Japan Eats

Japanese cuisine inspires beer, wine, and shochu creativity

Japan imported 2,458,013 cases of sparkling wine during the first nine months of 2014. That’s a 10% increase over the same period last year, and overall craft beer sales were up seven percent through August. This is no doubt splendid news for consumers, but these trends represent tart slices of a migraine pie for Japan’s brewers and distillers.

Beer for "washoku."

Beer for “washoku.”

Izakaya revelers and grocery cart pushers alike are enjoying an agreeable selection of wine and whiskey at bargain prices, and the craft beer selection is perpetually at an all-time high. That’s all well and good, of course, but don’t expect manufacturers to quietly cede territory to alcoholic upstarts and recently arrived, exotically labeled tourists.

Indeed, maturity in all segments of the market is inverting old marketing principles and allowing restaurants and bars to more carefully cater to discerning palates. Japanese food, drink, and advertising companies have reacted to the changing landscape in varied ways, with equally varied success.

Big trends in the drinks industry this year? Well, it seems that one of them is creating the perfect mealtime beverage.

Suntory, makers of one of the pricier macro-brewed beers in Japan, tried earlier this year to market a product that pairs well with washoku, or traditional Japanese dishes. “Wazen,” Suntory’s watery attempt at home-cooked food and beer harmony, has since disappeared from most store shelves, so we may not know until next year whether Wazen sixers were able to steal shopping cart space from Asahi’s bestseller, Super Dry.

“Wa” went well with wagyu, too.

Earlier this year the Westin Hotel in Ebisu hosted a sushi and white wine pairing to show off a collaborative effort by Australia’s Jacob’s Creek winery and Ginza Sushiko Honten. The tandem created a white wine that pairs well with sushi, and “Wa,” the label released in 2013, makes a good argument for inclusion in any sushi establishment’s drinks list.

Guests were not only treated to several plates of Ginza Sushiko’s finest sushi, but also to head chef Sugiyama’s commentary on the process of blending the perfect wine to complement different types of fish and soy sauce. Participants started with spoon sushi, before being treated to everything from squid and sea urchin to tuna and halibut.

The white wine was inspired by Sugiyama’s desire to find new pairing possibilities for the sushi that he serves in Ginza which averages US$200-300 per head. He collaborated with winemaker Rebekah Richardson to create a drink that would accentuate his shop’s well-regarded menu. The result is a white wine that feels at ease next to the flavors of a well-crafted sushi meal.

Try this with your sushi.

Try this with your sushi.

And here’s another new drink that you should try with your raw fish. According to Shochu Pro, Satsuma Shuzo recently released a soft sweet potato shochu that was produced specifically with a fish dinner in mind. The mild-mannered “Jan,” which works wonders served oyuwari, straight, and on the rocks, is especially suited to red (fish) meat, and you know what that means–maguro!

Shochu and awamori have always been at ease cozying up to sushi, sashimi, and grilled fish, but Shochu Pro reports that the Kagoshima Sushi Association reached out to Satsuma Shuzo for something new. The makers of the well-traveled Shiranami and Kannoko brands responded with “Jan,” and although the new kid on the block has yet to be featured heavily outside of Kyushu, it has been well-received at home.

You may recall that UNESCO recognized washoku as an Intangible Cultural Heritage last year, so it’s no wonder that all corners of the drinks industry are clamoring to find a steady perch beside it.

With the 2020 Olympiad looming, prepare yourself for a swarm of drinks begging to accompany your meal. Here at Japan Eats, we’d encourage you to give them all a fair shot.

But take it slow. Leave the headaches to Japan’s alcohol industry.

Restaurant Review: Smokehouse (Harajuku)

Tokyo has well and truly discovered the pairing of American-style BBQ and craft beer.

Grilled marinated chicken breast with chipotle mayonnaise on toasted whole wheat

Grilled marinated chicken breast with chipotle mayonnaise on toasted whole wheat.

TY Harbor Brewing has a wonderful restaurant out on Tennozu Isle (or however you spell it) that has boasted a top-notch kitchen for several years. The beer’s pretty good, too, and getting better, but you still get the sense that most folks dining there aren’t really there to see how the brews are coming around. However, make no mistake, TY Harbor is no slouch in the brewing department, and they’ve recently found a new way to get their beers out there to the red-blooded folk on the west side of town.

It’s called the Smokehouse.

The Smokehouse is on Cat Street not far from that warehousey second hand shop that features brand name kit previously owned by folks who couldn’t fit into it either. Over the course of several visits, I managed to make my way through much of the food and beer menus.

During my most recent trip, I had the Chopped BBQ Pork (¥1,700) which is fall-off-the-bone soft with a notably smokey flavor. It comes with a side of coleslaw and a muffin, which was somewhat sweet for my taste. The Smokehouse cheeseburger (¥1,500), meanwhile, is fantastic – the perfect balance between soft/crunchy, savory/sweet. Certainly in the running for the best burger of its kind in the city.

Chopped BBQ pork, Carolina spicy vinegar

Chopped BBQ pork, Carolina spicy vinegar

I was also able to try the grilled marinated chicken breast with chipotle mayonnaise on toasted whole wheat (again served with a large helping of fries). This too had plenty of flavor, and maintained its structural integrity despite the presence of tomato, the juices from the chicken and a generous coating of sauces.

Where Smokehouse really excels, however, is in its selection of sauces. Each table has a selection featuring names like “Voodoo Hot”, “House Pit”, “Porter Pepper” and “Carolina Vinegar”. We fancied the herb-rich House Pit, which we were soon squeezing on everything, particularly the crunchy fries that accompanied the burger.

You also can’t go wrong with a side of Chili Cheese Fries (¥900) or a small bowl of Home Style Mac-n-Cheese (¥400). Calories be damned.

All of T.Y. Harbor’s regular beers are on tap with 420 ml (14 oz) glasses for ¥800, and 250 ml (8.6 oz) pours for ¥480. My favorites are still the Pale Ale with its balanced cascade hops and bready malts, and the Imperial Stout which goes from sweet to bitter as it travels toward the back of the palate. There are also always at least a few guest beers on tap that are more expensive but will generally be worth your while, and the spirits list sports more than 20 labels of bourbon, rye, and other craft whiskies from all over the US. The wine list is 10 bottles long (five red and five white) with all priced at ¥5,000.

Smokehouse cheeseburger

Smokehouse cheeseburger

Directions: From Harajuku station, walk down Omotosando-dori and turn right just after Shakey’s onto Cat Street. Smokehouse is about 150 meters down, on your left.

Tel: 03-6450-5855
2F, 5-17-13 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
11:30 – 15:00 (L.O.) & 17:30 – 22:00 (L.O.); Weekends, holidays 11:30 – 22:00 (L.O.)


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Kickstarter Campaign to Publish “The Shochu Handbook”

Hello foodie friends!

The Shochu HandbookI hope you’re having a fantastic day. For the past three years I’ve been pouring my energy into my first publication, “The Shochu Handbook.” Remember when I talked about the project while touring distilleries in Kyushu, and then again when I talked about the process of becoming certified as a Shochu Sommelier?

Yup, it was all part of the plan to get to this point.

Today I’m unveiling the fruit of all that labor, and I hope that you’ll take a moment to check it out:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/pellegrini/the-shochu-handbook-an-intro-to-japans-alcoholic-s

It’d mean the world to me if you’d spread the word by simply clicking the Facebook and Twitter buttons under the video. Just two clicks will make a HUGE difference!

Many thanks,

Christopher Pellegrini

Restaurant Review: Sumibi Yakiniku Suehiro (Kinshicho)

The menu features a wealth of choice pork and beef cuts for the grill.

Upmarket yakiniku on Tokyo’s east side.

Located about a three minute walk from the south exit of JR Kinshicho station, Suehiro is a superior choice for anyone looking for yakiniku in eastern Tokyo.

There are a number of sets and course meals to choose from, and they range in price from 3,980 yen to just over 13,000 yen per person. The circular grills are embedded in the tables, and you cook the meat yourself just like at most yakiniku restaurants.

The restaurant itself has a chic modern feel to it with low lights and lots of two and four-person booths and rooms. There are about 50 seats in total, so be sure to reserve a table if you’ll be dining at peak ours on a weekend.

You can also order as you go from an extensive a la carte meat menu. The karubi-shio (¥1,050) and hotate (¥880) are tender and excellent when grilled lightly. The tokusen harami at ¥1,800 per serving is some of the best we’ve tried.

There’s also a decent selection of sides such as kimuchi (¥480) and chapuche (¥750). We recommend leaving some room for a post-grilling bowl of cold reimen (¥1,000) or hot buta kimuchi chige (¥1,300) depending on what the weather’s like outside.

Throw some fish on there as well.

Draft beer is ¥490, and Suehiro has an izakaya-level selection of everything else that you’d expect to find. Everything from wine by the glass to shochu to highballs are priced at about 500 yen each, and all-you-can-drink plans are available.

Suehiro is the newest of a family-run, two-shop chain. The original restaurant is on the north side of the station, and the shop detailed here was opened a few years ago. Both are excellent, but we prefer this one because the service is quick and courteous, and the kimuchi moriawase is delicious.

All in all, you can expect to spend between four and six thousand yen per person at Suehiro.

Tel: 03-5669-1529
Sumida-ku Edobashi 3-8-12
Kinsia Annex 2F
Hours: Mon – Sat 17:00 to 7:00 (L.O. 6:30)
Sun/Holidays 16:00 to 7:00 (L.O. 6:30)

Note: Check Suehiro’s listing on Guru Navi and Hot Pepper before you go. They often have coupons for freebies and discounts on course meals.

Map:

View Sumibi Yakiniku Suehiro (炭火焼肉 すえひろ) South Gate Shop (南口店) in a larger map

Restaurant Review: EAT (Gaienmae)

Tokyo has plenty of burger restaurants, but few as good as Gaienmae’s EAT.

Beef patty on top, veggies below.

What happens when you pair Kobe beef with a decent chef? Hands-down some of the best burgers in Tokyo.

The chef, MICHI, who has brought his talents back to Japan after opening a successful fusion restaurant in Los Angeles, found a hip little space in the ritzy Gaienmae district of downtown Tokyo to open his American dining burger shop, EAT.

The restaurant seats about a dozen people at one time, but the casual and bar-like nature of the place belies the quality of the fare. Yes, it’s an American burger stand, but EAT specializes in Kobe beef patties, and that alone sets it apart from the small upper echelon of burger joints in this town.

We started with a garden salad of fresh greens, mushroom slices and tomato wedges, and then moved on to a dish of EAT’s fresh French Fries. Don’t be alarmed by the counter-rattling thud. That’s just the sound of the cook running a whole potato through the slicer.

After that, it was on to the burgers. We sampled a cheeseburger and an avocado burger, and both were delicious. The Asanoya rolls are toasted until firm on the grill, and the vegetables are as fresh as everything else on the menu. MICHI’s burgers are stacked so that the juices from the beef patty and the sauce on top won’t waterlog the bottom half of the roll so long as you eat at a normal pace. For those that eat more ponderously, there are paper burger sleeves available to help keep your meal out of your lap.

EAT also has lunch sets that include a small portion of homemade fries with your burger of choice. The few times that we’ve visited, there have always been customers coming in to take advantage of the restaurant’s takeout service.

Great burgers just a short walk from Meiji Jingu Baseball Stadium.

The only thing that we could fault the place for was the English translations on the menu. The misspellings were thorough and comical. But perhaps that just adds to the charm. And one thing to be wary of, especially if you have English-speaking children with you, is that the music selection is uncensored (Internet radio channel, perhaps).

EAT has a brief bar menu that features a few imported bottled beers and lots of cocktails. Expect to pay between 1,700 and 2,500 per person for the three dishes mentioned above plus one drink. As with many places, the cost drops if you stop by for lunch.

Directions: This burger stand is about three or four minutes on foot from Gaienmae subway station. Using the route-finder on our smartphone, we walked to EAT from JR Harajuku train station in 20 minutes.

Tel: 03-6459-2432
2-12-27 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku
Hours: 11:30-15:00 and 17:30-22:30 (Weekdays), 11:30-15:00 (Sundays)


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Healthy eating in Tokyo

Christopher Pellegrini reports on the capital’s healthy food options.

Foodie’s paradise, Tokyo, is claimed by many to have the most eateries per capita of all the cities in the world. True or not, finding something that is both healthy and easily accessible can pose a dilemma, especially if you’re not comfortable with the all-Japanese intricacies of information gatekeepers such as the excellent restaurant ranking website, Tabelog. Far too many people find themselves restricted to an onigiri, a jelly squeeze-bag, and a plastic bottle of green tea when they’re looking for a low-cal meal.

In order to provide you with some of Tokyo’s more heart and waist-friendly dining options, we talked with Justin Berti, a yoga instructor, fitness trainer and health nut who for years has scoured this fair city for dining options that jive with his strict diet and that he can recommend to his clients.

Soba

Soba: a standby for vegetarian visitors.

Supermarkets

Sometimes it can be a real bear to find healthy food options at the supermarket nearest your train station. Everything seems to be over processed and packaged. The following supermarkets are chains but carry a decent selection of imported items and health-conscious options.

Natural House has 25 locations in and around Tokyo.

F&F has 11 shops in Tokyo with another five in Kanagawa.

Seijo Ishii doesn’t have an English website, but they do have dozens of locations around Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures.

Berti recommends the bentos at Natural House and F&F, and he mentions Seijo Ishii because it has plenty of “fresh salads and healthy options.”

Restaurants/Cafés

Restaurants often have menu items that look like they might be vegetarian friendly, but don’t think that you can always get an informed answer from your server. There’s fish and beef in almost everything (including potato chips!), and you’d be foolish to assume that the folks preparing your dinner accept the same definition of vegetarianism that you do (vegetarians don’t eat fish?!).

The following are some healthy dining options that have at least a little something that’s safe for vegetarians.

Nouka no Daidokoro is a good option for vegetarians as they offer some 100% vegetable course meal options. This chain of earthy restaurants added two new Tokyo locations within the past 12 months and has a salad bar that is not to be missed.

Nataraj is a small vegetarian Indian restaurant chain that has a few options in Tokyo and they occasionally have evening entertainment options such as belly dance shows.

Little Heaven near Otsuka station is a full-fledged vegan restaurant with somewhat limited hours. Dinner is served 6-9PM every day, and lunch is available Tues to Fri from 11:30AM-2PM.

Shamaim is an Israeli restaurant between Ekoda station (Seibu-Ikebukuro line) and Shin-Ekoda station (Oedo line) and is a good source for hummus and falafel west of the Yamanote loop.

Eat More Greens in Azabu Juban bills itself as a vegetable café and bakery modeled after those found in downtown New York City.

Earth Café Ohana in Sangenjaya caters to vegans and vegetarians and tries to use organic ingredients whenever possible.

Crayon House is a vegetarian-friendly restaurant across from Brown Rice Café (scroll down) that also has a veggie shop in the basement. Be sure to specify that you want food with no meat or fish if that’s your prerogative, they’ll understand.

Bio Café in Shibuya claims a menu with organic options.

Loving Hut recently started selling vegan bentos in the basement of Matsuzaka Department Store in Ginza.

Soup Stock Tokyo has more than 30 locations in Tokyo that feature a revolving menu of low-cal soups and a curry or two. They usually have a vegetarian-looking option on the menu, and you can generally get straight answers about the actual ingredients (hint: ask about lard) which is great for people with allergy concerns as well. Soup Stock Tokyo is essentially a fast food chain, perfect for those times when you only have 20-30 minutes to get a meal in, but it should never be grouped with the ubiquitous burger joints and beef bowl shops of this city.

Saishoku Kenbi Okubo is on a back street between JR Okubo and Shin-Okubo stations and features a vegetarian-friendly and affordable lunch buffet. Closed Tuesdays.

Tenya has shops all across downtown Tokyo and specializes in tempura. This chain can be very helpful for vegetarians who need a quick and cheap bite to eat. The yasai-don is always on the menu, and there are occasionally seasonal variants that get featured as well.

Chaya Macrobiotic has three upscale Tokyo locations and features a menu flush with organic produce and other vegetarian-friendly fare.

Brown Rice Café/Deli in Omotesando adheres to a Whole Foods prep style and specializes in soy, veggies, and of course brown rice. They have a couple of 1,700 yen set meals and a detox juice for 800 yen that purportedly is good for liver overuse control.

Convenience Stores

Konbini are generally not known for selling products that are waist-friendly. However, Berti feels that one chain stands above the rest:

Natural Lawson opened its first shop just over ten years ago, and now there are more than 70 in downtown Tokyo.

“They usually have nuts and dried fruit without added salt. The quality is much better. They also have sweet potato snacks, better fruit cup selections, and a healthier selection of teas–stuff you can’t find in regular convenience stores.”

One of Berti’s biggest pet peeves is the price tags on everything. Even though organic is popular in Tokyo, it can be incredibly hard to find. And when you do find it, you’ll notice that much of it is imported, so “you spend half your rent on an 80% cocoa chocolate bar and almond butter.”

He saves money by ordering from iherb.com, and invites people to freely use his discount code, JUS847, to save five dollars on their first purchase. He also recommends checking out the “Vegan in Tokyo” Facebook group for those that seek strategy tips on finding true vegan fare.

Those who avoid animal products in their food will also be interested in this Google map that details many of the vegetarian and vegan dining establishments available across Japan. The Japan Veg Guide is another resource worth checking out.

So as you can see, there are several health-conscious options available for the vegetarians, flexitarians, weight watchers and pavement pounders among us. Hopefully this short guide has given you a few new ideas for when you’re tracking down your next meal in Tokyo.

Justin Berti is a yoga and fitness instructor at FAB ACADEMY.

An earlier version of this article was originally published by Tokyo Weekender. Special thanks to Adam Gyenes, Mayu Imada and Neill Harper for their valuable input.

Japan Eats meets Tokyo Weekender

We’re pleased to announce that Tokyo Weekender has picked up some of our content and is featuring it exclusively on their site.

Click here to read the October exclusive which presents a list of healthy restaurant, supermarket and general dining options in Tokyo.

Marcus and I were also featured in this interview piece a couple of months ago in which we answered a bunch of questions about eating out in Tokyo and our culinary preferences.

Please swing by Tokyo Weekender and check out what they’ve done with their site. We’re hoping to get some more articles published over there, so feel free to share what you like on Facebook and Twitter.

Restaurant Review: Yama to ten (Shinjuku)

Soupless in Shinjuku

Spicy abura soba

Spicy abura soba

Abura soba shops are popping up all over town these days. A lot of the shops that specialize in this soupless style of ramen serve abura soba and not a whole lot else. The fact that restaurants can have only one item on the menu is clear testament to the popularity of this dish.

Yama to ten (山ト天) in Shinjuku diversifies a bit by featuring a few in-house versions of abura soba as the centerpiece of a modest izakaya menu.

Highly recommended is the spicy abura soba (辛味温玉) which will set you back 600 yen. Heap some freshly chopped onions on top, douse the whole thing with vinegar and raayu, and then mix it all together with your chopsticks. The soft ramen noodles soak up the oils nicely, and they play well with the onions, chashu, bamboo shoots and shredded bits of dried seaweed.

There’s also the standard abura soba for 500 yen and a couple of other options that usually run in the 600-700 yen range.  For those who are better with colors than with kanji, the spicy abura soba is the big button at the top of the ticket machine that has a red background (second from the left).

The shop’s modest menu is also tucked full of izakaya-style dishes that go well with a beer. Everything from gyoza (380-480 yen) to a side of kimchi (290 yen) to sausages (480 yen). A draft beer goes for 420 yen, and the rest of the drinks menu mostly deals with shochu-base drinks such as sours, hais and umeshu (most are 380 yen). You can also order a half bottle of house wine for 980.

Because it’s an izakaya, the whole place is smoker-friendly. If you’d like to avoid the fumes, then we suggest stopping by after the busiest lunch hours and before business picks up again at around 6 PM. They have some tables off to the sides of the counter that are mostly untouched by smoke when the place isn’t busy.

Directions: Yama to ten is part of a new izakaya-themed, mostly open-plan dining area on the MB3 floor (the ‘M’ is not a typo) of Odakyu Halc. In other words, go to Bic Camera near JR Shinjuku west exit and head downstairs. The main entrance is down the stairs that are located near the B2 entrance of Odakyu Halc supermarket.

Tel:03-6302-0405
Odakyu Halc (Haru Chika)
Hours: 11:00 – 24:00 ( LO 23:30 )
Tabelog review (Japanese): http://r.tabelog.com/tokyo/A1304/A130401/13119474/


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Restaurant Review: Ivan Ramen (Rokakoen Station)

Christopher Pellegrini samples the noodles at Ivan Ramen

You should definitely try Orkin's roasted tomatoes (Roast Tomato Meshi).

Ramen is one of those dishes that people will travel considerable distances to consume. It’s kind of like the trouble die-hard fanboys go to when trying to get their hands on a freshly released edition of a franchise–they’ll wait in line for it. They’ll make plans days in advance to be in another part of the country just to have dibs on the best seats for the big event.

And if you understand that, then you can comprehend with reasonable accuracy the lengths to which true ramen fans will pursue their addiction. They’re as obsessive as any other foodie out there, and in many cases more so.

And while I’m not the fanboy type, I must admit that I planned nearly a week in advance to visit Ivan Ramen, a corner ramen shop less than 10 minutes on foot from Rokakoen station in Setagaya Ward (Keio Line) that is owned by American chef, Ivan Orkin.

The shop is a very simple square with an L-shaped counter and space for about 10 customers. There is nothing significant going on with the decor, and the concrete-floored kitchen space is both well-organized and spotless. The focus is clearly on the food at Ivan Ramen, and that’s how it should be.

Ivan Orkin is something of a celebrity both for successfully wedging his way into the secretive ramen world here in Japan and for doing things his own way. His ramen soup is not rammed with lard as is customary, and he makes his own noodles with a dough that utilizes three types of flour. There’s also a very strong dependence on fresh ingredients. In that sense, even though this is technically ‘B-class’ Japanese cuisine, and is often referred to as fast food, dining at Ivan Ramen does not exact as much of an attack on one’s health as ramen customarily can.

After ordering your food from a ticket machine out in the alley, diners are encouraged to find a seat and enjoy the soft music playing in the background for just a couple of minutes. Jazz was on the airwaves when we visited, and we were grateful for the attention to detail on the proprietor’s part.

The wait doesn’t last long at Ivan Ramen. Most orders will be in front of you in less than a couple of minutes. Ivan himself explained recently in the first edition of Lucky Peach that his ramen noodles take 40 seconds to boil, but we were still surprised how quickly our meals arrived.

One special currently on the menu at Ivan Ramen is the “Fresh Salad Hiyashi Chuka” which is a blend of garden

Fresh Salad Hiyashi Chuka Ramen

salad and cold soup and all with a bit of Chinese cooking thrown in for good measure. And we were pleased that we grabbed one of these (only 15 are served daily) because the freshness of the ingredients (the tomatoes are absolutely out of this world!) and the marriage of the soup and noodles led to an exceptional and filling meal.

It’s important to note that the specials change regularly, so it’s worth it to either check the restaurant’s website or make a return visit every once in a while.

We also tried the Cha-shu- Spicy Red Chili Men (noodles) and the Roast Tomoto Meshi (rice). The former features the house’s signature thin ramen noodles and a small puddle of chili soup with half of a hard-boiled egg bobbing in the shallows. The regular menu also sports several shio and shoyu-base ramen dishes, tsukemen, other sides, a ‘beer of the day’ for 400 yen, and homemade ice cream.

Ramen dishes are mostly priced between 800 and 1,000 yen with topping upgrades such as extra cha-shu- and menma costing 100 yen each. A range of rice bowls range from 200 to 800 yen and are available in two sizes.

It’s very difficult to go wrong at Ivan Ramen. We would highly recommend anything with Orkin’s roasted tomatoes in it. The preponderance of fresh and healthy ingredients in Orkin’s creations will make you rethink whether ramen is a Japanese version of fast food.

And for those who enjoy the innovation that is part and parcel with his take on ramen, then you are encouraged to visit Ivan Ramen Plus, a second shop that he opened last year.

3-24-7 Minami Karasuyama, Setagaya-ku Tokyo, 157-0062
(Rokakoen station on the Keio Line)
Ph: 03-6750-5540
Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri 5:30 PM – 10:30 PM (closed Wednesdays)
Sat, Sun and Nat’l Holidays 11:30 AM – 5:30 PM
Also closed the 4th Tuesday of every month.
http://www.ivanramen.com/top_en.html


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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.