Kame no O is a sake rice that has recently become popular with a number of brewers around the country. While it may not lead to the elegant, refined and lively fragrances and flavors derived from that most hallowed (yawn) of sake rices, Yamada Nishiki, Kame no O lends sake a definite character and solid, definable quality. Anyone who thinks rice is rice, and that sake rice lacks the romance, history and culture of wine grapes should have been at the Kame no O Summit last month in Amarume, Yamagata Prefecture.
Yes, that’s right, a summit for rice — but then Kame no O is a particularly interesting rice for several reasons. One of the few pure strains left in Japan (most are crossbreeds), it was discovered on the spot in Amarune about a century ago, where it had not been grown commercially for decades as it is delicate and tall, and must be cultivated entirely by hand.
When I arrived, I wasn’t sure what to expect, though it all began predictably enough with the usual parade of onstage greetings. Then the lights dimmed and from the back arose a loud din: Strolling down the aisles came two men dressed in nomadic clothing and straw sandals, honking loudly on conch shells. Their funky garb indicated they were yamabushi, mountain warrior-ascetics. They slowly honked their way up to the stage and approached a display of rice stalks. Here, they commenced an eerie but pleasant chant that was interesting for the first five minutes. After some 15 minutes, however, I was praying for them to stop.
Eventually they did, and the next performance was the first of two short but excellent rakugo that sandwiched a solo butoh dance and a panel discussion on all things Kame no O.
Last, the 22 brewers there — about half of all the brewers in Japan using Kame no O — signed a declaration of their intent to continue to do their best to promote the rice.
Finally, the party began. Lined along one wall were Kame no O sake from all the brewers present: This was going to be an education. My tasting efforts were seriously hampered by the well-intentioned friendliness of the locals who were after some serious fun. I did my best, however, and somehow managed to work through almost all of them — taking proper notes along the way.
Meanwhile, jamming away onstage to the Kame no O Summit theme song was a band with Kazuyoshi Sato, the young president of Koikawa Brewery, on bass and vocals. Sake-brewery president by day, rock ‘n’ roller by night. His lyrics were at least relevant, if somewhat inane: “Kame no O-oh-oh, . . . Yume ni miru no sa . . . (Kame no O, I dream of you . . . ).” They sounded great, but the “wall of sake” may admittedly have affected this assessment.
The next morning I met a high school teacher from Osaka who won a top tasting competition in Japan several years ago. He asked me what I thought of the sake I had tasted the previous night, and I answered honestly: “The Tohoku region sake seemed to convey the characteristics of Kame no O the best. It seemed that the farther west I went, the tighter the flavor became and the more the sake seemed to be defined by other things, like perhaps the choice of yeast, rather than the Kame no O rice.”
Sensei tilted his head slightly and looked away into space, feigning mild confusion. What his silence said was, essentially, “Your head is up your butt, Jack.” The fact that sensei works closely with one brewer “out west” in Shiga on their Kame no O sake may have tainted his objectivity, national tasting champ or not. That’s OK; champion schmampion. It’s my opinion and I am sticking to it.
And it’s an important distinction, I think. It shows that rice, like grapes, works best with the water and brewing traditions of its region. Not that one variety cannot be used elsewhere, and not that my preferences indicate absolute truths, but in general this seems to be the case.
Later in the morning, the participants went to see where the rice was discovered in 1898, just a few healthy stalks poking out of the snow, by one Kameji Abe, from whom the rice takes its name.
Those who simply must see photos from the Kame no O summit, can find them at dewa.or.jp/kamenoo/summit5/index.html More background on sake rice in general, plus a slightly more irreverent review of the summit can be found on my Web page, listed below.
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Koikawa (Yamagata Prefecture)
“Abe Kameji” Junmai Daiginjo Nama Genshu
Very mild, somewhat melon-laced fragrance. Soft and smooth upon entry, with a solidly constructed and clean fullness in back, bolstered with an acidity that creeps out at a lovely pace. Overchilling will stifle the personality of this sake.
Available at the Nihonbashi Takashimaya, at 2,400 yen for a 500 ml-bottle.