Thursday, 15 June 2017

Tour of a Japanese sake (日本酒) brewery - Ishikawa sake brewery (石川酒造)

My sister Kylie and her partner Paul along with 2 of their friends recently came over to Japan for a week and before coming I asked them what they would like to do while here.  One of their requests was to have a tour of a sake brewery.  Now, sake requires clear, clean water which usually comes from areas sparsely populated, ie, mountain areas so my initial reaction was "a sake brewery, in Tokyo, with English??  Not wanting to shoot down the idea so quickly, I did a search for "sake brewery near Tokyo" and to my pleasant surprise the first hit was an article that outlined 3 sake breweries in and around Tokyo that offered tours and tastings in English!  I selected the one that was nearest to central Tokyo (advertised as 45 minutes from Shinjuku by Chuo line), Ishikawa sake brewery (English website here).  I sent an email to them and received a prompt reply and after a couple of days, had settled on a date and booked a tour.

Arriving at Haijima station we jumped into a couple of taxis (a 730 yen trip) and made our way over to the brewery.  As we arrived, my heart did a little skip of joy as the look of the buildings was quite old and the architecture quite traditional.

Going inside we met Kaiko who was to be our tour guide.  The tour started with the sake brewing warehouse.

Kaiko explained that the building was built in 1880 and had survived that Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and , unlike a lot of wood buildings in Japan, had never burned down, being built with fire resistant adobe materials.

Hanging above the door was a sight that I had seen many times here in Japan but did not truly understand what it signified.

Thanks to Kaiko, I now do know what it is!  It is called a sugidama or sakabayashi.It starts off green in colour and is hung above the door to let customers know that a new batch of sake is under production.  When it turns brown, this signals that the sake has aged sufficiently and is ready for drinking.

We next moved inside the building and the first thing I noticed was how cool it was inside!  I mentioned this to Kaiko and she explained that the brewing process, similar to beer, needs a controlled temperature to function efficiently.

We left the brewery warehouse and walked back out past the offices

past this (which, I think is talking about the river that flows through the area, the Tama River)

and stopped here 

where Kaiko explained that they get the water used in the brewing process from 150 metres underground!  She said that we were welcome to fill up pet bottles with the water.

Next up were a couple of trees that we were told were about 400 years old!

Next up was a massive old cauldron that used to be used for steaming the rice near the beginning of the brewing process.

Following that was another huge old cauldron that Kaiko told us was used by the brewery to brew beer in the late 19th century.

As we headed over to where they brew their beer,

Kaiko told us that the brewery first started brewing their beer in 1887, making them one of the pioneers if the young beer industry in Japan.  Unfortunately, 2 years later the brewery sold off their brewing equipment.  Fast forward 111 years and the decision was made to revive their beer brewing efforts and they now produce a variety of craft beer.

That beautiful little red machine in front of the building

Is an early 1970's Subaru that still runs!  You might be able to make out, on the front passenger side, the early style air conditioning that was used at the time!

The final stop on the tour was at an old well where the brewery used to draw their water from.

Listening carefully, you could still hear the water dripping away 20 metres underground.

This was also in an area that had a number of tables and chairs and Kaiko informed us that there are often events held here where the CEO, who plays the harmonica, often performs for guests.

And at that point, the official part of the tour finished.  We then went back to nearby the cellar shop

where we did some tasting and were able to buy some products.

The brewery also has 2 restaurants on site, an Italian restaurant and a Japanese restaurant so we decided to enjoy lunch in the Japanese restaurant which was beautiful inside and out.

Here are some of the dishes that we ordered.  Some Japanese pickles,

some fried tofu,

some delicious minced chicken patties that had crunchy chunks of lotus root in them and were then wrapped in a seaweed sheet, dipped into tempura batter and fried,

and my main dish which was a nice, bowl of soba noodles in soup with a couple of pieces of fried tofu on top.

What a delicious way to finish of a very informative and interesting tour.  For me, the buildings on the brewery grounds were a highlight.  Some of them are officially listed as Tangible Cultural Properties of Japan, which basically means that they are Japanese Heritage buildings

So, if you live in Japan and have a free day coming up, or if you are visiting Japan and would like a unique experience, get in touch with the Ishikawa brewery and have yourself a tour!

That's it for this post.  Thanks, as always for reading.  Please leave a comment below and sign up to receive email notifications when I update.  Thanks again and see you next time.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

The original katsu curry (かつカレ) - Ginza Swiss (銀座スイス)

One of my favourite meals (although it's only a "sometimes" food as too much consumption can have a negative impact on the waistline...) is called katsu curry (katsu is breaded, deep fried pork cutlet).  It is also one of my regular go to meals when I can't understand very much of a restaurant menu!  I was having a lesson with one of my regular students, Ryo, and we were talking about food (as we sometimes do) and he recommended a restaurant in Ginza called Ginza Swiss (or Grill Swiss, they seem to go by 2 different names).  The restaurant claims to be the restaurant that first came up with the dish katsu curry.  No one seems to be disputing the fact, so we can probably accept that it is fact.

The story goes that in 1948, a Tokyo Giants baseball player, Shigeru Chiba, came into the restaurant before a big game and, wanting a big meal for energy to keep him going throughout the game, asked for a katsu to be added to his curry and rice.  The restaurant staff were surprised at this request as curry and rice had always been just that, curry and rice.  The Giants went on to win the big game that night and suddenly an icon had been born.  Since then it has been copied by (probably) millions of restaurants across Japan and around the world.  There's nothing like trying the original though, is there, so I set off after work one night into Ginza.

Now, Ginza is not an area that I go out of my way to visit.  It is everything that is not really what this blog is about.  It is touristy, crowded and doesn't really represent Japan in my eyes.  But when wanting to sample an icon, sacrifices must be made, so into the hoards I ventured.

I soon found myself in a little quiet back alley looking at the legend itself!

No line-up!  Nice, I was in luck!  I went inside and everything was quite small, unremarkable and nondescript, and I don't mean that in a bad way, it just that I had been expecting something a little grander.  But maybe it was better that it was like this.  The focus is all on the food!

Looking at the menu, I only wanted to order one thing.  I looked up at the waitress and asked for "Chiba-san no katsu curry"  A little over 5 minutes later it appeared.

The set comes with some cabbage, dressing and a small cup of soup.  It looked good!

The katsu had a nice ration of fat to meat giving it some nice flavour.

The katsu was tasty and juicy, going very well with the curry.

The curry was a keema curry which is not common for katsu curry.

The sweetness and crispiness of the cabbage and the pickles provided a nice contrast to the saltiness and slight spiciness of the curry (only very slight spiciness.  Most Japanese curries are not on the spicy side).

Before long, it was devoured.  It was very good, maybe not the best in the country, but it was the original and there's an extra level of enjoyment you get out of eating an icon!

Thank you very much to Ryo for the recommendation.  I might have to try and hunt down some other restaurants that have created famous dishes!

Thanks again for reading.  If you get to Ginza Swiss and try the Chiba-san no katsu curry, let me know what you think in the messages.  Until next time, bye.

Cost: Chiba-san no katsu curry - 1,400 yen.

Also, apologies to my Muslim friends.  There is a choice of pork, chicken or beef katsu but the curry is a pork base.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

A nostalgic hot spring hideaway - Shima Onsen (四万温泉) Part 3

This is part 3 of a write-up about a recent trip to Shima Onsen.  You can find part 1 here and part 2 here

I woke up from my nap feeling totally refreshed and ready for dinner.  I decided to head back to the same place that I had had lunch at.

As much as I wanted to have another negi tonkatsu I restrained myself and went for the healthy option (?) of miso ramen.

Beautiful, dark, rich, thick miso ramen that was perfect on a cold winter's night!

Finishing up, I went back to the ryokan and grabbed my other camera and set off for a walk around the town after dark.  I always find walking around places at night very interesting.  You get to see a completely different side of things at night.  Take Tokyo for example.  At night time, the city doesn't sleep.  The day people sleep but the night people are out and about and doing their thing, the city almost as busy as it is during the day, but different things are happening.  Shima onsen, on the other hand, was simply peaceful and quiet.  It was so silent that you could hear the snowflakes landing.

I almost felt guilty having all of this to myself to enjoy.........almost.........

With a smile on my face and a skip in my step, I headed back to the Ryokan for yet another soak and then bed.  

I woke up to yet another breakfast of champions (I love these Japanese breakfasts when I'm travelling).

Having a few hours to kill until the bus back to Tokyo (yes, the bus.  I wasn't taking any risks this time!!) I decided to head over to the old ryokan that I had taken photos of in part 2 and have one last soak in their onsen.  It was old and beautiful and almost Roman in it's decor, at least on the inside it was.

On the outside it was all Japanese!!

Finally, unfortunately, it was time to say goodbye (in the words of the great Andrea Bocelli).  Hauling my waterlogged, but totally relaxed, butt onto the bus I lasted about 10 minutes before sleep took over.  Well, it was a relaxation weekend after all......

Well, that's it for this post and this series of posts about Shima Onsen.  I hope you enjoyed it, I certainly enjoyed being there.  Please leave a comment below and sign up to receive email notifications when I upload a post and please share the blog with someone you know who would enjoy it.

Until next time, bye.

- train ride from Shinjuku to Nakanojo - 2,590 yen plus 980 yen for the Green Car seat
- bus from Nakanojo station to Shima Onsen - 940 yen
- Ayameya Ryokan - 9,000 yen per night (including breakfast)
- bus from Shima Onsen to Tokyo station - 3,100 yen.