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Niigata Sake; Kitsune-bi

# 39

Jan. 2003

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #39
January 1, 2003

-Niigata Sake: Another look
-Good sake to look for
-Announcement: The Sake Professional Course
-Sake events, etc: Kansai sake brewery visit
-Subscribe/unsubscribe information
-Publication information

Happy New Year to all Sake-world readers! Wishing you the best of all things in 2003.
This issue of this newsletter is a bit longer than average. Hopefully you will all have a bit more time in the new year to enjoy reading it.

Niigata Sake: Another look
Any serious aficionado of sake needs to know about Niigata sake. Whether or not it is your favorite, and it *is* the favorite of many sake devotees in Japan at least, it is an important region and style for about a thousand reasons, not least of which is the fact that it tastes so darn good.

This key sake-brewing region is a snowy, mountainous, and large prefecture on the Sea of Japan side, just a bit on the northern half of Japan's main island of Honshu. Much of it is sparsely populated, and its combinations of plains, mountains, clear rivers and ocean front make it a very beautiful expanse of nature.

With cold winters, clean water and air, and plenty of rice, Niigata has long been a major source of good sake. There are about 100 kura there now, and the majority of these are very small. Although Niigata is 3rd in terms of volume behind Kobe and Kyoto, unlike these other two major sake regions, most of this comes from such tiny kura.

Beyond the natural environment prerequisites, great technical brewing skill coupled with a willingness to try new things has helped Niigata to excel. Niigata was one of the first places to push the limits of rice milling and to incorporate expensive modern milling machines to achieve more highly milled rice, and hence more highly refined sake. They were the first to incorporate charcoal filtering on an advanced and precise level. And they were one of the first places to embrace enamel-lined stainless steel tanks instead of traditional cedar. While some of these changes have long had both their fans and critics, these factors among many others have helped Niigata achieve its sterling reputation.

And that rep is not simply public opinion. Over the last 11 years in the New Sake Tasting Competition held each spring, Niigata has won more gold medals than any other prefecture eight times, and was second the other three. Naturally enough, the mass media jumped onto this, and from the late 70s or so they gave a lot of coverage to Niigata sake, helping to boost its popularity all over the country.

Niigata is also the home of one of the largest and most skillful group of toji, the Echigo Toji. The mark of this guild of master brewers is left all over Japan, not only back home in Niigata, as Echigo toji can be found all over. Although the toji system is rapidly modernizing and changing, the Echigo Toji have always been one of the top three guilds.

Indeed, most connoisseurs agree Niigata sake is great. But there is a caveat: It is not always what everyone wants to drink. Overall, Niigata sake is "tanrei karakuchi," or light and dry. It is also characteristically very clean and refined. While this quality is very respected in a sake, many people have come to prefer sake with a bit more flavor and weight to it.

Naturally, consumer preferences swing, and currently sake with a bit more flavor is coming back  into popularity. Already, Niigata flavor profiles have begun to ever-so-slightly swing in that direction as well. Yet, as would be expected of such a great brewing region, sterling quality, interesting flavor and fragrance, and all-around enjoyable sake is sure to continue coming out of Niigata. No worries there.


Although this story diverges a bit from sake, what the heck. It's not totally unrelated.

My choice to write about Niigata sake was inspired in part by a recent trip to that prefecture. I visited a couple of kura in the very rural town of Tsugawa, with the main stop being Kirin. Kirin is a small kura that is named after a nearby mountain, Kirin-zan (Kirin Mountain). About 100 meters down the road is another kura, Kirinzan (exactly the same name as the mountain). So we have Kirin and Kirinzan both named after the mountain Kirin-zan, which itself can be seen from the window of either kura. Kirin is much older, and in fact Kirinzan was originally set up by a relative of one of the past Kirin owners. Got all that? If so, go figure.

In terms of popularity, exposure and availability (at least in Tokyo), Kirinzan leads by a long way. While I am admittedly very biased as I know the Sato family of Kirin very well, I find their sake Kirin more focused and elegant than Kirinzan, which is excellent sake nonetheless.

Astute readers will no doubt recognize that Kirin is also the name of a very well known beer. While the beer is far and away much more of a matured operation and huge business than either sake brewery (or both combined, multiplied by ten) will ever be, they are inextricably linked by the name. Today, in modern Japanese vocabulary, a kirin is a giraffe. However, long ago a kirin referred to a mythical creature much like a dragon (there weren't too many giraffes prancing around the Japanese archipelago), hence the flying dragon on the Kirin beer labels. Somehow, in someone's mind, somewhere along the way, the two got mixed. But I digress.

Anyone that has seen Akira Kurosawa's wonderful movie "Dream," ("Yume" in Japanese), will likely recall the first dream-scene, in which a little boy stumbles upon a fox wedding in the forest. It was haunting and beautiful, and it played up well the image in Japan of the fox as a magical animal - and one, by the way, that is able to change its physical form. But I thought it was nothing more than an old fairy tale that had worked its way into a movie. Well, in Niigata, I learned that there is a bit more to it.

Kirin-zan, or Mount Kirin, is a small mountain - maybe only several hundred meters tall - but is fairly narrow and pointed, and as such quite distinct. Apparently long ago the locals would regularly see a procession of small lights moving along the middle of the mountain. The mountain is far too steep for anyone to be walking along it at night, and besides it sits at the fork of two rivers and leads nowhere. There is no reason any human being would be there. Although no one has any photos or films of them, folks have described the lights in detail for generations.

Folklore and tales soon grew up around the phenomenon, and it came to be said that the lights were paper lanterns held by members of a procession in a fox wedding as they made their way along the mountainside at night. So, little did I know it, but the town of Tsugawa is not only famous for the mountain Kirinzan and the two sake breweries named after it, but for the legend of the kitsune-bi, or fox lights, made a bit more famous by Kurosawa's excellent movie.

When I asked Mr. Sato of Kaetsu Shuzo (the company that brews Kirin sake) if he had ever seen the lights, he shook his head and looked down with a smile. "Nah, no one but the older folks have ever seen them. They haven't seemed to make many appearances over the last few decades."

But certainly the legends have left their mark on the town. Each year, Tsugawa holds a festival surrounding the kitsune-bi. In fact, there is a small museum dedicated to the kitsune-bi legend, and there I saw a video showing scenes from the day of the festival.

It's wild. Everyone in the town puts on fox makeup on their noses and mouths, finally painting whiskers. This includes police, fireman, bank employees. They go about their business on that day as if nothing was out of the ordinary. It looks ridiculous, but you have to respect their sense of humor.

The festival culminates in the "kitsune no yome-iri," or fox-bride procession. In this parade, a young couple dresses up in traditional wedding kimono and fox makeup and strides through the town in a procession at dusk. As darkness envelops the town, the entourage crosses the river in a small boat to Kirin-zan until all that the festival goers can see is a string of lantern lights in the seemingly ever-present fog that hangs on the river.

The couple selected is chosen from a group of aspirants that are all couples actually engaged to be married. But she is the star of the parade, not he, and she walks slowly, with her fists pawing the air in front of her face every once in a while. She is indeed - at least for that day - one foxy lady. (Sorry.)

For a couple of photos of the Kitsune bride and local townsfolk in kitsune paint, as well as a shot of the mountain Kirin-zan, go here:

But wait! There's more to this inane story! Apparently there is a group of researchers that focuses on the phenomenon of ball lightning - electrical energy that can form a ball and float around seemingly with a mind of its own before spontaneously disappearing or dangerously exploding. A few years ago they held their convention in Tsugawa, and at least to some degree studied the kitsune-bi phenomenon. There is a whole section devoted to this in the museum.

Late that night, as I sat in my room at the Kirinzan Onsen hotspring hotel, I stared out the window expectantly into the foggy dark in the direction of Kirinzan across the cold river. Nah. Nothing. But what did I expect; only the older folks see them anyway.

Right, then. Back to sake.


Good sake to look for
This month's list focuses on Niigata sake. Since there are so many to write about, here is a quick list of some of the more well-known and easy-to-find brands, kind of a who's who of Niigata. But bear in mind that there are many, many more! Some of these have doubtlessly been mentioned in previous newsletters, but here they are all together in a regional comparison. Rather than mention individual products of each kura, I have given a  general description of the overall style of their sake.

- Kirin: While being dry overall, the softer water used in brewing gives Kirin a softer, gentler touch to it. More flavor than most Niigata sake while maintaining an intrinsic lightness. Both the president and his (now retired) father were official government sake tasters, so you know you can trust their palates.

- Kirinzan: Sake from this brewery has a sharp, crisp edge that fades into a softer touch in the later stages. They also allow more fruity essences in some of their sake than most Niigata kura, especially in their namazake (unpasteurized sake).

- Kubota: Another hugely famous brewer with quite the reputation for stability and consistency. Overall their sake is quite refined, light and crispy dry, classically representative of Niigata sake.

- Kiyoizumi: The main brand here, Kiyoizumi, has a floating fullness and balanced presence, with a clean feel but sufficient weight to the flavor. Still, overall it is fine grained and refined.
There is far too much to say about this wonderful kura. Steeped in history, revivers of the wonderful Kame no O rice, foundation for the highly educational sake comic book series Natsuko no Sake, and brewers of the instantly classic Kame no O sake, they are one of the most interesting kura in Niigata.

- Shimeharitsuru: Fuller than most Niigata sake, a good softness, vibrant acidity, and even a miniscule tad of fruity sweetness amongst all its products give Shimeharitsuru a unique presence in the region. One of my personal favorites in this region for sure.

- Hakkaisan: Dry, clean and crisp, but with a definitely sold backbone of flavor and supporting acidity. Neither cloying nor boring, a good yet elegant session sake.

- Hokusetsu: Located on a small island, Sado, located just off the coast of the mainland. Balanced, even, controlled, yet much of their sake has lively, fruity, ostentatious notes as well. Hokusetsu makes a very wide range of premium sake, with over 20 daiginjo products alone! Hokusetsu is served in the Nobu chain of restaurants around the world.

-Masukagami: A well-decorated sake in that it wins lots of awards. Well constructed and very solidly put together, it somehow inspires calm and confidence amidst its elegance and fairly full rice flavor. Interestingly enough, there is no one single "toji," or designated brewmaster; all the brewing is done by local folks.

- Yoshinogawa: Very subtle, light and elegant. Nice fruit presence in the aromas of Yoshinogawa sake, but again, it is somewhat understated so as to allow a sense of refined-ness keep center stage. Very reasonably priced for said quality, too.

- Koshi no Kanbai: Erstwhile the most famous sake in Japan, and still very popular. Dry and clean but with a moderate aroma and solid presence in the background. Not cheap; not at all, but outstandingly elegant in its more premium manifestations.

- Setchuubai: Surely one of the least dry Niigata sake around, unique in its richness, mild sweetness, and an acidity that ties it all together.

- Minenohakubai: Fuller and richer, with much more umami than most Niigata sake, but still light overall, with clearly discernible individual flavor elements.

Note: Koshi no Kanbai (Winter Plum of the Echigo Region), Setchuubai (Plum in Snow), and Minenohakubai (White Plum of the Mountain) or sometimes referred to in their collective popularity as Echigo no Sanbai, or "The Three Plums of the Echigo Region").

There are countless more. This is but a smattering of all the fine sake of Niigata.


Sake Professional Course to be held in February, 2003
The Sake Professional Course has been moved to February, with new pricing. This will be the absolute final notice before registration closes; those interested should contact me as soon as possible.

This course will provide the environment for a focused, intense, and concerted training period. The one week course will consist of daily lectures with tastings, several sakagura (sake brewery) visits, and exposure to countless brands and styles in several settings, both in comparison to other sake, and with food.

Although geared toward wine professionals and other industry professionals wishing to expand their horizons in a thorough manner into the world of sake,  anyone is welcome to participate. It will certainly be enjoyable! The course lectures and tastings will begin with the basics and will thoroughly cover everything related to sake. There will be an emphasis on empirical experience, with plenty of exposure to a wide range of sake both in class sessions and with evening meals.

More information, including a detailed schedule, can be found at Just click on the Professional Course link found on the main page.


Sake events and other miscellany...

Announcing a Sake Brewery Event in Kansai
On Saturday, February 15, there will be a half-day event at a sake
brewery in Osaka, brought to you by, Daimon Brewery, and John

This is NOT for sake fans alone. This is an event that will allow those of us from other cultures and countries to see the "old Japan," the "real Japan," through the sights of an almost 200-year old sake brewery and its sixth generation owner. Enjoy stepping through this small doorway to the traditional life of old Japan.

The event will begin at 2:00 pm and run into the evening, so those
coming from Tokyo or other parts of Japan may want to make reservations
at a hotel (we can help you with that).

The event will unfold as follows.
2:00 - 3:00 Lecture on sake: sake basics and sake history, especially
that of the Kansai region.
3:00 - 4:00 Presentation by Mr. Yasutaka Daimon, 6th Generation owner of
Daimon Shuzo, with a short video, followed by a tour of the brewery led
by Mr. Daimon himself. As this is the peak of the brewing season,
participants will be able to see how and where every step of the brewing
process happens. It is also daiginjo season, so the most labor intensive
techniques will be in use.
4:00 - 4:15 We will all enjoy a short break
4:15 - 5:15 There will be a sake tasting contest with prizes.
5:15 - 6:00 Participants can shop for sake, create original labels for
sake, and take photos.

6:00 - 8:30 Dinner at the beautiful restaurant Mukune-tei, on the second
floor of the 100-year old brewery. The main dish will be Mukune-nabe, an
original one-pot stew made with sake kasu (sake lees), guaranteed to
warm you to the core, and of course, plenty of Daimon Brewery's top
quality ginjo-shu, sold under the brand names Rikyubai and Mukune.

The cost for the event will be \7000, including a 500ml bottle of
freshly-pressed Shinshu (new sake), a masu (small wooden box for
drinking sake), and dinner with sake. For those that choose not to stay
for dinner, the charge will only be \2000.

Call Daimon Brewery (in Japanese) at 0728-91-0353 to make reservations

Do you work for a company in Japan? John Gauntner is available for corporate sake seminars. A wide variety of formats are possible: in house, at a sake pub, with food, without, with lectures on a variety of sake-related topics. Please contact John by email for more information.


Sake books:
The Sake Handbook
SECOND EDITION published by Charles Tuttle.
The second edition of my first book, with more sake, more sake pubs in the Tokyo area, and updated information. Although the subject material is the same, this second edition is written in a much more cohesive style, the result of several additional years of writing experience.

The Sake Companion, published by Running Press
A hardbound, well designed book, The Sake Companion approaches the sake world from a bit more of a romantic, cultural side, and less of a technical touch. Unlike my first book, The Sake Handbook, this new volume covers material like sake history and the differences in sake styles and flavor profiles from the major sake-producing regions of Japan.  Sake production is also explained, although not in as much detail as in The Sake Handbook. Almost 140 sake are introduced with numerical rankings and an indication of the region from which each hails. Large, full-color photographs of the labels makes them easier to remember. (say again: A good high acidity may increase the sense of dryness of a sake by lightening and spreading out the flavor. A low acid content, on the other hand, can help a sake to feel fuller and heavier, and increase a sense of sweetness.

Also included is a listing of where to buy and drink sake in the US. As this book is geared mostly to a market other than Japan, where to buy and drink sake in Japan is not covered, as it is in The Sake Handbook.

The Sake Companion is available at bookstores such as Borders for $24.95, as well as at Amazon for a bit less. If you are in Japan, is highly recommended, as the price in Japanese bookstores is quite high (4490 yen).

Also worth searching for:
-Sake: Pure and Simple (John Gauntner, Griffith Frost): A light, pure and simple guide to sake.
-Sake, An Insider's Guide (Phillip Harper): A pocket sized, well-written book by an insider; Harper brews sake at a kura (Sato no Homare in Ibaraki) in Japan.
-Sake: A Drinker's Guide (Hiroshi Kondo): The original book on sake in English, nice historic notes and good peripheral information.


Home-Brewing Sake
If you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must check out The Sake Digest, a mailing list on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at On this list, issues both stylistic and technical, detailed and general, are discussed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable home brewers. Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, regularly generously imparts his experience and wisdom to readers. A message is generated perhaps twice a week, so one in not inundated with information and countless emails. It is quite interesting to follow along with the apparently successful efforts of these brewers from a cyber-distance.

Most recently, several brewers are experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly improved results. This koji can be purchased from F.H. Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb. Batch. For more information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793.

Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs, the product is available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact him at Vision Brewing:, and see their site at

To subscribe to The Sake Digest, send the word "subscribe" without the quotes to . To unsubscribe, send the word "unsubscribe", without the quotes, to For a list of other useful commands, send the word "help", less the quotes, to Comments or questions related to the operation of this list should be directed to

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Publication Information
Sake World is distributed free via email only with the intent of disseminating useful information about sake and the culture and world that surrounds it. Information on sake, sake production, sake shops and sake pubs, sake events and sake culture are included, targeting audiences both in and out of Japan.

NOTE: Please feel free to pass this newsletter along to anyone even remotely interested in sake. It may be printed and distributed, or forwarded in electronic form, provided it is sent in its entirety, including this message and the copyright notice below.

Most of the past issues of this newsletter have been posted in their entirety on the Sake World website. Just go to, click on the Sake Newsletter tab, click on Archived Email Versions, and select the issues you want to read from the chart. For those that have only recently signed up, all the past issues can be downloaded and perused at your leisure.

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner,
Copyright 2003 Sake World


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