Summer is my least favorite season in Japan. Stepping outside, the heat and humidity hits with startling force: the hot air weighs heavy on my limbs, enveloping me in a stifling and unwelcome embrace. The thought of spending the height of summer in Tokyo fills me with existential dread.
The season’s one saving grace? Natsuzake (summer sake). Like a lot of craft beer breweries, many sake producers create drinks designed for summer sipping. Regular sake is graded on the amount the fermented rice has been polished — the more polished, the cleaner and more refined — but there is no legal or technical definition for varieties of natsuzake. While styles vary according to the brewery, most versions of it tend to be light, clean and refreshing. The original sake brewers were farmers who made sake during the agricultural off-season. They were the type of workers who understood the life-affirming pleasures afforded by a cool, crisp drink after a day of toil beneath the unrelenting Japanese sun. Today’s natsuzake is created with precisely this image in mind.
Looking to lift my seasonal dread, I headed to Ebisu Kimijimaya, the newest Tokyo branch of the Yokohama-based liquor shop Yokohama Kimijimaya. I’ve been a regular customer ever since it opened a couple of months ago in the Atre Ebisu Nishikan building outside of Ebisu Station. In addition to the excellent selection of sake, wine and shōchū (distilled liquor), the shop features a tasting bar where you can sample a range of sake and wine, starting at ¥300 per glass.
Natsuzake is ubiquitous around this time of year, and you can find several selections at your local sake shop, or even at large liquor chains such as Kakuyasu. Look for the summery images that typically adorn the labels — fireworks, bucolic rice fields or cicadas — and also the Chinese character for “summer” (夏), which is certain to appear on the bottle.
Natsuzake is often — but not always — nama (unpasteurized). Though these nama styles are generally fruity and vivacious, I sometimes find the sweetness of unpasteurized sake too cloying during the summer months. After browsing the shelves at Kimijimaya, I chose two bottles from roughly a dozen varieties of natsuzake on display. The first was a familiar summer standby, Meikyo Shisui Nihon no Natsu, a junmai-shu (pure rice sake) from Osawa Shuzo in Nagano Prefecture. It’s a dry and simple style with taut umami flavor that works well with summer foods such as grilled fish and meat, or hiayshi chūka (chilled noodles) topped with shredded chicken and sliced vegetables bathed in a cold sauce of rice vinegar, soy sauce and chili oil.
The second was a brand that I had never seen before called Yamakawa Mitsuo 2016 Natsu. The sake is a new collaboration between four top breweries in Yamagata Prefecture — Mitobe Shuzo (famous for its Yamagata Masamune sake), Tatenokawa Shuzo (Tatenokawa), Kojima Sohonten (Toko) and Otokoyama Shuzo (Otokoyama). One sip revealed an instantly likable character, with hints of grape on the nose and berry-like flavors on the palate. Its fresh, zippy acidity was exactly what I needed to shake the summertime blues.
Ebisu Kimijimaya is located at Atre Ebisu Nishikan 4F, 1-5-5 Ebisuminami, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; nearest station, Ebisu; open 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. For more details, visit www.kimijimaya.co.jp.
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