Monday, October 19, 2009


Earlier this month, I traveled to Tokyo to receive The Sake Service Institute’s (SSI) Honorary Master Sake Sommelier Award (Kikizake-shi) on behalf of SAKAYA. Since it was the 10th Anniversary of these awards, there were a number of luminaries from the worlds of sake, journalism, and Japanese hospitality in attendance at the three-hour event which featured a Shinto ceremony, awards presentation, and dinner.

As one of three America-based honorees along with True Sake's Beau Timken and T.I.C. Restaurant Group's Bon Yagi (owner of Sakagura, Decibel, Robataya, and a number of other Japanese restaurants in NYC), I was thrilled that our efforts to promote enthusiasm for sake and its linkage to Japanese culture were recognized, and honored to have been included among such distinguished (and far more accomplished) company.

Accompanied by Hiroko’s dear friend Hitomi, who met me at my hotel dressed in a beautiful pink kimono, I found the event to be a curious mix of glitz and traditional ritual. At one moment we’d be bathed in swirling lights from a mirror ball with blasting disco music, then a few minutes later, silence would be broken by mournful chant from a Shinto priest. It was truly East meets West. We shuttled back and forth between a reception room where we met and conversed with the other honorees, SSI dignitaries, and their friends and family to photo sessions, and the ballroom where the Shinto ceremony and awards dinner took place. During the dinner, we were called to the stage to accept our awards, traditional scrolls bearing our official kikizakeshi plus a medal of honor which would put a military commendation to shame, while those in attendance ate or watched (or both).

What I found interesting was that although it was a sake event, the beverage was but a bit player in the grand scheme of things. It was available in the reception room during our down time between shuttling and a small glass was at each of our seats during the ceremony. I purposely didn’t drink it as I anticipated a “kanpai” at the conclusion of the proceedings which never came. For dinner, there were four sake servings of about 2 oz. but no refills offered. Odd, I thought for an event dedicated to promoting service of the brew!

What there was in abundance were appeals for money. Each of the honorees had been responsible for a “donation” to the Shinto shrine from which the priest had come to perform the ceremony. There were also envelopes and forms given to each person soliciting donations for the SSI foundation. Finally, after the awards were given and as dinner segued into dessert, there was an auction of sake, shochu, and other donated items to raise money for the same(?) foundation. I couldn’t help but get the feeling that fund-raising, may in fact, have been the point of the event.

The balance of the trip was devoted to: visiting sake breweries Huchuhomare Shuzo and Ozawa Shuzo, the makers of Wataribune and Sawanoi respectively, a sake yeast focused tutorial tasting at Japan Prestige Sake's Okanaga Club with sake master Dr. Koichiro Mori, exploring the Tokyo food and drink scene with friends Hitomi and Hanayo Kishi, Melinda Joe, J.P. Mudry, Ted O’Neill, Etsuko Nakamura and a day of tasting sake from Shimane prefecture, sake shopping, and izakaya drinking with friend and mentor John Gauntner.

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