Where better to loosen the jowls in preparation for Nihonshu No Hi (Sake Day) on Oct. 1 than Hyogo, the prefecture that is home to more sake breweries than any other?
Hyogo’s capital is Kobe, and there are few drinking dens in the city as authentic as tiny Mitsu, a traditional bar-cum-izakaya in the downtown area of Sannomiya that seats 14 (counter only).
A cursory glance at its frontage deems it fairly run-of-the-mill; closer inspection reveals some serious attention to the sourcing of both provender and libations.
On entering I am greeted by the owner, Mitsuko, who prefers to be called okasan (mom). She constantly reminds me that she speaks no English.
She stocks sake from all over Japan — there are up to 50 on the menu at any one time. These include several rarities alongside the usual brands found on most izakaya menus: Kubota, Hakkaisan et al. Prices per glass start from ¥750 and go up to ¥4,300. All are served in a glass tokkuri (traditional sake flask) filled to the brim on small a saucer that catches the overflow.
I start with a sake from northern Hyogo, Kasumi Tsuru junmai ginjo (high-grade pure-rice sake) (¥1,100); its light floral nose belies sweet acidity on the palate which runs to a lean finish. Requesting water between drinks causes Okasan to look up, stare straight into my eyes and ask, “Are you weak?”
“No, no, no — just dehydrated.” She doesn’t seem impressed. Even my protestations that it’s rather hot for the time of year don’t seem to convince her.
The menu is jam-packed with titillating dishes. First up is pork tongue, certified Agu from Okinawa, bursting with more flavor than I’ve ever had from this cut of meat. Then comes a pork steak from the same beast. Meaty and juicy, the flavors are tangibly more intense than a standard pork steak, yet it is significantly lower in cholesterol. This is accompanied by Kokuryu Shizuku daiginjo (very high-grade sake) (¥2,500) from Fukui Prefecture — an incredibly well-balanced drink, both fruity and mellow, yet crisp and dry, with an apple bouquet.
Back to Hyogo for my next sake: Yamato Kozuchi junmai ginjo (¥950). Its restrained astringency goes perfectly with an onion steak grown on Awaji Island, off the coast of western Kobe. The onion is so sweet it could almost be a fruit, but okasan insists the only added ingredients are soy sauce and butter. The emphasis of all dishes here is on quality produce rather than complex preparation and no MSG is used.
To finish up I try the cheapest sake in the house: Hakutaka honjozoshu (sake with added distilled alcohol) (¥750), another Hyogo tipple (from Nishinomiya). Ricey, fat and heavy, it doesn’t measure up to any of the previous drinks, yet is infinitely better than most house sake.
Just desserts, then, for spending a night in sake’s heartland.
Mitsu, 2-8-11 Kitanagasadori, Chuo-ku, Kobe 650-0012; tel. (078) 321-5578. Open 5-11 p.m., closed Sundays and public holidays. Average cost varies widely, but count on at least ¥6,000 per person for three or four drinks and accompanying dishes (no cover).