Friday, July 31, 2009

Sake Plaza Tasting List, 2009

I lied. I do remember the sakes I tasted at the Sake Plaza, and I even have the tasting list provided by the Plaza to select from. The numbering initially follows the 1, 2, 3... pattern you'd expect, then gets into the katakana alphabet, then just goes random. Don't worry about the numbering scheme.

The format is:
Origin City
Alcohol level, NSD, bottle size

NSD is the Nihonshu-do "Sake Meter value", where "+" means dry and "-" means sweet". I the numbering normally goes -3 to +10, so the numbers bigger than 10 are probably typos (i.e. - "65" should be "6.5") but I may be wrong. Note that umeshu (plum wine) doesn't have an NSD value.

The notes in parentheses are from the Plaza staff. They also comment that selections 500 and 700 are favorites of westerners, and I and U are staff picks.

1) Yamamoto-honke Shinsei
Junmai Daiginjo
15%, +4, 720ml

2) Kuni-no-cho
16.5%, +5, 720ml

3) Kasumi-Hanabi
Futsu (NamaChozo)
16%, +2, 720ml

4) Tokuwaka-Kiwami
(not given)
25%, -2, 720ml

5) Hamafukutsuru-Nanatsu-ume
Junmai (Kimoto)
16%, +2, 720ml

6 Sensuke
Junmai Ginjo
15.8%, +/-0, 720ml

7) Ichi-kara Karakuchi (Dry)
Tokubetsu Junmai
15.7%, +8, 720ml

8) Mifuku-Jungin-gokujo
Junmai Daigingo
10%, +/-0, 720ml

9) Yamato-no-kaori
15.6%, +4, 720ml

10) Miyosakae
16.5%, -2, 720ml

A) Yoshinogawa-Rokudan-Umeshu
11%, --, 500ml

I) Honkakujikomi-Umeshu
11.5%, --, 500ml

U) Saika-Umeshu
11%, --, 720ml

E) Ume-no-kaori
14%, --, 720ml

O) Hoshiya-mutenka-kokutou
14%, --, 720ml

K) Zuisen-kotoku-umeshu
12%, --, 720ml

500) Ichinokura-komekomeshu
Junmai (sweet & sour)
6.5-7.5%, -65~-75, 500ml

700) Kamoizumi-komekomeshu
Junmai (sweet & sour)
7%, -60, 500ml

25) Urakasumi
Junmai (tasty)
15-16%, +2, 300ml

35) Gin-no-mai
Junmai Daiginjo (fruity)
13.5%, +1, 720ml

45) Ginkara
Ginjo (fresh & dry)
15%, +3, 720ml

50) Hanahato Kijoushu
Junmai (7 year sake, sweet)
16-17%, -45, 300ml


My comments (in order tasted):

U - Heavy, sweet, cloying. Excellent umeshu.

3 - Light, a little citric, sharp, like water

9 - Very light, dry, almost minty, a dry earthy aftertaste, very interesting

I - Dry, light, unsweetened plum flavor, almost cranberry-like, really good with club soda(?)

2 - Sweet, light, very fruity, good

6 - Heavier, a little sour, almost ham-like, not bad

A - Very sweet, heavy, candy-like, plum juice, very drinkable

7 - The definition of sake, a little heavy, not fruity, rice-flavored, good

500 - Sweet, light, almost watered down, a little plum-like, fruity

K - Dark brown color, umeshu made using brown sugar, dry, lots of high notes but thin and not all that sweet

50 - Brownish color, similar to K, "a slam to the head with a hammer", harder flavors with obvious alcohol level, earthy brown sugar, weirdest of the group, almost berry-like on the tongue at first.

Like I mentioned in the previous entry, there wasn't a stinker in the bunch. This means that the above sakes were all good, but I did prefer some over the others. For those of you (echo echo echo) paying attention, you may have noticed that there are 11 drinks listed, but I only paid for 2 flights of 5. I don't know if it was because I got two flights or if it was my interest in finding breweries that offer tours to visit, but the staff gave me one extra cup for free. It was U, which is apparently the most popular drink for western visitors. I liked it a lot, but if I were to buy just one bottle of something, I'd either pick 7 (because it's good sake) or 50 (just because it's so weird).

As a side note, the two sake breweries in the Tokyo-Kanagawa area that offer tours to individual visitors are Ozawa and Ishikawa. I'm hoping to visit both soon, and will post web links and reviews when I get the chance.

As a side-side note, if you have any questions about the Japanese words above, most questions can be answered via wikipedia. But, if enough people (2, maybe 3...) ask politely enough, I can answer you here.

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.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Evangelion and Docomo, 2

Docomo and Yodabashi Camera decided to have a second live promo event to huck their Evangelion-branded cell phones. This time, the display was just a simple shell with a riser for a stage, and a flat screen display showing the Evangelion anime. But, the girls were still in the Eva uniforms (they didn't bother dressing up the guys).

The setting was again the display space next to Yodobashi Camera, in Akihabara, Tokyo.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pokemon display at TAC

The Tokyo Anime Center's latest feature exhibit is for the new Pokemon movie. The display is nowhere near the level of that for Gundam or Cyborg 009, but it does still have some decent artwork to look at. It will run until August.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A nice place to take a break

On my third ride out to Takao City, after visiting the top of Mikoromo tower, I decided that I'd try heading a little farther into the hills in the hopes of being able to prove whether I could ride up to the top of Mount Takao. Unfortunately, the only route up that I know about is a small service road behind the ropeway station across the street from the trick art museum, and I didn't remember exactly where that service road came out through the maze of alleys to the main street.

So, after passing the trick art museum, I rode up the main street into the hills. There's no shoulder along this stretch of 20, and at a couple of places I had to pull over to let the cars and trucks pass me. Fortunately, there's major construction going on at one point where a new train tunnel is being bored into the hills, and traffic is blocked off for 5 minutes at a time because the street is one-lane wide there. Means that for 5 minutes, I've got the road to myself, then there's five minutes worth of traffic that's built up behind me that I have to stop and let by. Then again, by this time I've been on the road for 2.5 hours and I really need the rest periods. The hill's so steep that I'm on the lowest gear on the bike.

Finally, I crest yet another hill and it looks like I've reached the far side of the ridge. I'm ready to turn around and go back home, but I cruise down the hill a bit to see where it goes. Rounding a curve, I get a full view of Fuji. This makes the ride all worthwhile.

I don't know how long it's taken to get up here, but it's at least 20 minutes. The maps indicate that I've only gone 4 miles. A nearby hiking map shows a number of trails running through the hills here. A later look at Google maps indicates that I'm maybe only 2 miles short from reaching a lake that may be a dammed part of the river, so I'll try getting out here one more time to see f I can get to the lake.

I turn around and this time I'm hitting speeds that scare me. I use the brakes a lot. In 5 minutes I'm back at the bottom and not once was there a car behind me. That was cool, and I want to see if I can go down it again without using the brakes next time.

When I finally get back home to Noborito, it's been 6 hours since I'd left, and I'm completely spent. With only 2 miles left to go, I have to stop at a convenience store to buy cold water mixed in with a little grape juice because I'm really overheating. I need to start carrying more ice with me on these kinds of rides...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Takao City, from Mikoromo Tower

Not the greatest photos in the world. My camera's showing its age, and it doesn't help that Tokyo's been overcast most days for the last few months. But, anyway, here we have the view of Takao City from the 10th floor of Mikoromo Tower. Tokyo can't be seen from this angle, and it's a bit too far to be visible (maybe 45 miles away), in any case.

However, the clump of buildings to the right and in the back is the next larger city of Hachioji.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Buddhist tower

I wrote back a while ago about seeing this one tower near the Takao train station during one of my longer bike rides, and needing to make a second trip to try to track down exactly where it was. Well, I needed a third trip in order to arrive early enough to have time to go inside.

This is Mikoromo Reidou (literally "Mikoromo Soul Tower"), essentially a burial memorial, with a 200 yen ($2) entrance fee. The top floor is dedicated to someone famous within the Buddhist community, and then the next floor down has memorials to another 4 people. There's a view port where you can look out over Takao, and then the lower floors have lockers containing the remains of local people that have elected to be interred here rather than at one of the other cemeteries. Most of the lockers are empty at the moment.

This is the memorial on the 11th floor. The elevator only runs up to floor 9 and you have to walk the stairs the rest of the way up. Inside the memorial is a torch with a fake flame.

Surrounding the memorial are various symbolic statues that seem to combine Indian and Greek aesthetics.

On the floor dedicated to the other 4 people, there are a couple of rest areas, and a place for Christians to pray.

(Example of the less expensive lockers. These encircle the entire floor.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Akiba Green Festival 2009: Fly Me to the Moon

As mentioned in the first post of this series, the Akiba Green Festival, 2009 (AGF09) month-long event consisted of 4 activities on the first weekend. One of those was "Fly me to the Moon", held in the event space on the 4th floor of the UDX building.

For the most part, the exhibit featured images taken by JAXA's (Japan's version of NASA) Kaguya/Selene satellite. Named after a famous princess from folklore, Kaguya was a low-altitude (100 km) satellite that orbited the moon, taking the highest definition images to-date as a way to develop a 3D map of its surface. One of booths at the exhibit showed some of the crater fly-bys in 3D (needing special polarized glasses). There were also free postcards given away at the front desk with some of the images.

Other booths included freeze-dried space food, moon globes, reproductions of the satellite and the launch rocket, and some commercial ventures trying to promote themselves (such as the 3D modeling printer).

One booth advertised an upcoming DVD for an animated 3D adventure to the moon, and there was a photo op to pose with Ultra Man and one of his many enemies. Nearby the photo op, there was a flat screen showing Ultra Man episodes.

Near the front desk was a mannequin space suit, and wandering around the event was an actor wearing a foam rubber space suit.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Akiba Green Festival 2009: hybrids

Starting back on July 18, Akiharaba launched it's "Green Festival 2009" month-long event, which runs until Aug. 23. There are 12 different scheduled events during this time, but most of them are only one or two days long, and some weekends have nothing going on at all. Only the "Electric Street Matsuri", in and around Radio Land runs every day, but it seems to be something involving specific shops and I don't any any details on that.

During the weekend of the 18th and 19th, there were 4 different activities taking place, plus live outdoor entertainment in the plaza in front of Tully's at the UDX building. Most of the live entertainment consisted of juggling acts and the like, which I didn't have time to watch during my breaks (I was too focused on the stamp rally), but the announcer was cute enough to warrant taking her photo.

The 4 activities consisted of "Fly me to the Moon", an eco car show, a flea market and an energy-saving appliances show. (Technically, Fly me ran that Saturday and Sunday, the flea market ran Sunday and Monday, and the other two ran Saturday to Monday). At the same time, the Akiba Tourist Information Center in the UDX building held the stamp rally. Fly me, the hybrid car show and the energy saver event each had a table with a numbered rubber stamp (1-3); if you took your AGF09 brochure to each table for the stamps and then brought it back to the information center, you'd get one chance to spin a small wooden wheel to make a little ball come out. Grand prize was a gift certificate for 10,000 yen ($100) to spend in Akihabara. Second prize was a 1,000 yen gift cert. The white ball gave you the booby prize of a small package of tissues, a couple of pieces of hard candy, some plant seeds and some post cards from the Fly me event. I got the stamps 3 times, and lost all three times. Now, I have lots of tissues and plant seeds.

The energy saver show consisted mostly of solar panels, energy converters, some games for children, and videos of animals in zoos. Nothing to take photos of, but they did have a refreshment stand selling smoothies and Hagen Daz ice cream. I bought an ice cream bar for 200 yen that tasted really good on that hot day. The event was in the basement of the Belle Salle building on Chuu-ou Dori.

The hybrid car show was in the open plaza at ground level of the same building. It consisted of being able to look at some hybrid and racing cars, plus a theater area. No idea what was shown on the screen - there was never anything running when I dropped by. At least, the cars were cool.

I'll write up the Fly me event tomorrow. The flea market just had a lot of used stuff that I didn't want to buy. It was also really windy on Sunday, and the clothes racks kept falling over.

There's nothing scheduled for the weekend of July 25. There's a water-related event in front of the Dai building on Aug. 1, and the "Akiba Clean Campaign" throughout the city the same day (apparently, it's a volunteer trash pickup). On Aug. 2, there's something that looks like a test or quiz hosted by some hi tech companies on the 6th floor of the FujiSoft building. On Aug. 7, there's a Hokkaido-related event. Aug. 9 and the 16th, there's an "eco boat ride" on the Kanda river, and an "eco walk" through Akihabara. The flea market reappears on Aug. 22 and 23. And finally, there's an "Eco Seminar" on the 4th floor of the UDX building on Aug. 22.

An unrelated free event, called the UDX Summer Festival, will run at the UDX from Aug. 6 to the 9th. There will be belly dancing, live music, food, juggling, magic, a beer garden and taiko drums. I'm hoping to catch part of the "Fresh Putchua" character show (looks like it's from a magical girls anime series) from 1 to 4 PM on the 9th.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Anime and Manga Food Tie-ins

(Evangelion can coffee, and other various cookies and snacks)

Akihabara is a great place to find different food, drink and snack tie-ins to various anime and manga. It's not because this is an "otaku heaven", but because there are several large chain stores all within walking distance of each other. Most of the big chains have the same products, and you can find locations in Ikebukuro, Nakano, Yokohama, Kawasaki and other major cities in Japan (interestingly, it looks like the big manga bookstore chain, Manga no Mori, doesn't have a store in Akihabara).

Not technically anime-related, I did decide to write about "Gear" here. This is Georgia Co.'s latest entry in the vending machine coffee market. Normally, vending machines only sell 6 ounce cans for 120 yen. This one's about 12 ounces for 150 yen. But, the bottle is the main selling point - it's "designed to be fun for driving" and it has "two grip positions" - around the neck and over the top. I had to buy this just for the bottle. The coffee itself is nothing special.

Georgia seems to be in the running for "most new products out at one time". Here we have jelly coffee. This is coffee-flavored jello in a can. The directions tell you to shake it up really good before opening. If you don't, you better have a straw ready because you're going to be faced with a block of unmovable jello sitting in a can. It's an interesting concept, but I'd rather just buy a package of coffee jelly and eat it with a spoon, like normal.

Next we have the "Lucky Star Cornucopia Cakes". I first discovered the Lucky Star TV series a couple of months ago, and watched it non-stop on my MP3 player on the trains while commuting to work. I consider it to be a very funny send-up of anime, manga and video game fans. The main character is an incredibly down-to-earth fan girl whose favorite snack is a "cornucopia bread" with a chocolate cream filling. So, when I saw the Lucky Star cakes, I had to try them. They're more like slightly crunchy cookies with a paste center, and aren't in the proper conch shape. But they're still pretty tasty.

Here, we have "Akiba Nyan Nyan" (which translates to "Akihabara Meow Meow"). This is a banana creme-filled bread in the shape of a banana, created to promote Akihabara as a souvenir. It's not too bad. Not sure why it's being branded as a "cat girl product", though.

(Box for bean paste-filled mochi)

Lastly, we have some products that come from the Machiko Hasegawa Art Gallery, in Setagaya Ward, just west of Shibuya (not available in Akihabara). I wrote about the Hasegawa Art Gallery a few weeks back. Machiko was the creator of the famous "Sazae-san" series, and she was a big art collector. The gallery was her way of making her collection available to the public. In one corner of the gallery is a small gift shop that sells only Sazae-san-related products, including copies of the manga, snacks and toys.

(Rice crackers in character shapes)

(Small breads with chocolate and vanilla creme fillings)