If we wish to check out whether we can rightly describe the Japanese as a meticulous people, then one of the best ways to do that must surely be to see how they deal with their food.
After visiting the Kumamoto Castle, we were taken to our restaurant for a fairly good meal. But we were a bit early, so we were given some time to walk around a small square full of shops specializing on all kinds of snacks, drinks and preserved food.
One of the shops selling the national alcoholic drink sake/saké (さけ("rice wine") made more like beer than western wine (fermented from sugar) except that for beers, the conversion from starch to sugar and from sugar into alcohol takes place in 2 distinct steps but in fermenting sake, the two steps are rolled into one. Moreover, while the alcohol content of most beer varies from 3% to 9% alcohol by volume, that of sake varies from 9% to 16%. The undiluted sake contains some 18%–20% alcohol but before bottling is diluted to about 15% by adding water. In Japanese, "shu" (酒, "liquor") refers to any kind of alcoholic drink. To distinguish "sake" (or "rice wine" in English) from other kinds of alcoholic drink, sake is popularly referred to as "nihonshu" (日本酒,)("Japanese liquor"). However, it's officially referred to under Japanese liquor laws as "seishu" (清酒) meaning "clear liquor". Theres also another homonym of sake, written differently but pronounced the same way, viz. "鮭" or salmon.
The origin of sake is unclear. The earliest reference to the use of alcohol in Japan is recorded in the Book of Wei (魏書) in the Records of the Three Kingdoms.(三國誌) This 3rd-century Chinese text speaks of the Japanese drinking and dancing.Sake is mentioned several times in the Kojiki,(古事記) Japan's first written history, compiled in 712 CE.In the 16th century, the technique of distillation was introduced into the Kyushu area (九州) from Ryukyu (琉球諸島). The brewing of shochu(燒酎/ 格燒酎) (distillation/original distillation), . called "Imo—sake" started (roughly the equivalent of whiskey, except that it's not made from wheat) and was sold at the central market in Kyoto. During the Meiji Restoration, there were legal reforms which allow anyone with the money and know-how to build and operate their own sake breweries and within a year, around 30,000 breweries sprang up around the country. However, with time, the government taxed breweries more and more heavily and the number of sake breweries slowly dwindled to around 8,000, mostly held by wealthy landowners who turned unsold rice into alcohol
In he 20th century, sake-brewing technology grew by leaps and bound because tjhe government built its first sake-brewing research institute in 1904 and in 1907, started a government-run sake tasting/competition was held. Yeast strains specifically selected for their brewing properties were isolated and enamel-coated steel tanks began to be used as they were more durable, easier to clean and more immune to bacterial infections and there would be less evaporation (somewhere around 3%)This was the end of the wooden-barrel age of sake and the use of wooden barrels in brewing was completely eliminated
During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904–1905, the government banned the home brewing of sake. At the time, sake still made up an astonishing 30% of Japan's tax revenue. Since home-brewed sake is tax-free sake, the logic was that by banning the home brewing of sake, sales would go up, and more tax money would be collected. This was the end of home-brewed sake, and the law remains in effect today even though sake sales now make up only 2% of government income.
After World War II, Japanese sake producers began to face competition from beer, wine, and spirits and in the 1960's beer consumption for the first time surpassed sake. But whilst consumption of sake in Japan declines, its consumption around the other parts of the world has increased with the spread of Japanese restaurant around the globe. Today, sake has become a world beverage. There are now some sake breweries in China, Southeast Asia, South America, North America, and Australia. More breweries are also turning to older methods of production.But in Japan the number of sake breweries has fallen to under 2000 in 2007(cf. 3230 in 1975)
There are 3 ways to make the starter mash
(1) Kimoto (生酛) is the traditional orthodox method for preparing the starter mash, which includes the laborious process of grinding it into a paste. This method was the standard for 300 years, but it is rare today.
(2) Yamahai (山廃) is a simplified version of the kimoto method, introduced in the early 1900s. Yamahai skips the step of making a paste out of the starter mash. That step of the kimoto method is known as yama-oroshi, and the full name for yamahai is “yama-oroshi haishi” (山卸廃止), meaning “discontinuation of yama-oroshi.” While the yamahai method was originally developed to speed production time, it is slower than the modern method and is now used only in specialty brews for the earthy flavors it produces.
(3) Sokujō (速醸), "quick fermentation", is the modern method of preparing the starter mash. Lactic acid, produced naturally in the two slower traditional methods, is added to the starter to inhibit unwanted bacteria. Sokujō sake tends to have a lighter flavor than kimoto or yamahai.
There are also different ways of dealing with the initial brew after fermentation: Nigori, or unfiltered sake
(1) Namazake (生酒) is sake that has not been pasteurized. It requires refrigerated storage and has a shorter shelf-life than pasteurized sake.
(2) Genshu (原酒) is undiluted sake. Most sake is diluted with water after brewing to lower the alcohol content from 18-20% down to 14-16%, but genshu is not.
(3) Muroka (無濾過) means unfiltered. It refers to sake that has not been carbon filtered, but which has been pressed and separated from the lees, and thus is clear, not cloudy. Carbon filtration can remove desirable flavors and odors as well as bad ones, thus muroka sake has stronger flavors than filtered varieties.
(4) Nigorizake (濁り酒) is cloudy sake. The sake is passed through a loose mesh to separate it from the mash. It is not filtered thereafter and there is much rice sediment in the bottle. Before serving, the bottle is shaken to mix the sediment and turn the sake white or cloudy.
(5) Seishu (清酒), "clear/clean sake", is the Japanese legal definition of sake and refers to sake in which the solids have been strained out, leaving clear liquid. Thus nigorizake and doburoku are not seishu and therefore are not actually sake under Japanese law. However, nigorizake can receive the seishu status by being strained clear and having the lees put back in afterward.
(6) Koshu (古酒) is "aged sake". Most sake does not age well, but this specially made type can age for decades, turning yellow and acquiring a honeyed flavor.
(7) Taruzake (樽酒) is sake aged in wooden barrels or bottled in wooden casks. The wood used is Cryptomeria (杉, sugi), which is also inaccurately known as Japanese cedar. Sake casks are often tapped ceremonially for the opening of buildings, businesses, parties, etc. Because the wood imparts a strong flavor, premium sake is rarely used for this type.
(8) Shiboritate (搾立て), "freshly pressed", refers to sake that has been shipped without the traditional six-month aging/maturation period. The result is usually a more acidic, "greener" sake.
(9) Fukurozuri (袋吊り) is a method of separating sake from the lees without external pressure by hanging the mash in bags and allowing the liquid to drip out under its own weight. Sake produced this way is sometimes called shizukuzake (雫酒), meaning "drip sake".
(10) Tobingakoi (斗瓶囲い) is sake pressed into 18-liter bottles ("tobin") with the brewer selecting the best sake of the batch for shipping.
There are two basic types of sake: Futsū-shu (普通酒) (Ordinary sake) and Tokutei meishō-shu (特定名称酒) (special-designation sake). Futsū-shu is the equivalent of table wine and accounts for the majority of sake produced. Tokutei meishō-shu refers to premium sakes distinguished by the degree to which the rice has been polished and the added percentage of brewer's flavoring alcohol or the absence of such additives. There are basically 3 types of special designation sake: Genuine Brew, Special Brew and Very Special Brew. But they can be further divided into eight varieties of special-designation sake as follows"
(1) Junmai Daiginjō-shu (純米大吟醸酒) (Pure rice, Very Special brew)
(2) , Daiginjō-shu (大吟醸酒) ( Very Special brew)
(3) Junmai Ginjō-shu (純米吟醸酒) ( Pure rice, Special brew)
(4) Ginjō-shu (吟醸酒) ( Special Brew)
(5) Tokubetsu Junmai-shu (特別純米酒) (Special Pure rice)
(6) Tokubetsu Honjōzō-shu (特別本醸造酒) (Special Genuine brew)
(7) Junmai-shu (純米酒) (Pure rice)
(8) Honjōzō-shu (本醸造酒) (Genuine brew).
The weight of added alcohol must be below 10% of the weight of the rice (after polishing) used in the brewing process. In Genuine Brew, a little flavoring alcohol is added and is suitable to be drunk warm but in Special Brew, none such is added and can be drunk both warm and cold whilst in the Very Special Brew, a special kind of yeast is used and its fermentation takes much longer, giving it a very special flavor and is normally drunk cold.
There are also other kinds of rice wine e.g.
(1)Amazake (甘酒), a traditional sweet, low alcohol drink made from fermented rice.
(2) Doburoku (濁酒) is the classic home-brew style of sake (although home brewing is illegal in Japan). It is created by simply adding kōji mold to steamed rice and water and letting the mixture ferment. The resulting sake is somewhat like a chunkier version of nigorizake.
(3) Jizake (地酒) is locally brewed sake, the equivalent of microbrewing beer.
(4) Kuroshu (黒酒) is sake made from unpolished rice (i.e., brown rice), and is more like Chinese rice wine.
(5) Teiseihaku-shu (低精白酒) is sake with a deliberately high rice-polishing ratio. It is generally held that the lower the rice polishing ratio (the percent weight after polishing), the better the potential of the sake. However, beginning around 2005, teiseihaku-shu has been produced only as a specialty sake made with high rice-polishing ratios, usually around 80%, to produce sake with the characteristic flavor of rice itself.
Traditionally sake was brewed only in the winter. While it can now be brewed year-round, there is still seasonality associated with sake, particularly artisanal ones. The most visible symbol of this is the sugitama (杉玉), a globe of cedar leaves traditionally hung outside a brewery when the new sake is brewed. The leaves start green, but turn brown over time, reflecting the maturation of the sake. These are now hung outside many restaurants serving sake. The new year's sake is called shishu 新酒 ("new sake"), and when initially released in late winter or early spring, many brewers have a celebration, known as kurabiraki (蔵開き) (warehouse opening). Traditionally sake was best transported in the cool spring, to avoid spoilage in the summer heat, with a secondary transport in autumn, once the weather had cooled, known as hiyaoroshi (冷卸し )("cold wholesale distribution") – this autumn sake has matured over the summer.
In Japan, sake is served chilled (reishu 冷酒), at room temperature (jōon 常温), or heated (atsukan 熱燗), depending on the preference of the drinker, the quality of the sake, and the season. Typically, hot sake is a winter drink, and high-grade sake is not drunk hot, because the flavors and aromas will be lost. This masking of flavor is the reason that low-quality and old sake is often served hot. There are gradations of temperature both for chilling and heating, about every 5 degrees, with hot sake generally served around 50 °C (122 °F), and chilled sake around 10 °C (50 °F), like white wine. Hot sake that has cooled (kanzamashi 燗冷まし) may be reheated.
Sake is traditionally drunk from small cups called choko or o-choko (お猪口) and poured into the choko from ceramic flasks called tokkuri. This is very common for hot sake, where the flask is heated in hot water and the small cups ensure that the sake does not get cold in the cup, but may also be used for chilled sake. Traditionally one does not pour one’s own drink, which is known as tejaku (手酌), but instead members of a party pour for each other, which is known as shaku (酌). This has relaxed in recent years, but is generally observed on more formal occasions, such as business meals, and is still often observed for the first drink.
Another traditional cup is the masu, a box usually made of hinoki or sugi, which was originally used for measuring rice. The masu holds exactly 180 ml, so the sake is served by filling the masu to the brim; this is done for chilled or room temperature sake. In some Japanese restaurants, as a show of generosity, the server may put a glass inside the masu or put the masu on a saucer and pour until sake overflows and fills both containers.
Saucer-like cups called sakazuki are also used, most commonly at weddings and other ceremonial occasions, such as the start of the year or at the beginning of a kaiseki meal. In cheap bars, sake is often served room temperature in glass tumblers. In more modern restaurants wine glasses are also used, and recently footed glasses made specifically for premium sake have also come into use.
Sake is sometimes warmed and served in metal containers known as chirori (ちろり) (銚釐) or tanpo (たんぽ or 湯婆) and is traditionally served in units of 180 ml (one gō), and this is still common, but other sizes are sometimes also available.
Traditionally sake is heated immediately before serving, but today restaurants may buy sake in boxes which can be heated in a specialized hot sake dispenser, thus allowing hot sake to be served immediately, though this is detrimental to the flavor. There are also a variety of devices for heating sake and keeping it warm, beyond the traditional tokkuri.
Aside from being served straight, sake can be used as a mixer for cocktails, such as tamagozake, saketinis, nogasake, or the sake bomb.
There is not traditionally a notion of vintage of sake – it is generally drunk within the year, and if aged, it does not vary significantly from year to year. Today, with influence from wine vintages, some breweries label sake intended for aging with a vintage, but this is otherwise rare.
After opening a bottle of sake, it is best consumed within 2 or 3 hours.It is possible to store sake in the refrigerator, but it is recommended to finish the sake within 2 days. This is because once premium sake is opened it begins to oxidize, which affects the taste. If the sake is kept in the refrigerator for more than 3 days, it will lose its "best" flavor. However, this does not mean it should be disposed of if not consumed. Generally, sake can keep very well and still taste just fine after weeks in the refrigerator. How long a sake will remain drinkable depends on the actual product itself, and whether it is sealed with a wine vacuum top.
Sake is often consumed as part of Shinto purification rituals (comparable to the use of grape wine in the Christian Eucharist). Sakes served to gods as offerings prior to drinking are called Omiki or Miki (お神酒, 神酒). People drink Omiki with gods to communicate with them and to solicit rich harvests the following year. During World War II, kamikaze pilots drank sake prior to carrying out their missions.
In a ceremony called kagami biraki (,鏡開き/(開齋) (literally "Opening the Mirror" but in fact referring to breaking the fast/abstinence) on January 11(odd numbers being associated with good luck in Japan) some kagami mochi" ( wooden casks of sake) would be opened at the party or ceremony with some ceremonial mallets eg. during Shinto festivals, weddings, store openings, sports and election victories, and other celebrations. This sake, called iwai-zake ("celebration sake"), made from a special kind of rice growing only in the Kyoto region, is served freely to all to spread good fortune. At the New Year many Japanese people drink a special sake called toso. Toso is a sort of iwai-zake made by soaking tososan (屠蘇散), a Chinese powdered medicine, overnight in sake. Even children sip a portion. In some regions, the first sips of toso are taken in order of age, from the youngest to the eldest.one of the shops selling .
Special wines in barrels/casks
Another one selling both Kumamoto biscuits, candies etc
Another local store
An advertising sign touting special Kumamoto candies and cakes
All kinds of hot and cold snacks and free drink at 200 Yen
A shop selling green tea and tea cake set at 100 Yen
Different kinds of ice-creams and youghurts at 200 Yens and specially made icecream at less than 500 Yens
Special malt drinks at 500 Yens
This one offers various special menus of an assortment of pickles, soups, main dish and desserts including e kinds of basashi or raw horse meat at 440 Yen. In Kumamoto, basashi is eaten dipped in soy sauce, often mixed with either Japanese horseradish or grated garlic...
This one specializes on seafood prepared in its unique way
Its specialty croquettes
A closer view. Free to be tried.
Come on, don't just look. Give it a try!
Some tour group members succumbed to the irresistible urge to buy
But this one is not tempted by the Kumamoto specialty, Karashi Renkon, deep fried lotus root rings invented to help a physically weak lord of the Hosokawa Family in the Edo Period. Lotus root works as blood-making medicine and Japanese mustard improves one’s appetite. The lotus roots, holes filled with the Japanese mustard mixed with miso paste, is battered and deep fried. It’s one of the most famous local dishes of Kumamoto.
Another two shops selling Japanese delicacies
A preserved prune dessert shop
Our tour leader buying some sesame biscuits. I followed suit.
The cashier looks remarkably like a famous Hong Kong lady singer surnamed Yip
There are various posters of a Japanese cartoon character in the shop. Perhaps, this one says, no biscuit, no money!
No biscuit, no luck?
A third: no biscuit, no bliss?
the fifth: no biscuit, no music?
and one depicting the castle
peanut candy bars
Fried coated peanuts
A sweet dessert made with beans seasoned with ginger and caramel.
a local drum like snack
羊羹 is a kind of tea cake made with the paste of bean, taro or chestnut modified from the similar cakes originally brought to Japan from China. At first, it was made with the meat of the lamb and served cold. But when Japan became Buddhist, one of its monks modified its ingredients from meat based to vegetable based. To improve its texture, they added 寒天, a kind of gelatin distilled from sea-weed.
Another shop selling a kind of biscuit made tiny fried rice powder seasoned with soya sauce and made into tiny beans stuck together with caramelised sugar with peanuts amongst such beans.
Various snacks in that shop
chestnut tea cakes
A shop selling a kind of chicken rolls, the specialty of Amakusa (天草) islands of Kumamoto Prefecture.
Two of our tour group members waiting for our dinner outside the restaurant
A coroner of the square
another view of the square
a shop specializing on all kinds of sea food products
540 Yens for a string of 3 barbecued squids
Various dishes on the menu of the restaurant
To let customers know what exactly is on offer, all the dishes are shown in photos
One of the collection on the menu
Two stands showing the prices for set meals
another part of our dinner
some fried shrimps and tempuras
The entrance to another restaurant
A decoration at the lobby of the hotel where we would be staying for the night.