Ichi-go Ichi-e (一期一会) is my favorite Japanese idiom. This idiom helps me to remember to live in the moment. It means once-in-a-life-time encounter, or having an experience that can’t be repeated. Meaning, you can have the same company at the same place, but the moments you share with each other won’t be the same as past or future ones.
Because Japan has such a unique culture that I will never fully understand, I rarely find myself taking anything for granted there. The country is rife with new experiences. If not, it helps me gain a better understanding of a previous concept or experience. It keeps me on my toes in a good way. As I’ve said before, there are just pockets of everything for everyone there. My latest trip there let me have another ichi-go ichi-e experience in Sake Bar Yoramu.
The eight-to-nine-seater bar is owned and solely operated by Yoram Ofer. He’s an Israeli who moved to Japan as a student in the 80s. As you can guess, the bar’s name comes from his name. He opened his bar sometime in the year 2000, which means the bar has been open for at least 22 years. I’m not going to pretend that I got to know personal information about him, so I’m going to direct you to this NHK video on him and these articles from Punch Drink, Melbourne Sake and Sake Today.
Teuchi Toru Soba’s Yamakake Soba (cold soba topped with grated yam, raw egg yolk, sliced green onions and wasabi. Mix and slurp.)
From 11:30am to 3pm on certain days, the space is called Teuchi Toru Soba. It’s a soba restaurant run solely by a different person; who makes his soba from scratch. Don’t worry, there’s an English menu. By night, it’s Sake Bar Yoramu. Check the website for the hours.
I didn’t get to know Yoram on a personal level, but I managed to find out how much he loves and how he sees nihonshu. There were a few things that made going to Sake Bar Yoramu and meeting Yoram an ichi-go ichi-e experience for me. Firstly, it’s rare to find a nihonshu bar in Japan. This is something I didn’t realize until Yoram pointed it out. The places that mainly serve nihonshu there are either izakayas or shops that let you taste in the store. But it’s hard to geek out in an izakaya due to the usually fast pace. Plus, the servers tend to not know intimate details of the brand. Add the language barrier issue if you’re a foreigner.
The lack of nihonshu-focused bars is odd for a country with a very advanced drinking culture. There are numerous bars focused on wine, cocktails, rum, and whisky, but it’s hard to find a bar that’s as focused on one of their indigenous drinks.
Secondly, there’s no menu. This is always a good sign for me, as it means the person/s behind the bar intimately knows what they are talking about. When in bars, it usually means I’m going to get to learn or try something new. I remember him asking me what direction I would like, as I took a seat after he welcomed me. Browsing through the shelves and the fridge behind him wasn’t much help. None of the bottles there were familiar to me.
Thirdly, he’s the only nihonshu bar that bottle ages his nihonshu. His means of aging is just storing bottles of nihonshu in his house. When asked if the aging makes the nihonshu better, he will tell you it makes it different, which is a refreshing answer. Because the majority of the (lazy) industry has conditioned consumers into thinking that aging always makes a drink better. So, it’s easy for someone behind an unfamiliar concept, such as aged sake, to claim it to be. But he doesn’t. The second reason is it reaffirms my hypothesis that this man is honest. He opened the bar for his passion and not to swindle money from customers.
This leads to the fourth reason, which is more connected to the third. He’s set in his ways. What gave me this impression is that none of the brands in his bar are mainstream. So, he’s not out there, as a foreigner, trying to catch the market of tourists curious about nihonshu by serving mainstream brands. Instead, he serves brands which have character.
After drinking there for two nights, I agree that all of the nihonshu he served me were full-bodied, very interesting, and far from the clean tasting brands readily available in the market. If I recall correctly, everything I tried were also wild fermented and unpasteurized. I admire people like this. They find ways to do what they want with as little compromise as possible. He was even advised not to open the bar and that he would fail due to how unpopular nihonshu was in Japan then. Remember, Yoram opened this bar in the year 2000. Nihonshu is only just getting popular. Imagine how much more unpopular it was then!
Looking back, how I scheduled my visit was a mistake. Stephen Lyman recommended the place to me when I asked for a sake bar recommendation. I didn’t do any research on it, so I thought I’d just give it a shot. I now realize and wish I could’ve had more nihonshu by exploring less bars and spending less time in them. For my first visit, I went at around 10 PM after coming from Rum and Whisky Kyoto. Luckily, the bar wasn’t full.
As you take a seat, Yoram will ask which direction you want to go. Having not been familiar with the brands there, I just told him I wanted a full-bodied junmai made from namazake (unpasteurized) Omachi. He said that those weren’t enough for him to go on. With that I asked if he had any funky nihonshu. He proceeded to bring out a few bottles. I can’t read Japanese, so I just slowly tried most of what he brought out. After trying each bottle, I’d ask what the brand was called and which brewery it came from. One of the bottles he brought out was a Tamagawa.
If my talking about Bar Yoramu makes you feel intimidated, please don’t. As long as you’re open minded enough, he’s willing to guide you through the motions. He will tell you about the brands and the producer of what you’re drinking. He’s someone I’d easily consider opinionated and assertive, but keeps it polite. The prices are also so affordable. I think I spent around JPY 5,000 for ordering three to four glasses in one night. In my opinion, the prices don’t match the quality… in a good way.
Because I arrived at 10 PM and his closing time was midnight, the experience was short. So, I told myself I had to return the next day, as the bar would be closed the day after that. I’d be leaving for Osaka the day after. I wanted to drink more and ask more questions. I made sure to return at an earlier time and to not drink anything before going. When I arrived at around 7 PM, the bar was full. So, he asked me to come back later. Luckily, after an hour, a seat opened up. Despite being full, he made sure he gave everyone ample attention. I got to ask more questions on how he chose which nihonshu to age, and if there was a proper way to age it.
Basically, he said that he chose fuller-bodied sake because they can withstand the changes the bottle aging brings. This reminds me of Tamagawa’s philosophy of making durable nihonshu. Apparently, everything I ordered was wild fermented like Tamagawa. The range of flavors I tasted were astounding. One of them tasted like an imperial stout minus the bitterness. Imagine all those cacao, coffee, and malty notes in a nihonshu. There was also this other one that reminded me of a rancio sec. All that acidity and funk! Others had flavors that reminded me of the less popular sherries like Amontillado and Palo Cortado.
Not meaning to brag, but as someone who mostly thinks and breathes booze, it’s rare for me these days to get wowed by someone and something alcohol related. Still, Yoram wowed me. Hence me saying going there was an ichi-go ichi-e experience. My appreciation for nihonshu grew stronger thanks to going there. For me, it also gives a new meaning to the saying rice is life.
The bottle of Tamagawa I’m reviewing is, again, different from what I had at the bar. But, it’s not bottle-aged unlike Tamagawa in my previous review.
Also, I appreciate that Tamagawa has a QR code on the back label. It takes you directly to the product’s page. This removes the hassle of having to navigate through a brewery or brand’s website with uncertainty.
Tamagawa Junmai Ginjo Omachi
Bottling year 2018. ABV between 15% to 16%. 60% polish rate. 720ml. JPY 1,760.
On the nose: I get light and dry aromas of rice husk, rice cake, bamboo shoots, hard cow’s milk cheese, unpeeled pears, and burdock root.
In the mouth: I get lighter tastes of pear skin, mochi, rice husk and undistinguishable leafy notes. Maybe very light pickled radish at the end.
For this Tamagawa, I find it to be more expressive on the nose, but I get drier notes in the mouth. This isn’t as full-bodied as the Tamagawa I had at Yoramu, but it’s still more full-bodied than its more popular junmai ginjo counterparts.
I think I prefer nihonshu which are less polished. By less polished, I mean around 70% or 80% as they tends to have more texture and a bite. Still, the dryness and more full-bodiedness makes this good for drinking with food.
For Bar Yoramu and the nihonshu served there are not for the blinkered folks who only care about brand prestige and looking good. If you currently only like smooth drinks but are open minded, I recommend you check it out.
I liken this experience to trying Jamaican rum and peated whisky for the first time. It’s like having your mind expanded after thinking rum was just Bacardi and Scotch was just Johnnie Walker.
Lead image courtesy of MelbourneSake.com