Izakaya Hopping in the East Village
I have very fond memories of the two years I spent as a fresh college grad teaching English deep in the Japanese countryside in a nearly forgotten place called Toyama, a place most Japanese can't locate on a map. During that time, I had ample opportunity to sample some of the local brews with many of the sake-loving senior teachers who, being excellent hosts, would take me along on their overnight benders at the local mountain onsens (hot springs).
Despite my diminished brain cell count due to said overnight sake sessions, I still remember two brands that stood out. One was called Tateyama and the other was Tengumai from the neighboring Ishikawa prefecture, incidentally the birthplace of former Yankee slugger Hideki Matsui.
We met at Robataya on 9th street and hit up three more pubs before the night was over: Kasadela, known for its sticky, peppery Japanese-style wings (tebasaki), on 11th and Avenue C; Umi No Ie, a tiny pub on 3rd Street between 1st and 2nd Aves. that appeared to have been transplanted from the Japanese countryside; and lastly Bohemian, a Tokyo-based speak-easy-style dining club on Great Jones that specializes in wagyu dishes and in staying hidden from the public. I love how a night of izakaya hopping in the East Village can give you the illusion that you've gone from a Japanese countryside pub to a sleek private club in Tokyo.
And the Tengumai? Timothy Sullivan of Urban Sake, who has been named a Sake Samurai by the Japan Sake Brewers Association for his work to educate Americans about sake, explained to me how the brewers at Tengumai still use the traditional brewing methods that give the sake the subtle flavor of fermented rice and a rich, fatty mouthfeel. This is a classic sake that differs from contemporary brands which tend to be more aromatic. Foreigners often go to Japan looking for the old Japan of books and movies and are very disappointed when all they find in Tokyo is overcrowded urban sprawl. You have to travel to places like Ishikawa deep in the countryside to get a taste of old world Japan. It's still alive in places like the Shata Brewery that makes Tengumai.
Apparently, this is what the designer Alexander Gelman found. His elegant design for the new Tengumai label is a brilliant marketing move. Most Americans have a hard time connecting with sake brands because the labels are all in Japanese. This new beautifully-designed label may be a game-changer.
While at Robataya, I had the opportunity to taste the Junmai Daiginjo that had been aged three years or Koshu. It's not available yet in the U.S. but will be sometime next year. It's definitely one to keep on a shortlist of sakes to try.
Some more pictures of our night out are on Chamagraphy's Flikr page.