Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Ainokura -- World Heritage Site

Ainokura is in the Gokanyama district where villages of centuries old-style houses are scattered along the main route through the mountainous region of Toyama prefecture in north central Japan. Here in the village of Ainokura, nature is preserved and time is as frozen as the ground beneath the two-foot deep snow in winter. We found the village to be extremely authentic and well preserved owing to its status as a World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO in 1995. The style of houses found here called Gassho-zukuri, comprises an "A" shaped thatched roof made from straw. Currently there are 21 Gassho-zukuri houses nestled in Ainokura village.

Getting to Ainokura was quite a challenge. It required two trains and two buses from Tokyo to Nagoya, Nagoya to Takayama, Takayama to Shirakawa-go (another World Heritage Site), and finally from there to the remote village of Ainokura. Since it is an especially small village, Ainokura has very limited bus service. If we were to miss one connection in the chain, we would miss the only bus available to get us there. Knowing the precision needed in making our connections on time, we left Tokyo at 7am by the Nozomi Shinkansen (fastest bullet train in Japan) and transferred to the train from Nagoya to head north to Takayama, the largest city in the middle of Gifu prefecture. The Nagoya train to Takayama was delayed by 30 minutes, which nearly gave Hiroko a heart attack. Fortunately, the first bus that we needed to get us to Shirakawa-go waited for our late train (unbelievable for Japan). Fortunately for us, we were then able to successfuly make the transfer to the bus from Shirakawa-go to Ainokura. It was almost 2:30pm when we stepped into the gassho-zukuri house in which we were to stay the night.

We stayed in one of the oldest houses, Yusuke, which was built 1868. Now inhabited by the 5th generation of the same family. Shigeru Ikehata, a well-traveled professional photographer, runs the inn with his wife. As we were the only guests for that night, Ikehata-san regaled us with his fascinating stories, making our experience more of a homestay than that of just typical ryokan customers.

It was about 32 degrees outside, with 2-3 feet of snow covering the ground, so the house was cold. In Japanese houses past and present, there is no central heating system and in this rustic case, the only heat source was from Irori (fire in a central hearth). After our explorations outside, all we wanted to do was sit by the fire, drink hot tea, and bask in our before-dinner ofuro (Japanese hot tub, to simplify things tremendously).

That evening, dinner was served in front of the Irori. We were treated with dishes filled with different combinations of mountain vegetables, koi sashimi, and a river fish called Iwana. When futon-time came, we were handed bed warmers and retreated the refrigerator-cold room with freezing cold futon. We quickly got into the bed and hoping that the bedwarmers would do their job...which they did!

When morning came, the room was even colder. Hiroko (somewhat) jokingly said that her hair was covered with frost. We tucked our clothes under the covers of the warm futon to warm them up before putting them on our bodies. And, we quickly dressed and headed for the irori. After a breakfast of warm tofu, miso soup, rice, tsukemono, it was time for us to leave. We thanked our gracious hosts for their generosity and headed off into the early morning mountain mist for the bus stop to catch the bus to Shirakawa-go.

Our Sake Journey

Almost exactly one year later, we returned to Japan. This time, our primary reason was to take John Gauntner's Professional Sake Course, an intensive 3-day affair of lectures, tasting, and eating dinners accompanied by a number of different sake.

Sake is very much a reflection of Japanese culture, where "aimai" or ambiguity is deeply woven into lives and personalities. Vagary rules. When it comes to gastronomy, anything goes as long as it sounds and tastes good. That's what we deal with in the world of Sake when it comes to both tasting and understanding the industry.
Junmai-shu (sake) has its own specific general aromatics and flavor profile characteristics, but there are always exceptions to the definition, which we all seek to make it easier for us to grasp and understand. To understand Sake is to understand Japanese culture. John taught us not only the technical side of sake brewing, classification, and tasting, but also the cultural aspect of sake drinking in Japan.

Tasting sake requires an immense amount of focus and concentration. There are aromatics, flavor profile, and texture to consider. With acidity, sweetness, bitterness, umami, aimami, and koku to ferret out with each experience, we had to focus on our tongues and mouths to isolate each quality and identify the flavor. Light and "feminine" or sturdy and "masculine?" Intensely fragrant or delicate? Viscous or etherial? Notes of mushroom, rose petal, banana, strawberry, apple, or pear? Simple, dry, or complex? As with wine, there is no end to the subtleties, nuances and the the adjectives to describe each uniquely created sake!

We tasted by yeast type, rice type, brewery, by classification (i.e. yamahai, honjozo, junmai, ginjo, daiginjo, etc.), age, serving temperature, and geographic region of origin. What we found fascinating was how variation in serving temperature can produce a transformation in aroma and flavor. A perfect illustration of this was a particular kura's Yamahai (a sake made by an ancient labor intensive method), which seemed to be everyone's favorite. Chilled, this sake was very strong with a nose of dried mushrooms. (Hiroko who hates dried shiitake mushrooms could not truely enjoy it). Remarkably, after warming, its flavor was transformed from the shiitake mushroom to that of a less intense (and for Hiroko, preferable) enoki mushroom. Although we'd read about the enjoyment of heating premium sake to various temperatures, this was our first actual tasting experience and it was definitely an eye opener!

Sake styles and types are as diverse as Japan's 47 prefectures, multiplied by the approximately 1,400 brewers, and compounded by the specific water of the brewery locale, yeast and rice types used, and proprietary brewing methods, just to name a few of the get the idea. If you're interested in learning more please either write us or check John's website for the most comprehensive resource on sake!

Sake World by John Gauntner