As someone evidently from Gaikoku, it’s easy to impress some Japanese people with your sugoiness by professing an appreciation of sake, or 日本酒。’Can you drink Japanese sake!?’ It’s somehow always unexpected. Apparently though, it’s not unexpected to like shochu, which I don’t. I don’t know many Gaikokuers that don’t like日本酒… Those that do dislike it often turn out to have overdone it at some point.
There is some delicious stuff around and it’s much cheaper here than in Australia (like many things). A while ago at a friend’s birthday I tried some Dassai. I didn’t know the name, but it turned out to be famous and made not far away. It’s so famous and renowned that Abe gave some as a present to Obama when he came to Japan a couple of years ago. When I tried some of Dassai’s sake at this birthday, I liked it so much that I made a note of it, and then later telling another friend about it, they recalled my trying a sake by the same maker on a day trip in Yamaguchi nearly a year ago – that time, too, I’d enjoyed it so much that I’d taken a photo of the menu item and been excited that it was being made so close to Hiroshima. So when I found out that they did tours of the brewery, it was just a question of when. There are only two tours a day, for a maximum of 5 people per tour, and it’s booked out quite a while ahead (even more than the 2 weeks for high tea at the Mandarin Oriental in Honkers). We booked our tour a month in advance. There are English interpreter options but we thought we’d be OK in Japanese, which turned out to be more or less true.
Getting there was a process. There were 5 of us going and we all wanted to do a tasting, which meant none of us would drive (have I written before? The blood alcohol limit in Japan is 0.03%, but Japanese attitudes are 0.00, as in, not so much as a sip. In contrast in Australia, the limit is 0.05 and if you are driving around wineries doing tastings, the driver can legally taste the wine, at more than one place if they spit it out).
We got the train from Hiroshima to Iwakuni in Yamaguchi, then the single-carriage train on the Gantoku Line to the closest station, Suō-Takamori, from whence it was another 8 km, or 15-minute drive to the place. Having left at 10:15 am, we arrived at 11:56 am for the 2 pm tour – the next train would have arrived at 1:46pm, cutting it a bit fine. So we had lunch at one of the two restaurants in the town that were open on Sunday and then piled into 2 taxis out to the sakagura.
It was pretty cool.
It was also, like my outfit (apparently), uncool in some ways. I had decided to wear a comfortable light skirt with a longish, sleeveless shirt, but my friend said it was dasai ( ださい), a.k.a. daggy/unfashionable. Maybe just the shirt was, I’m not sure, but I wore it. Herein lies one of the important differences between English and Japanese: geminates that distinguish between phonemes, i.e. Dassai だっさい、獺祭 the renowned sake brand, and dasai ださい (dowdy/uncool). The long consonant sound is the difference between saying ‘unity’ (or also ‘at all’) ittai いったい and ‘painful’ itai いたい . I’ve written a bit about this concept before.
English does make sounds like this, consonant sounds with kind of delayed onsets, like the /th/ sound in ‘get the bus’ or the /n/ in ‘in national politics.’ But generally it’s only for ease of pronunciation if you’re talking quickly – if you’re talking slowly in English and separating words to be clearer, there won’t be any long consonant sounds. Double letters don’t make long sounds in English either, as in ‘happy,’ ‘silly,’ ‘running’ or ‘nugget,’ which is why Italians think native English speakers sound silly at best when we say ‘spaghetti’ in English, and why ‘cannon’ and ‘canon’ sound the same. One of the difficulties that the nonstandardised nature of Japanese spelling in romaji leads to is that if the foreign word has a double letter, Japanese assumes it’s supposed to be a long consonant, like in mamma mia. This means ‘hammock’ in Japanese is pronounced like ‘han-mock’ and ‘shopping bag’ is ‘shop[glottal stop]-pingu bagu.’ So as a non-native speaker of Japanese, which if you’ve got this far in this English I assume you are, do not ignore double letters in Romanised Japanese words. It really is kon-nichiwa, not k’nichiwa.
Uncool things at Dassai included: the appearance of the guests on the tour once we were all wearing our coats and hair nets; and arguably, the extent to which most of the production process is mechanised. The mechanisation leads to a consistently, objectively high quality product that can be made all year round, but for some consumers it takes out the more personal charm of more human traditional methods. I’ve only seen a few sake breweries in Hiroshima, Kyoto, Akita and Gifu, but they were all basically wooden, including much of the equipment. Dassai had quite a different atmosphere, with very little wood in the brewery itself.
Our guide was cool. Though he was working at a prestigious and fancy kind of place, he was down-to-earth and happily answered all our questions honestly and clearly. I later learned that this honesty might be an important part of Dassai’s attitude, despite their high-tech methods. It seems that some merchants and restaurateurs want Dassai, high-quality maker that it is, to make still fancier and more expensive sakes – but the maker believes the main ones they’re making already are already pretty refined, isn’t especially interested in making special exclusive ones for profit and at one point actually went so far as to publish an ad telling consumers not to pay exorbitant prices for sake. Dassai wants people to enjoy the flavour – on their English page they write that they brew sake for ‘sipping and enjoying,’ juxtaposing this to the idea of brewing for drinking or just for sales. There you have it.
Our guide talked us through the process, explaining the various stages and showing us videos for a few of them. I won’t explain them all here, but if you’re interested there’s an explanation with videos on the Japanese Sake page.
The rice used for brewing Dassai’s biggest 3 sakes, all daiginjo, is polished to from 50% to 23% of the original size of the grain, as you can see in the photo above. To classify as daiginjo, the grains must legally be polished down to 50% of what they were when they were brown rice.
We read that the when the maker decided to make the 23% one, on the right, it was for the purpose of having the most highly refined grain of any Japanese sake, and while this did make Dassai famous and unique, it didn’t automatically result in a great-tasting sake. So they worked on that and now it’s very polished and also tastes excellent… but some of our group agreed it seems a shame about the other 67% of the grain.
It was a good, and interesting, day. If you go, I recommend having a designated driver rather than getting the train, unless you like trains a lot.
The factory tour and tasting cost us a total of 500 yen each, which is about $5 US or $6 in AUD. The shop is open every day and you can just waltz in and do tastings, which a few groups did while we were there. Asahishuzo’s English website is here.
Our taxi driver on the way back to Suōmori Station told us that none of the locals actually drink Dassai but generally choose something called Gangi. Guess that’s where we’re going next.