Anthony Bourdain said he remembered the moment he realized he was living life in black and white. It was traveling in Asia that helped him see life in color. Like him, I remember the moment I realized I was seeing life in low resolution: my first trip to Japan, when life suddenly became high definition. I’d liken the moment I stepped out of Osaka’s Namba subway station to a mist disappearing from my pupils. I relived that powerful moment when I traveled to Kanazawa for the first time, as well.
have to get something off my chest first, though. Hollywood and films like Ghost in the Shell seem to have forged a strange image that gives Japan a Blade Runner/Cyberpunk image. Or is it the other way around? From its being a technology hub with futuristic ideas and atmospheres to its alleys lit by bright signs and neon lights, do Osaka’s Dotonbori and some parts of Tokyo’s Shinjuku like Golden Gai spring to mind.
After years of consistently visiting Japan, I have learned to think that these sorts of images misrepresent Japan. In my opinion, mega-tourist destinations like downtown Osaka and Tokyo don’t show the real Japan. Kyoto, Nara, and Kanazawa are much more likely to show an old and/or genuine version of this famous country. Visiting areas like those will make you realize that Japan’s colors don’t jump out quite like a Blade Runner theme does. To the best of what my unartistic mind can express, the country’s aesthetics are beautiful and natural, yet subtle.
I think these characteristics are reflected in nihonshu (sake), as sake is an unassuming and natural-looking drink packed with beautiful yet subtle flavors. Sake and shochu are sadly overshadowed by the better-promoted Japanese whisky, which unfortunately becomes clear when speaking to tourists. The mere mention of Japan makes them think of Japanese whisky, which hasn’t even been around for 100 years, rather than the country’s much older native drinks.
As fun as it is to visit Tokyo and Osaka, they mostly reveal only Japan’s modern side. As a tourist, one of the country’s enthralling aspects is how well they’ve kept and maintained their traditional aesthetics and historic areas. That said, I’ve been alive long enough to learn that change is the only constant in life. Traditional and historic areas like Kyoto’s Gion district could slowly be disappearing, and in fact, will disappear one day. They could slowly be vanishing at this very moment. With these concerns in mind, I went to Ishikawa Prefecture’s Kanazawa, also known as Little Kyoto. If you love Kyoto, you will love Kanazawa. It’s about a two-and-a-half-hour train ride from Kyoto. It’s called Little Kyoto because of its cultural charms and its awesome food.
What cultural charms do I speak of? For one, the city was able to keep its historic structures because it wasn’t bombed during World War II. The image above is from Higashi Chaya, a historic tea house district where one can spot geisha. If you’re into gardens, the Kenroku-en is just beautiful. People with a fascination for samurai will also love the city’s samurai neighborhood. One can walk around there and even visit a few old samurai homes open to the public. (Check out Kanazawa’s kitchen, the Omicho market, for food.) Lastly, what surprised me the most is Kanazawa’s gold leaf tradition. It is said that 99% of Japan’s gold leaf supply comes from the city. Kanazawa literally means “golden marsh” when translated. I guess their abundance of gold led to their tradition of kintsugi as well. Kintsugi is the art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold or silver. I recommend you visit The Londonya Bar if you want to drink using glasses that have been repaired by kintsugi.
What would one of my ramblings on Malt be without booze? One of my other main reasons for going to Kanazawa was to visit The Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery. Sadly, my plans didn’t work out so well. Instead, I visited their sake tasting room and store in the Higashi Chaya district.
For someone who is still fairly new to the world of nihonshu, Fukumitsuya is my current favorite sake brewery. I only encountered them this past December when I visited their store in Tokyo. They let me taste some of their regular sake, as well as its aged variety, for free. I immediately fell in love and brought home a couple of bottles. P.S. They also sell sake-related cosmetics. Something about the sake lees (sake production leftovers) being good for the skin. Their sake lees ice cream is amazing as well.
Fukumitsuya is the oldest sake brewery in Kanazawa and has been in operation since 1625. Wow; that means it will be their 400th anniversary in 2025. All this time of being open has made them the largest sake brewery in Ishikawa Prefecture. The little I know about this brewery is that they started to only make Junmai (pure rice) sake back in 2001.
I was trying to be very clear about the brewery being my favorite. A sake brewery can sell their sake under different brands. The sake I featured for this review is from their Fuku Masamune (福正宗) brand. It’s the brand which they sell more of in Ishikawa prefecture; when I checked for an English translation of Fuku Masamune, I could only come up with the Fuku (福) translation to “blessing” or “authentic,” while the characters for Masamune (正宗) are the same as the characters of the Masamune sword-maker.
This sake is called Kanazawa Junmai Daiginjo Hara. It’s made with Yamada Nishiki rice and is bottled at 17% ABV. 50% of the rice was polished away to make this Junmai Daiginjo. The reason I bought this sake is because it can only be bought in the prefecture, but I don’t know why, as the other Fuku Masamune expressions can be bought outside.
Kanazawa Junmai Daiginjo Hara – review
Color: Very, very pale yellow.
On the nose: A mellow yet persistent dry, with bits of funky smell. The dryness reminds me of the scents of rice husk but with hints of cucumber and pepper. I get mochi, pears and hints of marzipan after.
In the mouth: This is much sweeter and richer, yet still has a bit of astringence in the mouth. I get white mochi, marzipan and pears upfront with hints of genmaicha. I get some hints of white strawberry and hints of melon at the end.
A style of Junmai Daiginjo Yamada Nishiki sake to which I’m not accustomed. This is more like the Terada Honke sake I had. For reference, I’m used to the style Dassai makes, which are sweeter and easier to drink. The funky characteristic in this makes me think it was made in Yamahai style.
Kimoto-style sake is the traditional and most common style of sake-making. Yamahai-style sake is often characterized by a funky flavor. I used to think all sake made with Yamada Nishiki sakamai was very easy to drink; I’m glad I turned out to be wrong. This means I’ve got a lot more sake to try!
While this is interesting, I don’t think it is a kind of sake I’d pair with food or drink often. I think I have to be in a certain mood to drink this. A release from Fukumitsuya I’ll likely not return to, but I am glad to have tried.