Sake, Sumoto, and a First Glimpse of the Miracle Planet Museum of Plants

If Saturday was a day for eating rice products the Sunday was a day for drinking them, as Phil and I visited the local Sennenichi Sake Brewery to gain a greater understanding and, of course, to taste our first sip of Japan’s national drink. Sake is a sherry-like liquor made from rice and a lot of water. In the sake production process rice is first washed and steam-cooked before it is mixed in a large tank with yeast and koji (rice cultivated with the mould ‘aspergillus oryzae’). The mixture is then left to ferment in a process known a shikomi, with three further batches of rice, koji and water added over the following four days. After a further 18 to 32 days the rice mixture is pressed, filtered and blended to produce sake. Sake is classified under a formal system like the wine AOC and there are five basic types – Junmai-shu, Honjozu-shu, Ginjo-shu, Daiginjo-shu and Namazake, each requiring a different brewing method and percentage of seimabuai (rice milling) to ‘polish’ the grains for good sake.

Kiyotaka Okada, the ‘Toji’ (sake brewer) of the Sennenichi brewerytold me that special designated sake (called dai-gingo) must be brewed with special sake rice (‘shinpaku’) which differs from the type of rice we commonly eat in that the starch in the grains of rice is completely separate from the fat and protein content; the grains can therefore be polished to entirely remove the fats and proteins and isolate the pure starch, milling away over 50% of each grain. As a gardener what I find most interesting is that several types of rice are used to make sake, each yielding a different flavour and quality. Yamada Nishiki rice is the so-called king of sake rices, but Omachi, Miyama Nishiki, Gohya Kumangoku, Oseto, Hatta Nishiki , Kame No O, Dewa San San and Tamazakae rice can all be used too. Just like vintners and grape varietals really! We chose a very good day to come as the Sennenichi brewery had just hung the traditional wooden sign beneath a topiary ball above the entrance to indicate that the new season sake was now available for sale (unlike wine, sake does not age very well once bottled).

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Monday was one of Japan’s many national holidays, this time for Seijin-No-Hi, or  ‘Coming of Age Day’, which takes place on the second Monday in January each year. Twenty years is the age of adulthood in Japan, when young people are first legally permitted to drive, drink, smoke and gamble. Seijin-No-Hi honours everyone who had turned twenty over the past year, and special Seijin Shike, or ‘Coming of Age Day Ceremonies’ are held for twenty year olds in their local city office in themorning. The girls wear traditional Japanese dress – kimono, obi, zori and the trimmings- getting up early in the morning to have their hair and makeup done and their kimonos fitted. Hiroe, my friend from Saturday’s trip, told me that the outfits are generally hired as it can cost in excess of 1,000,000 Yen (around £5,600 or $8,500) for the full regalia. Perhaps I won’t be bring a kimono back from Japan after all! Phil and I had hoped to catch sight of a local Seijin Shike on Awaji Island, taking a drive along the coast to the cities of Awaji and Sumoto. No joy, unfortunately, but Hiroe kindly sent me some photos of her own Seijin Shike in Osaka that day.

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As our fruitless Seijin Shike search had taken us all the way to Sumoto City Phil and I decided to take a drive up Mount Mikuma to see Sumoto Castle, which sits on the peak of the mountain, some 133m above sea level. Sumoto Castle was constructed in 1526 by the head of Kumano Suigin (the marine troops) during the Sengoku Period. The castle served as the headquarters for all military and government matters on Awaji Island until in 1642 it was abolished. The castle keep was reconstructed in 1928 and from here there are impressive views out over the mountains and sea.

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Yesterday we got our first glimpse of Kiseki No Hoshi Botanical Museum (aka the Miracle Planet Museum of Plants) where we will predominately be working whilst here in Japan. I will introduce the museum properly in a future blog once I have a greater understanding of it myself, but for now let me leave you with a few photos of the spectacular Christmas display before it is replaced by orchids next week.

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