Like the indigenous beverages of most countries, sake developed along with its national cuisine. Indeed, there are great differences in Japanese cuisine from region to region, small country though Japan may be, and these differences are reflected in the subtle differences in the sake.
The one underlying connection across Japan in terms of cuisine is — understandably for an island nation — fish. Overall, most sake works quite well with most fish. And leave it to a fishmonger to serve up the best fish — a fishmonger like Uoshin.
The company behind Uoshin supplies fish from Tsukiji to as many as 150 restaurants. Since Uoshin has such connections in high places, the variety of fish available is second to none, and at rock-bottom prices to boot.
Uoshin is laid out in a simple, austere but clean layout, somewhat reminiscent of a fish wholesaler. Simple stools situated around bare wood tables and a few zashiki surround a rectangular counter adorned with the same simple wood. Oodles of fresh, iced fish lie piled in front of the counter.
Although things are clean and well organized, not a whole lot of effort has been put into decoration. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that a whole lot of effort has been put into the lack of extraneous bric-a-brac. Things are simple here.
If you are looking for a private, intimate sake experience, look elsewhere. Folks are packed into Uoshin like, well, sardines. The shop seats a deceptively large number of people, and tables are all large and communal. Yet, while hardly serene, the atmosphere is far from boisterous. People are here for fun but also serious eating and drinking.
Before getting too wrapped up in the food, let’s check out the sake list on page three of the menu. There are about 20 sake, a wonderful core of regulars with a few revolving satellite selections.
Okuharima from Hyogo is the house sake, with four or so available. Beyond that are a battalion of Niigata sake, including Hakkaisan, Midorikawa and less-seen Masukagami. There is also the perennial fave Juyondai, solidly built Kikuisami and Dewazakura from Yamagata, as well as dry Dassai from Yamaguchi.
Also try eternally unique Shinkame from Saitama, and light and pleasing Meikyo Shisui from Nagano. Not to be forgotten is simple Tanzawa-yama from lowly Kanagawa (especially watch for Ryu, their fabulous ginjo).
Should you want to warm up with a beer, there is Kirin on draft. There are also two sake earmarked for warming: Okuharima yamahai and Ichinokura “Han.” All are priced in the range of 500-700 yen.
Back to the food that goes so well with that sake: The menu is in Japanese only here, but ordering is fairly easy. They do indeed have a formidable range of everything from the sea, but things are somewhat simplified by the red o-susume stamp indicating their recommendations. Simply scan the pages for those, work out what it might be and fire away.
Nothing could be simpler or more of a deal than their voluminous fresh sashimi moriawase. At 1,500 yen for a two-person plate, 2,250 yen for three and 3,000 yen for four, it’s a no-brainer.
Beyond the raw stuff, there is baked fish, stewed fish, grilled fish and whole crabs (while they last). Noteworthy selections include huge anago sushi, and funkily flavored kani miso and unagi kimo (liver). There is a wide range of salads and a few tofu ditties as well.
Things change daily, not to mention seasonally. So again, to keep it simple, stick with the stamped stuff. Venturing beyond that (for round two, perhaps) will certainly be rewarding, though.
Be forewarned: Uoshin is no secret, and as they do not take reservations, you’ll need to be crafty and tactical in choosing when you go; or be willing to wait a short spell. Don’t worry; it will have been worth it.
To get to Uoshin, go out the south exit of Shimokitazawa Station on the Odakyu or Inokashira Line. With McDonald’s to your left, head up the narrow, crowded shopping street for about five minutes, passing a Mister Donuts on the right. When you arrive at a vacant lot on the left that is often occupied by a temporary stall selling clothing, take a left. Walk about 50 meters and Uoshin will be on your left, with its bare, unpolished wooden exterior and wooden crates. 2-1-1 Shimokitazawa, (03) 3419-5584. Open every day 5:30-10:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m. on holidays. There are also branches in Komazawa, Harajuku, Shibuya and Kichijoji.
Be sure to check out the Ginjoshu Kyokai’s spring sake-tasting event April 27. For those that do not know, the Ginjoshu Kyokai is a group of 83 sake brewers from around Japan that gathers twice a year for a sake tasting open to the public.
The cost is a measly 4,000 yen, and you receive a bottle of ginjoshu to take home as an omiyage, so that the tasting itself is rendered basically free. Be warned that there is no food at all available, only bottled water.
The event will be held in Osaka and Sapporo at a later date. In Tokyo, it will be held 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Akasaka Prince Hotel. For more information on any of the three events, call the Ginjoshu Kyokai at (03) 3378-1231 and ask for an invitation to be sent. Or, fax them at (03) 3378-1232 with a written request to have them mailed. Although you don’t actually need a reservation (what’s one more person in a group of a thousand), it certainly can’t hurt. If you are interested in sake, this one is worth leaving work early for.
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Bijobu (Kochi Prefecture)
Seimai-buai: 50 percent
Bijobu is a sake that seems to pop up in all the trendy places — places like sake pubs that make it their business to carry not only the staid and true sake that have long been famous, but also the young turks of the sake world. Sake like Bijobu embody the original jizake spirit: made in small quantities out in the countryside, and hard to find outside of that region.
Still, romance alone does not a good sake make. Bijobu is popular because it is good. Typical of the Kochi Prefecture style, Bijobu is quite dry, but also has a soft smoothness supported by a decent umami richness. It is all too easy to drink a whole lot of this kind of sake. A light apple-laced nose serves to further weaken any attempts at moderation. Although it is lovely slightly chilled, it has a deliberately created serious charm when gently warmed.
Although the kura itself has been around since 1906, the brand name Bijobu is relatively new; most of their sake has long been sold under another name. The current toji is only 38, having left a computer-related job to start brewing sake.
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