Mar 012013
Amanosake ''Soboshu'' sake brewed formerly by monks

From 7th to 9th century Japan sent nineteen missions to China with an objective to acquire knowledge in the fields of religion, economy, medicine, and technology. Many of the students were young priests and while the missions were state-sponsored not all students revealed all their knowledge to the government. Instead kept most important secrets inside their temples.

One of them were the techniques to produce a good alcohol:

General concepts for brewing “rice wine” were more or less a common knowledge in the old Japan, but they usually produced a muddy liquid often with unpleasant smell. At those times alcohol was brewed either by government-controlled breweries or temples. The latter was called soboshu (僧坊酒) and thanks to the secret recipes, these liquors were superior to others.

Kongo-ji temple in Kawachi what is now southern Osaka Prefecture had refined its brewing techniques so that their sake called “Amanosake” became known as the best in whole Japan. It produced a clear, gold liquid with distinctive taste, especially cherished by high-ranked nobles and warriors.

When warlord Oda Nobunaga and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi set on his conquest to subjugate all Japan, the abbot of Kongo-ji was clever enough to donate the sake to the powerful generals.

Thanks to that Kongo-ji not only survived the times when all other temples around were burnt to the ground, but also thrived economically. The temple to this day keeps a personally stamped letter from Toyotomi Hideyshi asking them to be prepared for orders from him.

Indeed the big order came in 1598 for a big hanami (cherry blossom viewing) party held in Daigo-ji temple in Kyoto by Hideyoshi. And it was really big – 1300 people attended this event organized by unquestionable ruler at that time.

Later technology and government orders caused a shift in sake brewing to the merchant class. Kongo-ji lost its importance as a brewery and “Amanosake” produced by the temple became only a legendary sake.

About 20 years ago, local sake brewery in Kawachi Nagano reproduced the old recipes preserved in Kongo-ji to reproduce the taste so much cherished by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

This contemporary sake is also called “Amanosake Soboshu” (天野酒 僧坊酒) and has a tagline “reproducing the taste of sake beloved by Toyotomi Hireyoshi”. It has a beautiful gold color and is rather sweet with nutty aftertaste definitely worth a try, if you ever have chance to…

One of marketing terms used to drive the interest in this alcohol was maboroshi no sake (幻の酒). Roughly translated as legendary or phantom sake that no longer exists.

In February this year this “legendary” sake lived up to its name. ABC TV broadcasted an evening show with the–above story. In an hour after the program was shown, the–brewery servers went down under the load of orders. Within a day all stock was sold out and legendary sake is now a true legendary sake for those who were late.

Good news is that the next jar of the sake is now being brewed, but will it last for long?

Feb 162013
Restored Tokaido road in Shizuoka

Between modern towns of Shimada and Kikugawa in Shizuoka Prefecture, there is a short section of the original Tokaido road – main route between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto.

The road there goes uphill and it was inconvenient both for railroad and car highways. Owing to that, a small section the original stone paving is preserved.

In the old days this part of the Tokaido connected post towns Kanaya-juku and Nissaka-juku. Now it is a designated historical spot.

It is said that cobblestones were laid out by the order of the shogunate between 1815 and 1830.

While abandoned for some time, the road must have been heavily used by samurai, imperial envoys, merchants, countless inhabitants of Edo on their journey to pilgrimage sites. Not to forget famous yakuza gang members, it is Shizuoka anyway.

So you enter a deep forest and you can breathe this history wondering if you step on the same stone as Shimizu Jirocho or Saigo Takamori…

And then you see this…

Come on, NTT! Really? Right in the middle of a forest, under a historical road you need to put your telephone cabling?

Truth is however more complex. While the stone pavement is now over 400 meters long, it was built merely 20 years ago, though there is a small section (30 meters) of original stones preserved.

Still there are not too many places in Japan where you can feel the atmosphere of traveling in Edo period.

Or maybe I am wrong? Tokaido was the main artery of Japan, so it must have been much more busy than on the pictures. Maybe the highway full of cars is closer to the historical atmosphere?

Feb 112013
Crooked street in Matsue

This street in Matsue in northwestern Japan looks like a work of a crazy engineer who bore a grudge against drivers, but in fact it is a modern interpretation of an old idea that was implemented here 400 years ago.

Matsue was a castle town built at the beginning of the Edo period and at that time no one could predict it will bring over 250 years of peace in Japan. Thus the castle and town structure had defense measures implemented and one of those was an intentional crooking of the street called kagigata (鉤型).

It slowed down movement of people, possibly attacking troops, and obscured the view thus allowing an ambush.

The road has been renovated for 400th anniversary of establishing Matsue castle town. I am impressed with the creative way Matsue city council preserved the memory of this place.

Feb 072013
Okinawan yakogai shell fried and raw as sashimi

Yakogai (夜光貝) is a giant sea snail for which Okinawa has always been renown for. They live a nocturnal life on coral reefs and grow up to 2 kg with the shell. At the Makishi market in Naha, you can try the taste of a fresh yakogai.

The main building hosts a seafood market on the ground floor and restaurants on the upper floor. You can choose the shell (still living) which you like, bargain over the price and ask the seller to call for a restaurant owner to take care of the animal.

The yakogai shells are not cheap, they cost around 2500 yen per kg, which means you have to prepare from 1500 to 4000 yen depending on the size.

The restaurant charges 300 yen for serving the shell, but you usually end up ordering side dishes too. In this case it was prepared half as a raw sashimi and the other half was stir-fried (itame).

Finally the taste. Yakogai sashimi has a structure and taste similar to tsubu-kai which means it is crunchier than other types of snails in Japan. The stir-fried part tasted particularly good.

Definitely worth a try if you are into seafood and visit Naha.

Jan 282013
Fish in Okinawa Makishi Market

If you go to Okinawa from Honshu, chances are you will arrive just for lunch, like I did. There seems to be no better place to get introduced to local cuisine than Makishi market in Naha, just 20 minutes from the airport.

Feeling dizzy with all those glittering colors I chose something different for my first lunch. 🙂

Dec 262012
Minami-za in the evening

Kaomise (顔見世) is a kabuki performance in Minami-za theatre in Kyoto, staged every year from November 30th to December 26th.

Meaning “showing the faces”, the name originally referred to December performances in kabuki theatres all over Japan, during which actors who signed contracts for the next year made their first appearance. Nowadays when only a handful of kabuki theatres exist, it is most often used to indicate the performance in Kyoto, which gathers top actors and musicians both from Tokyo and Kansai areas.

In 2012 the program, divided into morning and evening parts, consisted of seven plays and an official announcement of a stage name succession for 31 year old Nakamura Kankuro (formerly Nakamura Kantaro).

The highlight of the morning section was “Kotobuki Soga-no Taimen” an early 20th century adaptation of a classical story about Soga brothers who took revenge on a murderer of their father. Based on the historical fact from 1193, this performance featured colourful attires, elaborate make-up and an expressive play by the new Kankuro in a role of the rough Soga Goro.

During Kaomise, Minami-za theatre is decorated with wooden tablets displaying the names of all actors taking part in the performance. Hanging the tablets which takes place on Nov. 26th is a ceremony in itself and is widely covered by media.

For commercial reasons only official channels can publish photos from kabuki performances. But if you would like to see what kabuki looks like, please take a look at a gallery of children kabuki in Nagahama