Japan Eats

After the Disaster: How You Can Help

Everyone reading this knows, probably far better than they’d like, that the Eastern coast of Japan’s Tohoku region was devastated by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami with waves in excess of ten meters on the afternoon of March 11th. In the aftermath of this unprecedented disaster, Japan has endured roughly 600 further quakes, of which nearly half have been of magnitude 5.0 or greater, ranging from the area surrounding the epicenter of the original temblor, off the coast of Sendai, in the North, to Shizuoka, southwest of Tokyo.

First and foremost, thank you to all of you who have been kind enough to ask after our well-being and to offer help. All of us here at Japan Eats and, as far as we have been able to ascertain, our friends and colleagues, were spared the worst.

As of this writing, on the evening of March 24th, Tokyo is inconvenienced more than anything. Insofar as you worry, do so for the people up North who are no different from us but that they are undergoing a trial that even their friends and compatriots but a short distance away can barely begin to imagine.

Readers outside of Japan may have come close to having the worst natural disaster in Japan’s recorded history pushed out of their minds by one of its pernicious side effects: the extensive damage to and ongoing emergency at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Despite what you see on TV, it is inarguably the horrific loss of life, livelihood, property, and peace of mind in Tohoku that is the larger tragedy.

Japan, as anyone reading, watching, or listening to the Anglophone media knows, was just about as well-prepared as it could have been and is a wealthy country with the infrastructure and know-how to get back on its feet as fast as any other place on Earth. The earthquake itself was a triumph for Japanese engineering. It is safe to say that the time, money, and effort spent designing buildings and infrastructure to withstand earthquakes saved thousands of lives and allowed for a better response to those areas in which the truth that mankind will always be smaller than the inexorable forces of nature was brought so relentlessly to bear.

Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of people need your help. Young and old; men, women, and children; rich and poor – they have lost, in some cases, everything, and in nearly all cases are suffering through the bitter Tohoku winter without power, without water, without sanitation, without privacy, without creature comforts and, in far too many cases, without information about their situation and prospects, or even all of their friends and relatives.

Japan Eats is a food and drink site and we, as much as anyone, know the value and rewards of seeking quality, but in these extreme circumstances, we join many, many others in asking everyone who is able to give as much as possible. People in Japan’s Kansai region are cutting down on power consumption and donating the savings to disaster relief. Bars and restaurants in the country’s more fortunate locales have hosted parties and donated the entire day’s takings, and more, to the people who need it most.

Right now, aid organizations say money is the most effective gift as transportation is difficult and needs change from place to place, day to day. There are things most of us can do to squeeze a bit more out. Maybe the reverse-Jesus, for example. Pass on buying that lovely bottle of wine you’d been dreaming of and turn that money into clean water for the people who need it. Or a change of (warm) clothes. Or a book to read to stave off the tedium and fear. Whatever you can do, it will help.

Here’s a list of groups doing good work in Japan who could use your help:

  • Japanese Red Cross Society – Primarily focused on disaster relief, emergency medical treatment, and health and sanitation issues.
  • Oxfam Japan – Primarily focused on mothers and children, as well as on getting assistance to foreigners/non-Japanese speakers.
  • Second Harvest Japan – A foodbank distributing food to shelters and serving meals to disaster victims and the homeless.
  • The Salvation Army – Primarily focused on the provision of basic needs and coordination with other groups to get victims’ more specific needs taken care of.
  • Rescue Japan – A specific relief coordination effort begun by a group of Tokyo-based small businesses. Primarily focused on getting daily necessities, such as drinking water, toiletries, and clean underwear to shelters in addition to distributing items such as books and toys.
  • Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support – A coordination effort between three established animal protection groups in Japan. They do just what it sounds like.

Of course, another way to help that might appeal to our readers is to remember that the people in unaffected areas of Japan are doing all they can to help their stricken compatriots and, while they don’t need charity per se, normalcy helps them. So, if you were considering a trip to Tokyo or anywhere West of Tokyo, or to Hokkaido, please come – it’s still one of the safest, cleanest, best-functioning places in the world. The hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops still have employees and Japan’s economic recovery will only be helped.

We will be back very soon with more specific information about the situation in the Tokyo area, particularly as it relates to safety and, our favorite, food and drink.

Booze Basics: Mugi (barley) shochu

It may be out of fashion, but Christopher Pellegrini argues mugi shochu’s worth your attention

Satsuma imo (sweet potato) shochu is getting all the love at the moment, but interestingly mugi (barley) shochu actually sells just as well.


Iichiko is perhaps the best known brand of mugi shochu

This will come as a bit of a surprise to anyone who has looked at a menu in an izakaya or restaurant that stocks several honkaku (premium) shochu labels. In many cases, satsuma imo offerings outnumber mugi two-to-one. The same observation can be made at many supermarkets where the satsuma imo section dwarfs every other type of shochu.

So if the majority of the selection is satsuma imo, then how is it possible that in April of 2010 tax authorities reported that 19,311 kiloliters of satsuma imo shochu were shipped while mugi actually clocked in at 19,950?

Perhaps the single biggest reason is that mugi shochu is relatively smooth and easy to drink. The aromas and flavors imparted by the ingredients used in its production are less earthy and milder than shochu with a satsuma imo base. It’s arguable that this makes it appealing to a larger number of social drinkers and helps to drive up sales.

It’s also good for mixing. Mugi shochu is smooth enough that it’s a logical choice for making any of a number of cocktails. Personally, I enjoy mixing it with oolong tea when I go to baseball games here in Tokyo. It’s definitely a crowd pleaser at the stadium—I march in with about a liter of it in a thermos and dish it out to friends who come by with a mixer! I tend to go with a bottle of Iichiko 25% (green cap) which I pick up at Bic Camera in Shinjuku on my way to the game.

Some readers out there in Japan Eats land may now be saying to themselves, “OK, sounds good. I’ll try some of that. But what exactly is it?” Good question. And not one that’s easy to answer in a single tweet. The production of mugi shochu, just like every other variety of Japan’s unheralded spirit, is an incredibly painstaking and exacting process.

The production of mugi shochu is similar in many respects to other spirits. A mash (moromi) of some grain or other plant and hot water is combined with yeast to create a liquid compound containing alcohol through the process of fermentation. This moromi is then distilled, aged and bottled to create a pleasing final product.

The one major difference, and one of the main reasons why mugi shochu is generally so different from whiskey, is that the barley is not malted. Malting involves causing grains to germinate before halting the process with high temperatures and is essential to the creation of popular drinks such as beer and whiskey.

Shochu, on the other hand, employs koji (Aspergillus oryzae) instead of malting to turn the starches present in barley into sugars such as fructose and glucose. This then makes fermentation possible as yeast can deal with sugars but not starches.

But mugi shochu does occasionally taste a bit like whiskey even though the production processes contain some serious differences. This is often due to the fact that mugi shochu producers have taken to importing used whiskey casks. These casks, naturally, will leak some of the flavors of their former inhabitants into the shochu. This is a delightful surprise for anyone who is a Scotch or Bourbon fan as cask recycling is starting to increase in Japan.

The production of shochu in general, and mugi shochu in particular, is much more complicated than what’s written here, but hopefully you now have a better grasp of what this major player in the shochu world is all about.
And if you’re looking for ideas, here are my mugi shochu recommendations:

Light and smooth

Iichiko (Oita Prefecture)
25% alcohol by volume (ABV)
Serving style: on the rocks or mizuwari (mixed with cool water)
Notes: the standard mizuwari mixture is 6:4 (six parts shochu, four parts water), but personal preference should govern here. In Oita Prefecture, many people enjoy mugi shochu on the rocks at a 3:7 ratio.

Medium richness

Yamazaru (Miyazaki Prefecture)
25% ABV
Serving style: on the rocks, mizuwari or oyuwari (mixed with warm/hot water)
Notes: when preparing shochu oyuwari-style, pour the hot water into your cup first. Add the shochu second. The heat from the hot water will draw out the bouquet of the shochu.

Full character

Hyakunen no Godoku (Miyazaki Prefecture)
40% ABV
Serving style: straight up or on the rocks
Notes: it’s not common for a honkaku shochu to be bottled at 40% ABV, but this mugi shochu is definitely worth trying at least once.

Restaurant Review: Demode Queen

Burgers and fries. What kind of pie?

Perhaps more than any other city, Tokyo is built around speed. From the moment city dwellers stumble out of bed in the morning they are consumed by a need to keep to a tight schedule. 6.00 Wake. 6.05 Check email. 6.10 Prepare the kids’ breakfast. So it goes for the rest of the day – a never-ending quest for maximum efficiency.

Demode Queen

Cheese avocado burger

And lunch (if you even take lunch) usually means a quick bowl of gyudon or a bento at your desk. Slow food? Forget it. There’s just no time to relax. No time to take a break.

Perhaps in order to counter Tokyoites’ workaholic tendencies, there are now some fifteen public holidays each year (a relatively high number compared with the ten federal holidays in the US or the nine in the UK). Not that it makes all that much difference – rather than enjoy the time off, many Japanese simply use such occasions to work from home.

I had no such thoughts one recent Friday – my first day off in a month. Despite some shitty weather (a blast of cold air more appropriate to the Siberian steppe than Tokyo the Urban Heat Island) a friend and I were determined to make the most of our officially mandated lethargy. What we needed was somewhere to hang while mother nature worked out her issues. And in Demode Queen, we lucked out.

Demode Queen is an American diner. A very good diner. Hidden one of the small streets to the north of Shibuya Station, a visit to Demode Queen is to be reminded that not all of Shibuya is catering to the maru-kyu crowd. And what’s more they serve Tex Mex, which is a rarity in Japan.

Up two fights of stairs and possessing a large balcony, Demode Queen is a large, somewhat industrial space with sofas and plenty of room to spread out. The interior is dimly lit, the music laid-back rock – just right for afternoon cocktails. In a move I would quickly come to appreciate, a large heater had been placed at the entrance to ensure those seated near the entrance wouldn’t freeze.

On arrival customers are greeted a large, grubby four page ‘Grand Menu’, and it ticks all the boxes. Burgers, Pizza, Pasta, Mexican. We opted for a Cajun burger, a cheese avocado burger and a Margherita pizza.

The standout dish was the Cajun chicken burger. The chicken was excellent – juicy with just the right level of spiciness. The cheese avocado burger, meanwhile, was served with a thick barbecue sauce. Both dishes came with a generous helping of fries. Good too was the pizza – the Margherita had that thin Neapolitan crust popular in Japan, and was topped with fresh basil. Demode Queen also carries an extensive drink menu, which runs the gamut from beer and cocktails to coffee and milkshakes. Particularly good are the mojitos – strong and worth the 1000 yen price tag.

The staff, a motley bunch of hipsters (tatoos! hats!) aren’t about to fawn over you, but frankly that’s one of the things I like about the place.

Alas, neither of us had space for dessert (it was the best we could do to remain upright after the burgers) but the menu includes that diner favorite, apple pie (800 yen) served with your choice of ice cream and sauce.

Somehow by the time we’d paid our bill and wandered out into the melting snow, five hours had passed.

Directions: From Shibuya Station, cross toward Starbucks and walk all the way up Sentagai. When you reach the end of the street, turn right and then take the first left (the residential-looking street with the metal rail separating the cars from the pedestrians. Turn right when you get to a path that opens into a street. Demode Queen is on your left, above Paradise Macau.

Tel: 03-3780-5232
Sai Bldg. 3F, 39-5 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0042
Demode Queen does not take cards.
Mon – Sat 11:30 to 05:00 (L.O. 04:00)
Sun 11:30 – 23:00 (L.O. 22:00)

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