The participants at last week's Niigata Sake no Jin festival could have easily numbered over 80,000 people. As I looked across the crowds, I couldn't help wishing that my sake buddies Etsuko and Ted, Tim,Tony and Robert-Gilles could be there with me. The only thing more fun than going to a monster event like this one is going with friends who are seriously passionate about nihonshu.
To really experience Sake no Jin would have required the full two days (90 breweries, you do the math), but I tried my best to get the gist of it all in a few hours. The buzzword this year seems to beKoshi-tanrei, which refers to a new sake rice strain exclusive to Niigata. It's a cross between the mighty Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku that's been in development for the last decade or so. After chatting with some of the brewery workers, I learned that it's really started to improve in the past few years. The examples of Koshi-tanrei that I sampled were dry overall, with delicate fruitiness and noticeable acidity. It still seemed to be lacking some of the roundness of Yamada, but I'll definitely keep my eye on it in the future.
I tasted a lot of good stuff, but I unfortunately didn't have time for much note-taking. I was consistently impressed by everything from Taiyozakari (including a tangy, just-pressed Daiginjo), Shimeharitsuru, and Hokusetsu (call me crazy, but I actually prefer their regular line to the specialty sake made for Nobu). Over at Jozen Mizunogotoshi, people were going wild over their limited edition Kasumi no Jozen, a lovely usunigori with demure sweetness and a very light touch of fizz. I'm actually planning to use this one for my Hanami-themed sake program at Taste of Culture today.
A few breweries that I made a note to look for in the future: Yoshinokawa Toji, Hakuro, and Gunki. Both the Yoshinokawa Toji Junmai-Ginjo and the Hakuro Tokubetsu Junmai-shu were great, full-bodied and organic, with a clean finish. The Hakuro (I think it won some award this year) was super warmed as well.
There were also a few token oddities -- a sake aged in whiskey barrels from Fukugao (interesting but I'd rather drink a single malt from Islay) and a line of sake called Ski Masamune (v. light and fruity but not really special), which features skier on its label.
Although I didn't get to spend lots of time there this time, I am sure that I'll be back for the Niigata Sake no Jin next year.
Come Tuesday, my Niigata Nihonshu no Tabi had come to an end. We breezed back through Niigata City and stopped in for a few minutes at the Niigata City History Museum, where we saw a diorama of rice harvesting the way it was done before the invention of irrigation (which, incidentally, was developed in Niigata). That was kind of trippy; the farmers had to wade into waist-deep water to do this work, and anti-leech socks (!) were absolutely necessary.
Against both my better judgment and all human decency, I ate yet another gargantuan meal. This time, it was homemade soba and tempura. Even though it was every bit as good as it looks here, I started to hate myself about midway through the second shrimp. Honestly, look at the size of it.
By the time we caught the shinkansen home, I was ready to return to Tokyo. I've learned a lot and now have a ton of great memories of Niigata, but it's been so nice to sleep in my own bed, pet my cat, and have dinner at home with JP. Having said that, though, I do rather miss the jacuzzi.