Shochu is only just beginning to appear on diners’ radars outside Japan, even though it outsells nihonshu (sake) on its home turf. More often than not, people are introduced to the drink when they set foot in a Japanese or Asian fusion restaurant in a major metropolitan area.
Others come across it for the first time in liquor shops or markets, and although curiosity abounds, there has been precious little information available on the subject in a language other than Japanese. Enter Japan Eats contributor, Christopher Pellegrini, a Shochu Sommelier certified by the Sake Service Institute. Pellegrini’s new publication, The Shochu Handbook, was published last month and it’s the most comprehensive English language reference on shochu to date.
It was a long time in the making. Pellegrini spent more than three years researching and writing the book. He recently returned from a brief book-signing tour, which took him to three venues in two countries. He talked shochu in New York City at SakaMai on August 19th and Sakaya on the 20th before jetting to Vancouver for an event at Legacy Liquor Store on the 23rd.
The book was well-received, but Pellegrini insists that promoting awareness of shochu was the most important goal of his trip.
“To a certain extent, I was preaching to the choir in New York. There are a bunch of decent Japanese restaurants and bars there, and I actually piggybacked on an established shochu lovers’ event. I had a great time talking shochu with the members of that community.”
He highly recommends Shochu Tuesdays at SakaMai for anyone that wants to learn more about shochu in New York City. Shochu expert Stephen Lyman organizes the weekly events and there are usually two or three shochu available at happy hour prices. Uminoie is another great place downtown to try a variety of shochu along with some good Japanese cooking.
One pleasant discovery from the book tour was that shochu has significant potential worldwide even if many people haven’t heard of it yet. Bartenders are beginning to catch wind of the variety of flavors available, and bar managers are beginning to add shochu cocktails to their menus. Cherry Izakaya, a new addition to the New York City scene, has a refreshing list of Mizu no Mai-based shochu cocktails that are definitely worth a taste. The creative work of mixologists is beginning to help spread shochu to a wider audience.
Pellegrini’s events, though, focused on some of the more standard serving styles, at least as far as premium shochu fans in Japan are concerned. The events at Sakaya and Legacy featured potato shochu served maewari (blended beforehand with cool water) while most of the shochu at the SakaMai event was served over ice.
“Many are surprised that shochu is often served on the rocks in an old-fashioned glass rather than something more akin to a shot. Shochu is a sipping drink with layered flavors to be savored,” quipped the longtime Tokyo resident.
“I had a lot of fun revealing shochu’s complexities to customers at Legacy in Vancouver. Several people said the shiso and potato bottles I poured were like nothing they had ever tried before. They were really into it, and several bottles left the shelves even though it retails in British Columbia for more than five times the price that you’d pay in Japan.”
Pellegrini is now eyeing an official launch party for the book in Tokyo in November. After that, he’s planning to head to Honolulu for a book event in February of 2015. He said he is also working to develop a new website that will provide valuable information to consumers and shochu manufacturers alike.
Senior Yuletide Correspondent Garrett De Orio shares his tips for Christmas in Tokyo.
To begin this piece on Christmas in Tokyo, I attempted to add to what I knew by sending out a request for recommendations to a number of long-term expat residents – usually a surefire way of getting ideas.
This time, every single person who responded either pined for the Western locales they knew from days of yore or quipped that the best place to celebrate the holiday in Japan was New York (or London, or Miami, or Munich, or Monowi, Nebraska—you get the idea).
Indeed, Tokyo is not seen as a Christmas destination. For the parents of young kids, it’s a time to buy toys, which is a lot less endearing when not experienced through the hoary brume of a Burl Ives record. For young couples, it’s almost identical to Valentine’s Day in the Anglophone world. In this light, my expat friends’ response isn’t entirely unfair.
Well, put on your Bing Crosby, your Nat King Cole, or even your Chipmunks or your Percy Faith if that’s what floats your boat, and get into the spirit, friend. There is hope.
DECK THE HALLS
The giants Costco (¥4,200 annual membership required) and Ikea carry a variety of holiday items, including real fir trees, Ikea’s being a particularly good deal at ¥1,990 plus a coupon for the same amount if you bring the tree back.
In-town favorites Tokyu Hands and Don Quijote have numerous locations and an array of artificial trees, ornaments, lights, and decorations ranging from classic green saplings to huge tacky light-up giant Santas to items best-suited to decking the halls of your bordello. The always handy Foreign Buyers’ Club can also help with décor if your order soon to account for shipping time.
NOW FOR THE FOOD
If you’re being traditional and cooking at home, you’re in luck. Many of the dishes you love are just as possible here as at home. Check the aforementioned FBC or The Meat Guy to order a ham or turkey. Both also carry appropriate sides and pies. Niku no Hanamasa also carries whole turkeys and hams. Import mini-market chain Seijo-Ishii carries a respectable assortment of holiday dishes, including turkeys (by order), pie crusts, mixes, and more. Import markets Euroseed and Jupiter, a relative newcomer to Tokyo, but long popular in the Chubu and Kansai areas, have similar offerings. Of course, the good old depachika (department store basement) near you is sure to carry a selection of seasonal items, especially desserts, albeit at a price.
It’s worth keeping your eyes peeled, too. In years past, roasted turkeys have popped up for sale in locations as unlikely as fashion retailer Comme ça du Mode.
Tokyo is a veritable paradise of date spots around Christmastime. Virtually any restaurant with even a vaguely Western menu, and many without, will offer some kind of Christmas course for couples.
If you and your date are looking for something special, the city’s top tier hotels are a good place to start. The Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel has options ranging from a European Christmas Buffet (¥3,500 lunch/¥5,200 dinner) to a Christmas Dinner Course (¥15,000). Special room packages are also available, from the “Joyful” or “Shiny” Christmases (¥20,000-¥25,000) to the “Christmas Dream” in the Presidential Suite (¥300,000). (All December 23rd to 25th.)
In addition to its “Stylish Christmas” illuminations and décor, the Hilton Tokyo Bay offers room packages and dining options ranging from a Christmas Buffet (¥3,900 lunch/¥5,500 dinner) and a World Christmas Dessert Buffet in the lobby lounge (¥2,700 weekdays/¥2,950 weekends and holidays) to a Chinese Christmas Special Course (a Christmas Day tradition for a number of Americans, ¥3,800 lunch/¥10,000 dinner), all of which run from the 22nd through the 25th, except for the Dessert Buffet, which starts a week earlier.
The Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi offers an elaborate six course dinner in its Executive Dining Room (¥30,000) from the 23rd to the 25th. Also available, from the 19th to the 25th, are a Christmas Dinner (¥13,000) and a three course Christmas Lunch (¥3,900). From the 1st of December, sample a Christmas Cocktail (from ¥2,100) or Christmas Afternoon Tea (from ¥3,500).
The Park Hyatt’s New York Grill offers a five course Christmas menu (¥22,000), and selections from its 1,600-bottle wine cellar, served in its famous 52nd floor premises overlooking Shinjuku from the 16th to the 25th.
Stylish Swedish establishment Aquavit has an artful holiday menu on offer (¥12,000) from the 22nd to the 25th. For a meal cooked by a proper Swedish chef in a more relaxed atmosphere, Kokubunji’s Lighthouse is offering a Christmas dinner for a bargain ¥2,000, in addition to their fine collection of regular and guest beers and ales.
Of course, the much-touted four course Christmas dinner at Wine Bar Davis (03-3440-6007), which boasts roast goose and British Christmas pudding, is available for one sitting on the 23rd and 26th and two sittings each night on the 24th and 25th.
For those who want something more casual, the Pink Cow will be serving its customary popular Christmas dinner (¥4,200) on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. One of the highlights is that the Pink Cow’s holiday feast includes vegetarian-friendly offerings. If a communal feel, tofurkey, and some live entertainment appeal to you, this would be the place to go.
Good Honest Grub also serves up a traditional meal, with vegetarian-friendly options, in a casual atmosphere. This has long been a favorite not only with hungry expats, but with those interested in organic food or in knowing whence their fare hails.
The ever-popular Hobgoblin has a three-course ample Christmas dinner available on Christmas Day (¥5,000) and is also hosting a Charity Pub Quiz on the 14th at which a turkey dinner will be available.
This article first appeared in the Tokyo Weekender.
Garrett DeOrio reviews Chris Bunting’s Drinking Japan
I tend to approach tomes of this genre with a fair dose of skepticism as they often fall into one of two categories, even when they’re not bad: a. strong on one drink or area, weak on the others, or b. written by authors who don’t know the turf and focus on spots tourists would find anyway.
Thankfully, my skepticism was dispelled within moments of cracking the cover on Chris Bunting’s attractive new release. He included a few places I know and love (which shows he has good taste!) and listed many more I either didn’t know or hadn’t tried. What better way to give a drink or travel book a fair shake than to road test it?
Bunting’s motivating premise, as he sets forth in his introduction is, simply, that “Japan. . . [is] the best place to drink alcohol in the world.”
He allows that the denizens and partisans of other capitals might be irritated by his proposition and grants them their due. He’s being too nice – those who put forth other locales, especially other cities against Tokyo (where the majority of the bars Bunting includes are located), simply don’t get it, which is why his book is so welcome.
Drinking Japan reads like a travel book – not a touring handbook, mind you, but a travel book, replete with anecdotes and impressions, which not only gives the reader a better idea of what they might be getting into, but also allows Bunting to establish a voice. And that voice is one that will make most readers feel like having a beer, or a whisky, or a glass of wine, or shochu, or awamori, or sake, or even makkori, with the man.
After a brief introduction to Japan’s drinking culture, complete with both a few warnings for the neophyte (or for those who just haven’t yet learned their lessons) and some history, Drinking Japan is divided up into chapters based on the sort of drink each of the 112 establishments he includes specializes in or is most-worth going for. These being: Sake, Shochu, Awamori, Beer, Whisky, Wine, and then others. Each of the seven drink-centered chapters is preceded by an introduction to the drink and its history and place in Japan’s tippling milieu.
The drink chapters are followed by a chapter on liquor stores and other retail establishments and a brief appendix on “Bar Japanese”.
Drinking Japan is focused on the good stuff and written for people who are interested in drinking, as opposed to people who just drink. While not every place he includes is pricey, this is far from a guide for the budget traveler. If you believe that you get what you pay for or don’t mind paying more for better drinks and good atmosphere, Bunting has something you’ll like, if not 112 things. On the other hand, if a cheap happoshu nomi-hodai is all you want out of your drinking life or don’t care how knowledgeable the bartender is or how friendly the clientele might be, you probably won’t get much from his work.
As with any effort of this breadth, Drinking Japan has a handful of minor shortcomings. First and foremost is geography: Of the 112 establishments included, 75 are in central Tokyo and a further nine are lumped together in “West Tokyo”. Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city, rates only two entries – both beer bars. The entire Tohoku and Chubu regions merit just one each: Sendai’s Isshin and Takayama’s Pub Red Hill, which means Japan’s fourth-largest city, Nagoya, is overlooked entirely. Likewise, the entire island of Kyushu is represented only by two shochu bars in Kagoshima – nada for the Fukuoka metropolis – and lovely Shikoku is passed by.
Being centered on the drinks themselves, the book also omits a number of neighborhoods known for their charm more than their pure liquid gourmet appeal, although he does include the venerable Lion Ginza 7-chome (the old one) solely for its mosaic and its place in history. Similarly, the inclusion of the cheap izakaya Kaasan – a chain shop for the cheap gourmand and notable for its ability to host sizable parties seems odd. Nothing wrong with the place, and its branches tend to have a more relaxed atmosphere and fewer screaming kids than other chains, but it does raise a question: Why Kaasan and not any of the numerous more worthy entries of the same sort?
That said, I still eagerly took a number of Bunting’s recommendations and largely agreed with him. He doesn’t mind spending a bit at times, but he knows whereof he speaks, gets the details right, and won’t steer you wrong.
If you’re unfamiliar with Japan, especially Tokyo (and that seems to be the target audience), Drinking Japan is a great place to start. If you live here, you’ll still find some new gems.
If you pick it up and decide to try it out, let us know. If you have a beloved haunt Bunting missed, let us know about that, too. Heck, invite us to try it out with you sometime. (We bark a lot, but we rarely bite. Except for that one time, and Pellegrini is really sorry about that.)
by Chris Bunting
Tuttle, US$24.95/2,130 yen (may vary), 272 pgs.
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.
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.
Rather than produce new libations, Hasegawa has repackaged some popular sake, shochu, and umeshu in fancy 2010 World Cup South Africa-themed bottles. While there were 13 different sake, two shochu, an umeshu, and a lemon liqueur thus bottled, we here were able to get our hands on six nice sake selections. Read more
Yes, the 2010 World Cup is infecting Japan Eats, too. While we have a little Japan-centered FIFA-related tippling on the way, tonight England, home to a good chunk of our friends out there, take on Germany, also a quite Japan Eats-friendly country.
So, what’s on tap tonight is not only what’s on tap, but what’s in bottles: the least scientific head-to-head imaginable. Battle of the beers! Read more
In the interests of being up front with you, dear readers, I stumbled across Il Cantuccio looking for a quick bite before going to a play and had no intention of reviewing it. However, that quick bite turned into such a great experience that I quickly realized I should write it up. Here goes.
In a neighborhood packed to the gills with little, interesting eateries, the Italian restaurant Il Cantuccio took my surprise for a few reasons. First, once you get inside, it’s surprisingly big. Not chain family restaurant big, but at somewhere are fifty, it seats more people than most of the local restaurants in Shimo-Kitazawa. Read more
Welcome to the first ever Japan Eats Recipe Tournament, the 2010 Winter Olympics Edition.
With the 2010 Winter Olympic Games set to kick off in Vancouver on Friday, we here at Japan Eats have decided to give all of you gourmets, gourmands, foodies, epicures, and cooks out there a chance to compete alongside the athletes.
We’re looking for snack recipes – original, unusual, or little-known treats and tidbits of which you know, tweaks and twists on old favorites – from the fancy to the simple, fingerfoods to salsa, we want to see (and eat) what you’re cooking. Read more