Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Sake Tasting in Naramachi

Nana and I started our epic expedition to Australia and New Zealand in Nara, Japan, waiting for a cheap Sunday night flight from Kansai to Cairns.

Nara has two main sightseeing areas: the old town of Naramachi, and Nara Koen, a sprawling municipal park that's home to most of the area's 8th-century temples and shrines.

For our one night in Nara, Nana and I stayed at Ryokan Matsumae, a humble, old-fashioned Japanese inn located in the heart of Naramachi. Our first afternoon in Nara was spent on a leisurely stroll through the old town, punctuated with a few timely snack breaks and finished off with an hour in the baths at the inn. A much needed bit of decompression after the long school year.

The highlight of the day was a sake tasting at a traditional brewery on the southern edge of the old town. Five varieties of local brew about 800 yen - a really great deal.

I must now admit that I haven't been much of a sake drinker - I've generally preferred Kyushu's local shochu, or one of Japan's excellent but difficult-to-find microbrews. Scotch is also surprisingly easy to come by in Japan.

But that brewery in Nara has shown me the error of my ways. High-quality chilled sake may be my new favorite summer's-day quaff. I particularly liked the two seasonal brews: one a feather-light sake with a hint of Asian pear, the other a cloudy white sake that tasted a bit like a strong Belgian barley wine.
Took photos of all the labels for future reference.

My favorite.

My second favorite. It tasted a bit like Korean maekgolli.

Sake doesn't actually seem to smell like much. Not a huge difference in "nose," unlike whisky or wine.
Nana's favorite was the special secret brew number six, a naturally carbonated sparkling sake - basically, sake champagne.

As a bonus, our tasting included several varieties of Narazuke pickles. Narazuke are vegetables preserved in sake lees.

The color and flavor both vary with the length of the pickling process. Relatively young pickles are yellow, with a lighter and more acidic flavor, while the oldest are deep brown and taste like they've been smoked. (I'm not actually sure the smokiest pickles weren't, in fact, smoked.)

Japanese pickles (tsukemono) are something of an acquired taste, but we've both grown to like them: each a tiny little bite of intense flavor, often overwhelming if you don't intersperse them with sips of miso or bites of white rice.

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