Food & Drink | KANPAI CULTURE

Sanbun: The simple joy of sipping a midday sake

by Melinda Joe

Contributing Writer

I more than relate to Takayuki Utsumi, the protagonist of the comedy series “Hiru no Sento-zake” (translated into English as “Sunshine Sento-Sake”).

In each episode of the program, which is available on the Amazon Prime Video streaming service, he escapes the drudgery of his job as a salesman by taking long afternoon soaks at a local sento (bathhouse), invariably followed by a tipple and a snack at a nearby bar or restaurant.

The camera lingers on scenes of Utsumi luxuriating in the tub, but the main thrust of the show lies in the joy he gleans from day drinking. Upon catching sight of, for example, a foam-capped, freshly poured beer, the character’s eyes beam with anticipation; the first sip elicits a rapturous elegy to the simple luxuries of a hot bath, a tasty treat and a little alcohol — all enjoyed in the full light of day.

The more the merrier: The best part about a standing bar is that it's easy to make room for another person (or five). | COURTESY OF SANBUN
The more the merrier: The best part about a standing bar is that it’s easy to make room for another person (or five). | COURTESY OF SANBUN

Unlike Utsumi, however, for me day drinking is less of a guilty pleasure and more of a vocation. Before sundown, a good sake bar where you can order a glass or two with small plates — as opposed to a full meal — is trickier to find in Tokyo than you might expect. Luckily, I discovered Sanbun, a standing bar that specializes in sake inside the Tokyo Midtown Hibiya shopping complex.

Previously located in the Higashiginza neighborhood, the new site, which opened in 2018, has retained the understated look and feel of the original, with an L-shaped wooden counter, black signs displaying the daily specials and shelves stacked with ceramics crafted by Japanese artisans such as renowned Showa Era (1926-89) potter Kitaoji Rosanjin. A large copper kandōko (water bath for warming sake) occupies one corner behind the bar.

On weekdays, Sanbun is open from midafternoon, making it a convenient meeting spot for casual drinks between lunch and dinner. Catching up with friends on a recent afternoon for a couple of glasses of sake, we bump into a few other acquaintances by chance. Although our party suddenly doubled in size, the bar has no trouble accommodating us. The beauty of standing bars is that, instead of scrambling for extra seats, everyone simply slides over to make room.

We ask the bartender to recommend some unusual brews, and he suggests the Gokyo Five Junmai Nama Genshu (Yellow), an unpasteurized sake from Yamaguchi Prefecture made with shiro kōji (white kōji mold, the strain of Aspergillus oryzae that is typically used to make shōchū distilled spirits). The sake has a fruity bouquet and an almost wine-like sweet-and-tart character. Next, we sample Suginishiki Bodaimoto Junmai, an aged brew from Shizuoka Prefecture with woody notes, ricey sweetness and high acidity. Bodaimoto refers to an ancient method of making the yeast starter using raw rice and the natural activity of lactic acid bacteria, resulting in complex flavors and prominent acidity.

To go with its sake, Sanbun has a menu of excellent snacks prepared in the kitchen of Sanbuntei, the bar’s adjoining, sit-down sister restaurant.

Crab salad, served inside the shell, comes heaped with sweet hunks of crab meat and sliced raw onion lightly dressed in mayonnaise, while delicate corn kakiage fritters are fried until golden and crisp. An assortment of pickled celery, carrot and cucumber, alongside savory-sweet slices of daikon marinated in shio kōji — a fermented mixture of kōji and salt — pairs nicely with the sake. However, the runaway star is the deceptively simple shimi-daikon, daikon radish simmered in dashi (kelp and bonito broth) until meltingly tender.

Takayuki Utsumi would most certainly approve.

Tokyo Midtown Hibiya 3F, Yurakucho 1-1-2, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0006; 03-6273-3395; www.sanbun-ginza.jp; open Mon.-Fri. 3 p.m.-10 p.m. (L.O.), Sat.-Sun. from 12 p.m.; sake from ¥500, food from ¥400; nearest station Hibiya; nonsmoking; major cards; Japanese menu; little English spoken

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