In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.