Category Archives: Sangenjaya

Tokyo Sake: An Epic Tasting @ Akaoni – 赤鬼 – UPDATE

After a long absence from sake, Asomaniac and I made up for lost time in the most spectacular fashion. What follows are the tastings notes of a sake session which was impressive in both quality and quantity.

All sake is nama and made with Yamada Nishiki rice, unless otherwise stated. The percentage figures are the level of rice refinement.

We started off with the Akaoni Private Bin Juyondai Junmai Daiginjo (赤鬼PB十四代純吟原酒 – 50%) and, on the manager’s suggestion, compared it with the Juyondai drip pressed Junmai Ginjo (十四代 中取り純米吟醸 – 40%). Both were wonderfully smooth and clean, but the refreshing and lively palate of the Akaoni made it our favourite of the round.


My esteemed companion believes that when drinking it’s better to start with the best quality and work your way down, as your palette and mind become fatigued. So, in keeping with this rule, we ordered up a round of the star players: Juyondai’s premium label Soukou Daiginjo (十四代 大吟醸 斗瓶囲い 双虹 – 35%) and the Ryuugetsu special brewed Junmai Daiginjo (十四代 特別純米大吟醸 龍月 – 40%). Sadly, the Ryuugetsu was sold out, so in its place we chose the standard daiginjo (十四代 大吟醸 – 35%)  – and what an inspired decision it was! The ‘regular’ daiginjo was our hands down favourite; fragrant, refined and beautifully balanced.

We departed from Yamagata and headed down to the other end of the country for our next round, sampling the refreshing, fruity bouqueted Kannihonkai Daiginjo (環日本海 大吟醸斗瓶囲い – 35%), from Shimane, and the Dassai 23 Junmai Daiginjo (獺祭 磨き二割三分 純米大吟醸), from Yamaguchi. Self proclaimed sake experts love to diss Dassai for being overly refined, feminine and too widely available. Apparently, real connoisseurs only drink the austere, earthy varieties of obscure kura. Well, they can keep their unfiltered yamahai, I am an unabashed fan of the sake produced by this innovative Yamaguchi kura. Having enjoyed their 50, 45, and 39, I had high expectations of the 23 – the highest level of refinement on the market. And, as I expected, it was outstanding; smooth, elegant flavors combined with a delicate honeydew melon aroma. Superb!


Just when I thought I had tried the cream of the crop, Asomaniac informed me that there is actually an even more select 23 which is pressed using central frugal force. Nakamura-san confirmed this by whipping out his keitai and showing us an image of the high-tech piece of equipment used in the process. It looked a little something like this:

For or my erudition, Aso-san ordered two varieties of his favourite sake, Yuki No Bosha, from Akita. A bit of post-session research revealed that Saiya Shuzoten – the brewery that produces Yuki No Bosha – was the very first kura to be certified as organic. Furthermore, all of their sake is unfiltered genshu, made with Akita Komachi rice.
Back to the tasting, we drank #66 (from a batch of 300) of the limited edition Yuki No Bosha Daiginjo (雪の茅舎 大吟醸 生酒原酒 第六十六番 – 35%) . It was a revelation: a mild, melon fragrance, that harmonised beautifully with its full, balanced flavour. Stunning! The Yuki No Bosha Freshly Pressed Junmai Ginjo (雪の茅舎 しぼりたて 純米吟醸生酒 – 55%) was also fantastic. It had a refreshing aroma reminiscent of fruit, and a light, elegant flavour.
I was less enthusiastic about the amber hued Hakuyocho Daiginjo 18BY (伯陽長 大吟醸 – 35%), from Tottori. At 5 years old, it had the viscous mouth feel and musty earthy, sherry-like notes of a koshu sake. You can’t win them all.

As fan of Isojiman, I was disappointed to see that it was not listed on the menu – sold out, apparently. Instead, we opted for another well-regarded Shizuoka sake, the Special edition Kaiun Daiginjo (開運 大吟醸 伝 波瀬正吉 – 40%), named in honour of the former toji, Hase Shokichi. Beautifully crafted, with the floral bouquet, harmonious flavour, and crystal clear finish that I so readily associate with Shizuoka sake.

There was food, but nothing of note. The sashimi moriawase that I had pre-ordered was mediocre; the uni inedible. Basically, don’t come here to eat. The one success of the night was the yuzu kosho tofu misozuke, which I had enjoyed previously. Aso-san went nuts for it, ordering plates in triplicate until we had exhausted the kitchen’s entire stock.

I’m fortunate to live a short walk from Kagataya, one of the best little sake shop in town. Its owner converted me to the joys of Nabeshima, from Saga, and it’s purple labeled junmai ginjou is one of my summer staples.  The Nabeshima Nakakumi Muroka Junmai Ginjou, made from Gohyakumangoku rice (鍋島 中汲み純米吟醸 五百万石 – 50%) had mellow base notes, with a heady fragrance and smooth finish. Equally impressive was Asomaniac’s pick, the soft and slightly sweet Miwasakura Junmai Daiginjou made with Omachi rice (美和桜 純米吟醸 生原酒 雄町 – 50%), from Hiroshima. 

I could have been because of the sheer volume that we were drinking, or maybe it was just Asomanic’s boyish charm, but the service we received throughout the evening was exceptional. Nakamura-san and a lovely female staff member took their time to answer our questions, and give a little background on each sake. Once he was familiar with the styles that we preferred, we handed the selection over him and sat back to reap the rewards.

On the left, Sakunohana Muroka -non-charcoal filtered- Junmai Ginjou (佐久の花 純米吟醸 無濾過 生原酒直汲み – 55%), from Nagano, which was made with local Hitogokochi rice. It had a pleasant fruit fragrance, and a slightly sweet flavour, that was balanced out with a nice amount of acidity and astringency. On the right, from a small Aichi kura, the charming Chouchin ‘Newspaper Series’ Junmai Ginjo, (長珍 純米吟醸  新聞紙シリーズ 生 無濾過 – 50%). It had fresh aromas, lively acidity and a deep flavour which really opened up as it reached room temperature. An idiosyncratic feature of this sake is – as its name suggests – that it’s packaged wrapped in newspaper to protect it from heat and light.  No info on which newspaper they prefer, but you know I tried to find out. #geek.

For our last round, Nakamura-san selected a couple of gems. The Orouku Takemichi Junmai Ginjou (王禄 ‘丈径’ 純米吟醸 無濾過生原酒 – 55%), is another sake named in honour of its toji – Ishihara Takemichi. Using only organic Yamada Nishiki rice, this young Shimane kura has created a lovely full-bodied sake with a lively, clean finish. Finally, from Shiga, the Sakamatsu Junmai Ginjo (さか松純米大吟醸 生酒 – 50%): a soft, restained fragrance, with a pleasantly refreshing, yet rich flavour. Done!

With minds and palettes worn out, and the effects of the sake kicking in, most sensibly minded people would have headed home for a cuppa tea and a lie down. That, however, was not to be. We rallied with a battle  cry of, “Rum and Cuban cigars!”, settled our bill, and wobbled off into the night to continue the revelry.

A plea to foreign visitors: Please be mindful that this is a busy izakaya. If you are not proficient in Japanese, then out of respect for the staff, please consider going with a Japanese speaking friend.



Tokyo Sake: Akaoni, Sangenjaya – 赤鬼、三軒茶屋

It’s been a while since I last passed through the noren curtain of the ‘Red Devil’, so indulge me as I tell this tale of Christmas sake sessions past.

Tucked away in a hackneyed backstreet of Sancha lies the sinisterly named Okaoni. It’s shabby exterior belies its status as one of the best sake izakaya in town. In its 29 years of business, Okaoni has developed strong relationships with breweries, particularly small jizake kura, which has resulted in an enviable stock list of well regarded brands and hard to find labels. Their reputation for being one of Tokyo’s best sake specialist izakaya can be attributed to these good relationships, along with an uncompromising approach to how the sake is stored and served, as well as the quality of food it is paired with. The staff are well informed and eager to ‘educate’, though at times their earnestness comes at the cost of warmth and hospitality. 

Its popularity with sake lovers and those in the industry mean that the place is consistently packed 7 days a week, so while walk-in’s are possible, it’s best to book well in advance to secure a seat. 
Despite it being a Sunday, and arriving right on opening (5pm), the place was already packed. Settling into our seats, we set about translating the various menus over an otooshi of pork nimono and yuba.

And this is what everyone comes here for: the sake menu. Stocking over 100 kinds of sake, mostly nama junmai ginjou, they also boast several labels brewed especially for them. This is, of course, just one page of the two page list. The reverse features their selection of premier labels and daiginjou varieties, along with a dozen or so koshu (aged sake) and miscellaneous offerings. The sake has been organised by prefecture, which certainly helps aid the identification process given that no furigana is supplied. The prices you see listed are for a 150ml ko, though half servings are available.

 Namazake all round! With a half dozen or so varieties of Juyondai on the menu, and in stock, I thought it would be churlish not to indulge in the good stuff, so selected the Juyondai Omachi junmai ginjou (十四代 純米吟醸 備前雄町). True to the managers description it had the fruity aromatics and light and refreshing flavour that I have come to associate with Juyondai, grounded by herbaceous notes from the Omachi rice. Jem’s curiosity was peaked by the Akaoni Private Bin Juyondai Junmai ginjou genshu (赤鬼PB十四代純吟原酒). 

You are asked if you wish to order the sashimi morisawase when you make a reservation, so that the kitchen is able to order appropriately from the market. It’s worth making the commitment as pre-ordering ensures a higher grade and wider range of fish than what is listed on the standard menu. Clockwise from the left: kandai (winter bream), akami maguro (red meat tuna), tai no konbujime (snapper cured in konbu), kanburi (winter yellowtail), even fattier kanburi, mizutako (octopus), uni, hirame (flounder) with yuzu, and, peaking out behind the shiso leaf, ika (squid). During the winter, buri (or kan buri, as winter yellowtail is more accurately called), is at its peak fattiness and tastiness. The belly cut is delicious as sashimi…even better than o-toro, in my opinion.

Miso cured tofu infused with yuzu is a wonderful drinking snack. In taste and consistency it has an uncanny resemblence to aged cheese – very moreish. My only gripe is that the serving was ridiculously small. I could’ve happily wolfed down a couple more plates of this stuff.

It took a long time coming, and the portioning was once again stingy, but the buri shioyaki was well worth the wait.

While I stuck to Yamagata with my next round, the Juyondai junmai ginjou made with Aiyama rice,  (十四代 純米吟醸 – 中取り 播州愛山), Jem detoured to Gifu for a very pleasant junmai ginjou from Kozaemon (小左衛門 純米吟醸). In post-dinner research on this brewery I discovered that this small kura, like Juyondai, produce a small yield of sake each year, and limit its distribution to specialist jizake specialist stores and restaurants. According to their very informative English webpage, they are also striving to become organic. I will certainly be looking out for it in the future.

Grilled lotus root: crunchy and packed with umami yumminess.

Despite logging over 400 restaurant reviews in the course of the past year, Jem had still managed to lose weight. He puts his new chiseled appearance down to exercise, Japanese portioning, and a new found appreciation of the humble soy bean. To prove his point, he ordered the yuba kintaku, yuba deep fried in tofu skins. It was my second encounter with this dish, and for me it was bland on bland, which no amount of soy sauce could enliven. Jem, however, declared it delicious.

I suppose that in the lexicon of food porn this would be the, errr.. ‘moneyshot’.

What’s better than daikon oden? Deep fried daikon oden, of course – especially after a few rounds of drinks.

Hallelujah! I thought all of my Christmases had come at once when Jem, filled with the spirit of yuletide – or perhaps it was the spirit of the jizake – treated me to Juyondai’s premium label Soukou  daiginjou tobingakoi (十四代 大吟醸 斗瓶囲い 双虹), made from Yamadanishiki rice, along with the Ryuugetsu special brewed premium junmai daiginjou (十四代 特別純米大吟醸 龍月), also made from the ‘King of rice’, for himself. Currently listed on Rakuten at ¥50,000+ for 1.8L (sold out – natch!), Akaoni serves the Soukou label at the more manageable price of ¥2,000 per 100ml ko, which is downright reasonable when you do the maths. Note that the staff broke out the good (reduced capacity) crockery for the occasion. In a side-by-side comparison they both had the fresh aroma and fruity notes that one expects from daiginjo grade sake, although the Soukou was had a more delicate floral nose. Both were elegantly smooth and rounded in the mouth, but naturally the Ryuugetsu had the more full-bodied, complex flavour that is characteristic of a junmai daiginjou. Sublime.

It’s worth mentioning that Akaoni is completely non-smoking, so that customers can best enjoy the fragrance and taste of the sake. But, while I nipped off outside for a sneaky cigerette, it seems that someone nipped off with my camera . Bloody seppos!

A word of warning: It takes an eternity for food to come out of the kitchen, so be sure to place a new order as each dish is served to avoid stomach rumbling delays. The sauteed octopus, enlivened with a fresh squeeze lemon, was delicious and cooked to perfection. They really do seafood well here…

…Or at least so I thought until we tried this kansou shishamo (dried smelt). Tough and lip-smackingly salty, it was a struggle to get this down.

During the process of ordering our previous round of Juyondai, the manager had generously offered us small tastings of both labels. So while I nursed the last remains of our windfall, Jem proceeded onto the Amabuki junmai ginjou (天吹 純米吟醸), from Saga.

And finally, a dish I that managed the impossible: it rendered me speechless. This sauteed ankimo was the best I have eaten, and has established itself as my benchmark for all future monkfish liver consumption.

Wanting to end on a high, we settled up our (fairly substantial) bill, and escaped into the brisk night before we could inflict any further damage on our wallets, or our livers. But while you may pay a high price for drinking with the Red Devil, memories of an evening of fine sake, (occasionally) good food, and intelligent company are priceless.

A plea to foreign visitors: Please be mindful that this is a busy izakaya. If you are not proficient in Japanese, then out of respect for the staff, please consider going with a Japanese speaking friend.