Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, January 05, 2006


If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the original newspaper article.

January 4, 2006
Essence of Sweet Potato, Sip by Sip

BY 6 p.m. the after-work crowd jams the Chicken Shop in this city in southernmost Japan. A mixed crowd in business uniforms, including six men in identical slate-blue jackets with "Tobishima Company" on the sleeve, sit at an L-shaped dining bar or cram cross-legged around low tables on tatami mats. They talk, order small plates and drink.

The patrons are knocking back a clear distilled spirit called shochu, poured from one of 350 cinnamon-colored clay bottles, each marked with a regular's name. Not a glass of sake is in sight.

This is the capital of what a travel brochure calls the "Kingdom of Shochu," a city of 600,000 with more than 1,000 izakayas, casual eating pubs where the shochu culture comes alive.

While sake may be better known abroad, shochu has been more popular in Japan since 2003, according to the Japanese ministry of finance. It can be distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, cane sugar, buckwheat or even chestnuts. (Koreans drink a related rice-distilled liquor called soju, and say they originated the drink.) The taste varies widely: it can be a bland vodkalike mixer or a full-bodied spirit as sublime as a single malt Scotch.

Honkaku, or "the real thing," is where shochu gets interesting. This version, an artisanal spirit, is produced from a single ingredient distilled just once, so it keeps the character of its base. Perhaps the most revered honkaku is imo-jochu, Kagoshima's signature shochu, distilled from fermented sweet potatoes. This complex spirit radiates a powerful aroma like that of dried shiitake mushrooms. It's astringent but not neutral like vodka: you taste the sweet potato flavor. And at 50 proof, it doesn't overpower you with alcohol.

Ninety minutes from the city by ferry and a winding two-lane coastal road is Mori Izo, the source of one of the finest imo-jochus and the Château Pétrus of the 110 shochu makers spread across rural Kagoshima prefecture. Virtually all of the coveted 120,000 bottles Mori Izo produces each year are sold through a phone-in lottery.

Kakushi Mori, 56, the company's fifth-generation owner and master distiller, makes imo-jochu by hand, as his ancestors did. An earnest man, proud of his family heritage, he wears a traditional fringed indigo shop apron and an indigo jacket, with the characters for kame tsubo shochu, "clay vat shochu," printed on the left lapel.

The heavy smell of yeast hits you as you walk inside his brightly lighted distillery, lined with 50 handmade vats sunk two-thirds into the floor. Each is 120 years old and holds 190 gallons. Seed malt and sweet potatoes in various stages of fermentation gurgle inside like cooking oatmeal. Some vats give off a sharp tinge of alcohol, as well as heat.

Mr. Mori and his similarly clad assistants mix the mash with stirrers that look like polo clubs made from bamboo. Mr. Mori is as serious about terroir as any first growth Bordeaux winemaker. Ten farmers grow kogane sengan sweet potatoes just for him on special plots. Water holds the same importance. He draws the area's prized Tarumizu spring water from his own 300-foot well.

And there's another key ingredient: "This building," he said, or rather the microbes and spores that have been clinging to the ceilings, walls and thick dark cedar beams since its original construction in 1885, giving his imo-jochu unique character, as he sees it.

Masayuki Fuchinokami, a 36-year-old newspaper reporter who was moonlighting as a certified "shochu sommelier," said that in Kagoshima imo-jochu is traditionally taken "oyuwari" - cut with hot water.

"You don't drink it straight," Mr. Fuchinokami said. Pour hot water in the cup and then the spirit, he explained, to release the flavor and aroma. Fifty-fifty, or 60-40, favoring the water, are the usual proportions, he said. "But you decide."

"This makes it very easy to drink," Mr. Fuchinokami said. It may also explain another widely held belief. "Drinking shochu doesn't give you a hangover," he said. (Actual results may vary.)

Imo-jochu oyuwari fits the personality of Kagoshima, Mr. Fuchinokami said, because "you can drink it every night of the week." A stroll on any evening along "Culture Street," a downtown drag packed lighted sign to lighted sign with bars and izakayas - and people - proves the point.

BUT it's not simply drinking for drinking's sake. Mixed with hot water, shochu has about the same alcohol content as wine. And like wine, this is a drink made for food - in this case, Kagoshima's boldly flavored cooking.

A tiny Culture Street izakaya called Mariko's has the neighborhood feeling of a corner pub in Leeds. The 13-seat place has been run for 45 years by the same woman, a gruff 5-footer with a silver pageboy haircut who would give only her first name, Kyoko. Regulars call her Mom.

The izakaya is run-down but comfortable. Mom's silvery head is all you see of her as she works behind a dining bar topped with a glass display case where raw tuna and octopus rest on fat ice cubes. Yellowed handwritten signs taped one on top of the other, some rivaling the izakaya itself in age, advertise the menu.

On two shelves that run the length of a wall sit 300 bottles of shochu with names like Five Mountain Peaks, Three Mountain Peaks, Isa's Glory and Island Beauty. Each has a customer's signature scribbled across the label.

Patrons fend for themselves while Mom cooks. A regular named Toshio Fukishimo pulls his bottle off the shelf and shares it with three friends. When a new customer walks in the door he asks, "toriaezu biru?" - beer for the time being? This is a Kagoshima ritual, Mr. Fukishimo explained, to temper the palate for shochu. He fills the mug himself from a tap at the bar.

Mom's comfort food seems as if it would be as welcome in Seoul or Shanghai, both nearer this old port than Tokyo. Mom delivers to Mr. Fukishimo's table a bubbling cast-iron pot of nabe, a hearty Japanese stew, this one with beef intestines, bean sprouts and leeks. She serves it Korean style, with bright-red dried chili peppers and whole peeled garlic.

Mr. Fukishimo and his group wash down their meal with glasses of imo-jochu oyuwari. When they run out of hot water, he heads to the kitchen and refills a thermos.

On a nearby avenue of apartments and office buildings, a cartoon of a chef clutching a squawking hen marks the entrance to Toriya, the Chicken Shop. The 100 and more items on its menu are richer and sweeter than what you would find in Tokyo, said Ryoichi Yamashita, the chef and owner.

Chef Yamashita and his assistant furiously work in an open kitchen over a grill the size of a coffee table as servers shout new orders. The cooking crew grips hand-held butane torches like a band of gunslingers and shoots fire to char-finish skewers of chicken, chicken organs, sardine-size fish and unpeeled garlic.

Customers at this 100-seat place draw Black Baby Deer brand imo-jochu from Toriya's distinctive clay bottles. Mr. Yamashita said it is his favorite label, and the only one he sells. Customers know why when they taste it, he said.

"This food goes better with the dry, strong-tasting imo-jochu," he explained, because the drink stands up to the richness of the cooking.

At a low table eight men talk and eat and drink. Their clay shochu bottles compete with plates - and a large thermos of hot water - for table space. They drink imo-jochu oyuwari from what look like four-ounce bistro glasses, with a Kagoshima difference: they have a single circling sight line drawn halfway up the side, for proportioning the hot water and shochu.

When the men finish their meal they look at each other, clap their hands once in unison and say loudly, also together, "Done." Which in Kagoshima is as good as it gets.

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