Japanese Food & Drink: Sakenojin
Niigata Sakenojin 酒の陣
Are you a sake connoisseur desiring to taste some of the most delicious sake in Japan, a sake neophyte wanting to learn more about Japan's best drink, or a tightwad trying to drink as much sake as possible for just 2,000 yen (about US $25.00)?
If the answer is "yes"; to any of the above, the Niigata Sakenojin is an occasion not to be missed. It is the Octoberfest of Japan: in fact, the Niigata Sake Brewers Association's website proclaims that the Octoberfest of Germany was the inspiration for the first Sakenojin, held in 2004. However, Sakenojin always happens in March. March is the month when the clear-liquid gold of Niigata cascades from bottles into sake cups and then into open mouths, like glittering water cascading off waterfalls into pools. If Bacchus were a Japanese god, he would absolutely be in attendance with a sake cup in his hand.
2013's event attracted over 100,000 people to the 7,800m² convention hall inside of the Niigata Convention Center, called Toki Messe. The hall is large enough for a crowded professional baseball game, but a different type of competition takes place at Sakenojin.
The Japanese characters for Sakenojin are にいがた酒の陣, which roughly translates as the battle of Niigata sake. It is a battle to win the hearts and taste buds of Japanese and foreign sake lovers who line up elbow to elbow in the vast hall. Eighty-eight different sake breweries, serving approximately five hundred different sakes to thousands of thirsty sake fans, offered generous samplings. What type of sake can you enjoy at Sakenojin? Just about every variety of sake brewed in Niigata.
Upon entrance, you will receive a white ceramic sake cup to use and take home. Walk around the hall, point to a bottle if you can't speak Japanese, and sample the clear "liquid rice" of Niigata. Often the sake workers will pour from whatever bottle they are holding into your cup even before you can make your request. I have asked for and have received samples of some of the best and the most expensive sakes in Japan.
Niigata residents are extremely proud of their rice, sake, and seafood, and they want others to appreciate them, too. Sake is the main attraction, but there are other gustatory pleasures. You can eat delicious Niigata specialties: sashimi made from indigenous fish, regional varieties of tofu, Murakami gyu (locally raised beef), sasadango, which is a sweet bean and rice dessert wrapped in bamboo leaves, and that is not all. Sakenojin is a wonderful introduction to not only sake culture but also Japanese drama, music, and comedy.
Sake drinking tends to lower inhibitions. To remind attendees to maintain normal decorum during the event, the organizers placed a variety of eye-catching signs around the hall. The amusing pictures graphically remind people to refrain from removing clothes, telling the same story again and again, dropping bottles, fighting, and doing other socially unacceptable activities.
I did hear the occasional sound of a dropped cup or bottle, but everyone was friendly and sociable. There was mostly the cacophony of thousands of buzzed people chatting, imbibing, and making new friends from around Japan and other locations.
Sake lovers from all over the world go to the Sakenojin. A recent edition of an American magazine called the Las Vegas Food and Beverage Professional advertised a "Niigata Sake Festival Tour."
I overheard Spanish, French, and English speakers chatting about sake. Stangers standing or sitting at tables around the sake booths naturally start to share food and sake with others and end up with new friends. It is a liquid environment in which well-lubricated people raise their cups and let down their hair.
For those who wish to test their ability to distinguish sake, there is a sake matching competition. It is called kikisake. Challengers sample sake from unlabeled bottles that are in a row on one table. There is another row of unlabeled sake bottles on another table.
The challenge is to match the same sakes that are in different bottles. Winners receive a prize of - guess what? - bottles of sake. Japanese people are awed when a foreigner takes up the challenge and succeeds. Here are some helpful hints to help you win: Try kikizake before you have consumed so much that you cannot distinguish tastes.
Take small sips and allow the sake to move around the mouth and around the tongue. Take notes regarding the smell, the color, the consistency, and the aftertaste. Wash your mouth out between tastes. Do all of the above slowly and thoughtfully. Good luck! Even if you "lose," you will have a good time.
If you missed this lively bacchanalian event, you can always attend next year's. Moreover, sake brewers in a northern region of Niigata called Joetsu, hold a similar, but smaller event, called the Sake Matsuri in October. Twenty sake brewers will participate. The URL for the Japanese webpage for that event is kenshinsake.com.