In the middle of February I was able to finally return to Japan, where I spent a total of a week split between Kyoto and Osaka. If I were to encapsulate my trip in a few words it would be these lyrics from Kenshi Yonezu’s Kickback: “Happy. Lucky. Konnichiwa, baby.”
Happy, because Japan has always been my happy place. It’s easily my favorite country to visit, largely because it’s a place with an amazing culture, great people, delicious food, and tasty drinks. The organized public transportation makes it easy to get around. It’s also very safe at any time of the day. Everything there just works.
Lucky, because anyone who gets to travel for fun is really lucky. Also, weeks before my arrival, Japan was experiencing a cold snap. Kyoto experienced snowstorms. Their public transportation suffered. Residents had to shovel snow and break ice on the streets. The cold snap ended or toned down during the week of my arrival. It was extremely good timing for me, otherwise my tropical ass would have frozen over. I wanted to bring home as many bottles as I could, so I didn’t pack thermals to save luggage space.
Konnichiwa, baby, because who doesn’t feel good about visiting Japan? I always do. Everyone I know has always wanted to visit or go back there. I’m always in such a good mood there that I don’t get as much sleep because I feel like sleeping there is time wasted. As much as I’d love to keep saying hello to Japan in my lifetime, it’s also where I would like to have my last meal. That happy ending kind of scenario where I just pass away peacefully in my hotel room after having one last great meal and drinks.
Over the years of frequently visiting Japan, I wasn’t always sure whether Tokyo or Kyoto was my favorite city there. But, my new experiences from this trip made Kyoto my favorite destination in Japan. It’s just a really good mix of a modern urban city combined with nature and traditional design. One of the new reasons was visiting Kiyomizu-dera. I don’t even know the history of the place, but there’s something about hiking up a mountain to visit a temple that reminds me of Jenga. Getting there makes for a good morning walk as you’re going up a slope coming from Gion.
Another of the new experiences was finding a very unique nihonshu (sake) bar called Sake Bar Yoramu. Thanks again to Stephen Lyman for recommending this to me. I’ll talk about this amazing bar in more detail in my next article. What I’ll say for now is thanks to this bar, I’ve found a deeper appreciation for nihonshu, As well as more brands to love and geek out on. It’s also nice to be able to review nihonshu on Malt again.
Tamagawa sake from Kinoshita Brewery is one of the brands that I ended up liking. The brewery is in the region of Kyoto, but it’s pretty close to the coast. So, it’s pretty far from the city. I’ve read that it’ll take about three hours via train to get there. They’ve been making nihonshu since 1842. It’s been under the same family ever since their fifth generation head founded the brewery.
What makes Tamagawa unique to other nihonshu breweries is that their toji, Philip Harper (master brewer) is British. He’s said to be the first immigrant to have this title. Ever since becoming the toji in 2007, he has aimed to challenge industry preconceptions. You can learn more about him through this NHK video.
One of these preconceptions is that nihonshu is delicate. I think this is largely due to the availability of more popular brands, like Dassai, having a cleaner and more delicate profile, which results in most of the industry saying that nihonshu has to be consumed within a year of production. Meaning, most believe that sake can’t be aged like some wines because they will “go bad.” Being delicate means they have to be kept in cold and controlled temperatures to keep from going bad also.
How Tamagawa challenges these preconceptions is they make more durable products. My interpretation of durable is that there’s more body. By more body, I mean they seem to have more acidity compared to the mainstream brands. The ones I tried at Bar Yoramu and brought home so far, at least, have these characteristics. They’re also advocates for the three “U’s” in nihonshu. These are undiluted (genshu), unpasteurized (nama) and unfiltered [by charcoal muroka]. For the whisk(e)y drinkers this would be the equivalent of cask strength and non-chill filtered.
Aside from these, they also employ spontaneous fermentation. The brewery started doing this after Phil Harper became the toji. In spirits lingo, this would be using wild yeast or natural fermentation. The oenophiles may be more familiar with the term “natural wine” in this case. This means they don’t employ cultured yeast for fermentation. Rather, they rely on the ambient yeast unique to their brewery. Natural wine, Clairin, traditional Mezcal, and some Jamaican rums are some examples of categories that use wild yeast. Let me say that there’s nothing wrong with using cultured yeast. It’s just that, for me, wild yeast is a less commonly used technique that, often, produces more interesting flavors.
Not only do they use spontaneous fermentation, they also like to use the Yamahai technique. The way I understand it, it’s a less common way of starting a fermentation, as it tends to produce a funkier profile. Kimoto is currently the more common one. Nihonshu made with the Yamahai method is said to produce funkier and acidic flavors, which leads to the nihonshu having more body. My limited experience with all the Yamahai sake I’ve had so far agrees to this.
Before bottling, they age some of their nihonshu in what seems to be stainless steel tanks at room temperature. Despite the lack of wood contact, this type of aging also results in the liquid turning brown. My guess is this is due to contact with oxygen.
So far, I also love that they use the original sake rice (sakamai) strain called Omachi. It’s currently my favorite sakamai because I get more flavor from it, compared to the more mainstream Yamada Nishiki.
I didn’t have this particular SKU of Tamagawa at Bar Yoramu. But, one of their other bottlings available at the bar made me gravitate toward the brand. So, I asked the owner where I could buy bottles of this. He graciously pointed me to a store with a huge selection. This is one of the ones I bought.
The “BY” on the label stands for brewing year. This nihonshu was bottled in November of 2o22. Tamagawa’s Time Machine Vintage is aged for three years in the bottle. I guess this means that the nihonshu spend at least two years in stainless steel tanks before being bottled.
Tamagawa Time Machine Vintage (2017 BY) – Review
12% ABV. 360ml. JPY 1,760.
On the nose: I get light, mellow, and dry aromas of barley tea, roasted and toasted rice, honey, and coconut syrup. While this isn’t wine made from grapes, the texture and flow of aromas remind me of Madeira. This is just without its added sweetness.
In the mouth: I get light and brief notes that make me think of barley tea, toasted rice, roasted rice and biko. It’s Filipino rice cake made from glutinous rice and coconut syrup.
Drinking this makes me think that there’s still so much to learn about the world of booze; especially the wonders that (wild) fermentation can achieve. This is like going from drinking clean tasting mass produced 100% agave tequila, like Patron, to drinking agave-forward tequila from Fortaleza.