Japan Eats

Japan Booze Blind: Kyushu (Part II)

Christopher Pellegrini samples an Alt and a Kölsch from Miyazaki’s Aya Brewery

Back in Kagoshima City after a wonderful trip to Miyazaki Prefecture to visit the good people at Kuroki Honten Distillery, we found ourselves a nice place under the cherry blossoms and cracked open a couple of souvenirs that we brought back with us.

Watch Part I.

Watch Part III.

Japan Booze Blind: Kyushu (Part I)

Japan Booze Blind visits southern Kyushu and road tests Kuro Kirishima shochu

On our way from Kagoshima Prefecture to Miyazaki Prefecture, we decided to see what might be available for our mid-trip perusal from the concession cart that rolls by every half hour or so.

The standard fare, as far as the alcohol menu in central/northeastern Japan is concerned, is canned beer, chu-hai and ‘one cup’ (nihonshu in a glass jar). Because we were traveling through Kyushu, however, we were pleasantly surprised to find one additional inhabitant on the menu.

Cup shochu. Kuro Kirishima to be exact.

And we decided to give it a whirl because we know that you’d be disappointed if we hadn’t. This is JBB after all. For the record, Kuro Kirishima was an easy-drinking preamble to our distillery tour later that day.

Watch Part II.

Watch Part III.

Boozehound: Kuroki Honten Distillery

Christopher Pellegrini tours Kuroki Honten in majestic Miyazaki Prefecture.

Click here to read the first Boozehound report from our recent trip to Kyushu.

After a day and a night in Kagoshima City, we hopped on a northbound train headed for Miyazaki Prefecture. Our ultimate goal for the day was to visit Kuroki Honten, the makers of well-respected shochu labels such as Kiroku, Nakanaka, and Hyakunen no Kodoku.

Planting sweet potatoes.

To our pleasant surprise, we were in for an incredibly educational and inspiring tour conducted by the president of the shuzo, Mr. Toshiyuki Kuroki himself.

Mr. Kuroki is the fourth generation to have piloted the family distillery, and it was under his watch that business flourished during the past 15 years. A trim and jovial family man, Mr. Kuroki is an executive with a serious hop in his step. He’s difficult to keep up with.

One thing that stood out about Mr. Kuroki is that he has a clear affection for his employees. That evening, and the next day, we observed countless instances of him talking to and joking with the distillers, bottlers and field workers. Solid sales will put smiles on many people’s faces, but it was obvious that the working culture at Kuroki Honten is buoyed by workers who share Mr. Kuroki’s passion and believe in his vision.

And another thing that grabbed our attention, and something that Mr. Kuroki is very proud of, is the shuzo’s determination to recycle everything they possibly can. This includes using the lees from the distilling process to make both fertilizer and livestock feed. Their efforts to make the shochu production process as circular and socially responsible as possible are detailed on the Kuroki Honten website (Japanese).

We later tasted several of the shuzo’s less widely available brands, such as their unfiltered Kiroku and Bakudan Hanatare. The latter, an 88 proof imo shochu that is best kept in the freezer, is supposed to be consumed like a shooter even though there tends to be served in vessels much larger than shot glasses. That might have been the highlight of the visit, but I don’t recall.

Casks of mugi shochu.

While Kuroki Honten doesn’t normally do tours, shochu fans can take solace in the fact that the shuzo’s exemplary products are easily locatable around Japan. In Tokyo, for example, one can purchase Nakanaka, the company’s smooth sipping mugi shochu, at vendors as diverse as Shinanoya (chain liquor store) and Bic Camera (chain electronics store).

Anything made by Kuroki Honten or their sister shuzo, Osuzuyama (the shuzo detailed in my next Boozehound article), is well worth your time and hard-earned cash.

Boozehound: Satsuma Musou Distillery

Christopher Pellegrini visits Satsuma Musou Distillery in Kagoshima City

Doing the research part of writing a book is arduous, especially when there aren’t any resources available in one’s own language. I’ve read nearly everything that exists on the subject written in Japanese, but there just really isn’t that much content out there in general.

So I decided to go straight to the source. Kyushu, that is. Because I’m writing a book about shochu.

Mai Miyauchi of Satsuma Musou Shuzo.

Mai Miyauchi of Satsuma Musou Shuzo.

About a 20 minute walk from Goino train station in Kagoshima City is Satsuma Musou Distillery. Partly supported by the prefectural government, this distillery is an ideal place for tourists as it has a well-planned tour and large gift shop/tasting area. Much to my surprise, I was treated to a tour of the facilities entirely in English by the knowledgeable Mai Miyauchi who has gone so far as to attend industry-related classes at Kagoshima University.

The distillery that we toured is a smaller operation set up for the benefit of tourists. They were still working on batches of imo shochu even though the season ended in February or March for most other distilleries in Kyushu. This meant that we were still able to see the workers unload check frozen potatoes before they were dropped into the steamer. We also had a chance to see the mash bubbling away at different stages of fermentation in open earthenware pots half submerged in the facility’s concrete floor.

And of course, we sampled several of the distillery’s liquid treats. Even if you can’t travel to Satsuma Musou in Kogoshima Prefecture, you can probably find their Satsuma Musou ‘Red Label’ (Aka Raberu) or Kuro Mugi at finer liquor shops around Japan.

Satsuma Musou is recommended as an introduction to the complex process of making Japan’s wonderful distilled drink, shochu.

Website (Japanese): http://www.satsumamusou.co.jp/

Update: Why We’re Having Hanami

In April of 2003, near the beginning of a trek through China optimally-timed to coincide with the outbreak of SARS and the resulting hooplah and chaos, I paid a visit to Nanjing and, being a resident of Japan, to its massacre memorial and museum. The effect was striking: the setting was bare and bleak, sculptures of hands and cowering mothers dotted an unbroken expanse of white gravel. The first indication of oversell was the need of Chinese museums to drive in nails with sledgehammers: piped in scary music. Wordless choral wails over an ill-fitting drum beat emerged tinnily from behind every large rock.

I chided myself for approaching such a memorial from the perspective of a film critic and braced myself for the excavation site, where the remains of tens of thousands of victims have been and are still being uncovered. As I descended the stairs, I noticed that not only had the music not stopped, stage directions flanked the doors. In Chinese and English, signs directing visitors to be somber, respectful, and more were placed periodically in front of the glass walls of the corridor.

What I realized then was that the government agency that built and laid out the memorial had blown it by trying to dictate how people experienced it. They had taken an event that would elicit sadness and sympathy from anyone and then taken responsibility off the visitors’ shoulders and blunted the discomfort, fear, sorrow, and sympathy people would naturally feel by telling them how to feel and when to feel it, then how to show it.

What on Earth does this have to do with Japan Eats?

Well, as one of Japan’s most-celebrated seasons begins its all-too-brief roll up over the country, Governor Shintaro Ishihara asked Tokyoites to refrain from the centuries-old custom of picnicking under the city’s sakura trees and from drinking alcohol in public.

“Why,” you might reasonably ask, “would he make such a recommendation when so many voters have been cooped up indoors, upset by the relentless news of the country’s worst recorded natural disaster, or even worse? Don’t people need some icon of normalcy?”

Well, the 78-year-old Ishihara, never known to have considered another person’s feelings before, has decided that Tokyoites need to show that they are in mourning for the dead and missing and in sympathy with the bereaved in Tohoku.

See where I’m going?

Ishihara, who was quick to call the earthquake and tsunami divine retribution upon a selfish, greedy people and slow to insincerely retract his remarks, needs such instructions. Ishihara, who has a decades-long record of boastful ignorance and gratuitous offense seldom mitigated by any expression of sympathy or human decency, needs to be told how to feel, when to feel it, and how to display it. The people of and in Tokyo do not.

Governor Ishihara, I shall hold my metaphorical tongue.

In addition to celebrating the coming of Spring and the beauty of nature, hanami has long been also a collective appreciation of that beauty’s ephemerality and the fragility of that which we all love and admire. Hanami is marked not only be the enjoyment of the season and the moment, but by nostalgia for the seasons past and wonderings on the seasons yet to come.

What better symbol could there be for our present moment?

No one (except the Governor, who may be trying to make up for his gaffe in hopes of being reelected) needs to be reminded of the suffering of our compatriots in Tohoku. It holds a prominent place in almost every conversation, it dominates all media, it tugs with an awful weight in every heart.

Hundreds of Tokyoites are volunteering every day to go to the stricken areas to help. Thousands more are helping from Tokyo. Millions more are donating money, blood, and supplies. Everyone is in mourning. Everyone sympathizes.

It helps no one to focus on your own appearance, to make a show of how sorry and sad you are. That is self-centered.

Merchants, vendors, brewers, cooks, and people in blue plastic tarp factories still have and need jobs. Tokyo is not dead and won’t be dead until its people decide to make it so.

The people of Tohoku are in our hearts and on our minds. We are giving all we can and we urge all of you to do the same. However, we are going to the park, drinking sake from Tohoku, eating delicious Japanese fruits and vegetables, and appreciating another hanami season, just as people throughout Japan have done, in good years and bad, for centuries. We might even attempt some bad poetry. We hope you’ll do the same.