating, half the length of the narrow room is taken up by the glorious stepping stone entryway shown in the top photo. This pathway leads you back to Yoram himself and a seat at his bar. An Israeli ex-pat, Yoram is a long-term Kyoto resident and has had this sake bar for the past decade.

Yoram of sake bar Yoramu
Sake is essentially a simple beverage made from rice, water, yeast and koji bacteria — four ingredients and a world of flavors. Or at least it could be, if sake brewing weren’t controlled by a handful of large breweries that have filtered, blended, pasteurized and stifled it into a bland standardized and flavorless alcoholic drink. I was never a great fan of the stuff, until I met Yoram. An expert in the family-run microbreweries of Japan, Yoram has carefully selected each sake he serves for its distinctive character and can recount the details that not only make it different from each other sake but also very different from anything you’ve tried before.

food served at sake bar Yoramu

In previous years, I’ve sampled a wonderful lemon-y flavored sake brewed by a recipe dating back to the Kamakura period (~1200 AD) and milky white nigori sake that still contains bits of the rice it was brewed from.

This night’s tasting started with a genmai (brown rice) sake made in Saitama (near Tokyo). And to complement the sake, we were served a plate with bite-sized pats of cream cheese drizzled with a mix of soy sauce and wasabi, top right. This was definitely non-traditional, but definitely a taste treat.

This was followed by an unpasteurized, undiluted, somewhat sweeter, full-bodied brew from Shiga, the prefecture next to Kyoto. And accompanied by roasted green peppers (fourth picture down).

And then we had Karadahanke, a slightly sour, slightly acidic sake from Chiba (also near Tokyo). This was a natural yeast sake brewed by a multi-stage process, served with nanohana, a green vegetable popular in Japan, flavored with sesame seeds. (second picture from the top).

For our fourth taste treat, we had a slightly sweeter sake accompanied by the most interesting dish of the night (shown as the middle image). A salad of shredded daikon with a rice vinegar dressing topped by salt-preserved cherry blossoms. Simple but amazingly elegant in its presentation and equally amazing to taste.

And then the night was capped by a 10-year-old sake that just rolled across the palate, accompanied by steaming bowls of “wafu risotto”. Yoram’s own recipe for a hearty Japanese-flavored risotto with mushrooms.

Can mere words ever do justice to such a multi-sensory experience? But perhaps the best part of the evening was the way our normally staid and erudite academic group turned into a bubbly, chatty and slightly giggly group of friends renewing our friendships for 2009.

Toka Ebisu Festival — Prayers for the world economy

waiting at the Ebisu shrine —prayers for good business Once again I’ve had a lovely and langourous start to 2009, enjoying many of the Japanese rituals for welcoming each new year. Several were documented in my posts last year, but one that seemed to need particular attention this year is the Toka Ebisu festival on January 10th.

Ebisu is one of the seven lucky spirits, popular in northeast Asian mythology. Each of these seven deities represents a particular virtue and is the patron of one or more occupations. Traditionally, Ebisu was associated with the sea, sailors and fisherman, but became the patron of commerce and business during the Edo period. On the 10th day of the New Year, Kyotoites flock to the Ebisu shrine at Kenninji to say a prayer for good business in the coming year. This year, the shrine was filled to capacity with long lines of people waiting to say prayers for a more prosperous 2009. A limited sense of how crowded it was may be seen in the photo above, although you won’t quite feel the jostling of actually being in the midst of the throng.

giant tuna on the altar of Ebisu shrine The altar was laid with a giant tuna and behind the altar, bottles of sake line the shelves. The crowds wait patiently as each individual takes their turn in ringing the altar bell loudly to attract Ebisu’s attention before saying their prayers and tossing a few coins into the collection bin.

Ebisu - good luck charms for businessBut of course, no shrine pilgrimage would be complete without purchasing an omomori to carry home.

Although loosely translated as “good luck charm”, omomori actually function as a surrogate-self or double. When there is danger, illness, bankruptcy or other problems in the air, these nasties are attracted to the brightly colored omamori rather than to the individual or in this case, their business.

For that reason, the omomori is returned to the shrine the following year, so that omomori and all of the problems it has absorbed during the year can be ritually destroyed. Then of course, a new omomori must be purchased for the coming year.

The circular bamboo platter shown at top is decorated with images of both Ebisu and Daikokuten, the patron of farmers, as well as fish, rice, gold and a crane for longevity.

Below that is a similarly decorated bamboo rake. The rake is a favorite luck symbol for business people, since in Japanese as in English, the implied association is “May you rake it in!”

The red mobiles shown next represent crowds of customers flocking to your business. And then, for those who prefer a customized “charm”, there is a veritable smorgasbord of items to select from. These are attached to a bamboo frond that has been blessed by the dancing shrine maidens shown below.

shrine dance at Ebisu shrine Of course, all of these luck charms carry fees that range from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars. If the luck can be purchased, you would already have to be fairly lucky to afford some of the larger omomori.

leaving Ebisu shrine
The final ritual before leaving the shrine is to pound the wooden wall along the back route out of the shrine. Ebisu is a prosperous old fellow and variously thought to have grown a bit deaf in his old age, a bit lazy with his success or a bit drunk on his many bottles of sake. Either way, Kyotoites believe it’s necessary to wake up old Ebisu and remind him of their prayers one more time before leaving. And this year the wall rattled thunderously as many hands gave the wall repeated and resounding thuds to wake old Ebisu up.

May 2009 be a better year, bringing prosperity and good fortune to us all.