Thursday, July 30, 2009

Sampling Sake in Tokyo: The Sake Plaza and the Meishu Center

So there you are, sitting in your room, and your thoughts start drifting off to things Japanese. Sushi, beer, baseball, bad samurai dramas, like they sometimes do. And you realize that it’s pretty easy to get your hands on any of these things regardless of where your room is. Same holds true for that most Japanese of alcoholic forms - sake. But, the thought crosses your mind, “what’s the difference between good and bad sake?” “How can I tell?” “How can I sample a variety of sakes without having to go to an overpriced New York sake bar or having to buy one each of many different bottles?”

Fortunately, if your room is in Tokyo, there are two fast answers: The Sake Plaza, and Meishu Center.

(The wall of empty bottles can be seen at the back. The rack on the right next to the door, and the cooler to the left contain the featured sakes for sale)

The Sake Plaza used to be in a smaller building along the main drag in Ginza, but it relocated a few years ago to nearby Shimbashi to the offices of the Japan Sake Brewers Association. The Sake Plaza is on the first floor, and it consists of an airy, brightly-lit display area/store front. The display area has 800 (empty ;-( ) bottles on the walls, showing a variety of labels and bottling styles. They also have maps and brochures for breweries around the country, plus a couple of computers that you can use for looking up info for each brewery. They also sell some drinking supplies like cups and serving bottles, and a DVD showing the sake brewing process.

(Shop front from across the street.)

The storefront offers roughly 30 different brands of nihon-shu (Japanese sake), shou-chu (Japanese alcohol made from many kinds of things, like brown sugar or sweet potatoes) and ume-shu (plum wine) for sale. For 525 yen, you can sample any 5 of the featured sakes. The process is to take a sheet with the descriptions of the featured sakes, and on a second piece of paper write down the numbers of your choices. Hand the second sheet over to the clerk, and they’ll give you 5 little cups, holding about half an ounce of sake each. They offer sweet, dry, light and heavy sakes, and they can make recommendations if you ask nicely. They do have people on staff that can speak English if you need it.

(Models showing the sake brewing process, the computers, and the pamphlet display racks.)

The Metropolis article claims that you can visit the other floors, but when I went the guard claimed that floors 2 and 3 were open only to staff members and there was no mention of the library on the 4th floor. Also, the directions given in the article are wrong. You need to take a right at Nishi-Shimbashi Itchome, not a left.

Additionally, the Metropolis article says that only one pamphlet is in English. This is true. This is the "Glossary of Terms on Sake Bottle Labels", and you can download it from the National Research Institute of Brewing website. It's actually a very useful introduction to the world of sake.

The staff are incredibly helpful, and they went out of their way to call a few of the sake brewers in the Tokyo area for me to determine which ones offer tours to small groups (2 of them do). The others breweries only give tours to groups of 5, 10 or more. But, they still want reservations made in advance.

So, what did I sample? I don’t remember. There were 10 different sakes. All of them were good, and they included Nihon-shuu, Ume-shuu and Shou-chuu. Not a stinker in the bunch. And if I do need to get the name of a specific sake that I liked, I can always go back and sample everything all over again.


The Meishu Center is only one stop away from the Sake Plaza, on the JR Yamanote line, south at Hamamacho station. But, it’s a bit far to walk, especially after sampling 10 different sake. The easiest way to find the place is to take the S5 exit from the JR Hamamacho station, go down the steps and keep going straight about 10-20 feet. Take the first right, and walk to the end of the block to the first signal light, past Doutor and Pronto. Turn right again and look for the bright orange sign on the right, one block down.

(Metropolis article on the Meishu Center can be found here.)

(Meishu Center from across the street.)

Where the Sake Plaza is open, bright and airy, the Meishu Center is dark and cramped, like a friendly corner bar. It’s also the home of Bimi, a magazine dedicated to sake. Meishu’s walls are lined with refrigerated shelves holding well over 70 bottles of sake (with a couple of western wines). Each bottle has a label around the neck, giving information on the sake (type of sake, sweet or dry, rice used) and the per-cup price. Additionally, Meishu sells specialty salt, beer and small dishes of food to eat with the drinks (Japanese pickles, squid and pickled squid intestines). Most of the snack dishes are in the 200 yen range.

(One of the refrigerator cases can be seen inside the door, and if you squint really hard you can see the little tags on the bottles with the per-cup prices. Notice the rock in the lower left corner of the window display - that's salt. Probably the yellow type.)

The salts are definitely worth mentioning. These are mineral-rich blocks that sell for about 1800 yen ($18) for a couple of ounces. You use a special grater to grate some of the rock to create a fine powder of the consistency of powdered sugar. The yellow and pink salts taste just like salt but with interesting overtones. The black salt comes from an onsen (sulfur-rich hot water springs) and tastes exactly like scrambled eggs. Very weird. You can use the salts to flavor food, as well as just by themselves along with the sake.

In the middle of the shop is a tall wooden table holding a bunch of sake cups. Here, you have two choices. You can either get a sample from one of the bottles at the per cup price (from 200 to 800 yen), or you can get a 3-cup sampler of 200 yen sake for 500 yen. When I was there, the operator poured the cups to near-overflowing, which was easily twice the amount you get per cup at the Sake Plaza. She asked me if I wanted to try specific labels, and when I replied that I had no preference, she immediately grabbed several bottles and started pouring. The selection seemed to be mostly nihon-shu; I didn’t notice any ume-shu and I can’t recognize shou-chu just from looking at the label. Again, I got two flights of nihon-shu; again, they were all good; and again, I got buzzed fast.

Sake Plaza (SP) and Meishu Center (MC) have two completely different approaches. SP is run by the Sake Brewers Association so it’s representative of the top brewers around the country and features plum and sweet potato wines as well as Japanese sake, but only 30 labels at a time. MC is more of a mom-and-pop magazine publisher that doubles as a liquor store, with 70 labels which are mostly nihon-shu sake. SP gives you a menu to select from, which you can read as you’re trying the sake and that you can take home with you. MC sets the bottles on the table in front of you to look at. SP gives you 5 small cups per flight for 525 yen. MC gives you 3 overflowing cups at 500 yen, or you can try the sakes at the per-cup prices. SP offers lots of information on breweries around the country, with internet access. MC has some fliers plus the Bimi magazine. SP mostly just sells the featured sakes, and some cups and serving bottles. MC also sells a couple western wines, beer, pickled squid intestines, and the pink, yellow and black salts. The main thing they have in common is that they’re both great places to discover through trial and error the sake that you like best.

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