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Reinventing Sake Tradition : Mitsuya Liquor Shop

A tasting at Nishiogi’s 90-year-old Mitsuya Liquor Shop entices consumers with the bountiful aromas of Japanese sake tradition. Representatives of provincial brewers present their wares with a warmth rare in “cool” Tokyo, their animated descriptions of pedigreed koji (molds) and terroir dissipating with the alcohol vapors entering our nostrils, leaving only a vague impression of liquid wa. But actually, little of their nostalgic marketing has much to do with traditional Japanese drinking culture. Rather, as we learned from Mitsuya’s family owners, the boom in jizake, or local craft sake, with its urban taste communities, new-style sake sommeliers, and even the heavy perfumed styles of many “local sakes,” are all relatively new inventions.


Nishiogi’s Mitsuya Liquor Shop is one of the founders of the “local sake” community in Tokyo. People come from quite far away to shop for rare bottles, generous tastings and recommendations from the owners. Occupying the same spot for 90 years, Mitsuya was founded in May 1926, by Kamoshida Seitaro (born in 1898 and now deceased), making it most likely the longest continuously operating business in Nishiogi.


Mitsuya has always been a family operation. We spoke with Kiyotaro’s son Katsuyoshi and grandson Tomofumi. When Mitsuya opened there was not much in Nishi-Ogikubo but a few cedar trees. The business was home-delivery (goyo kiki) and employees still wore traditional Japanese dress. The shop sold miso, soy sauce, charcoal, kerosene, and other necessities. This was an era when there weren't so many specialty shops. The shop assistants would visit the homes of the customers and ask them what they needed: alcohol, food, fuel, etc, even brooms. Back then it was hard to carry big items like brooms home from a shop, so you could order them from the liquor store.


Mitsuya refocused its business on the sale of “local sake” in the 1970s. The background was the change in Japanese culinary and drinking culture in the affluent postwar era. “After the war, sake lost its popularity,” the elder Kamoshida said, “When it wasn’t available people even drank [often dangerous] ‘synthetic sake. But when people became more affluent they switched to beer. Around 1960 or ‘61, that’s when the beer culture came in.”


“Sake lost its popularity after the war. The reason seems to be that sake after the war was really sweet. It was called ‘sweet nectar.’ There were few sweet things around, so it was an era in which people hungered for sweetness. But after life became more prosperous, other sweet things appeared. Then people began to feel that sweet sake was cloying. People began to look for something lighter and the switched to beer. And sake lost its status. If we look back twenty years, there weren’t too many people drinking sake. Even at a drinking place, you would only see the word ‘sake’ on the menu, the brand of the sake was not even listed.”


“As for sake, back then you could only get big brand sake Nada from the Kansai region. And people were tired of it. Then around that time, someone wrote a book about ‘local sake.’ I entered the hospital with a backache, and I read that book. There was a bar in Nishiogi called Sagojou and the owner brought back a sake from Niigata called Koshinoganmai that we drank. The bar owner was really kind to me. He said, ‘from now let’s start selling the local sake.’ When I started looking, I realized that there was not much local sake available in Tokyo. So I thought I will have to go directly to the sake brewers.”


“At that time my elder brother liked to read the train schedule, thinking ‘what train should I take to get that brewer?’ And he started going on buying trips. Back then there wasn’t a Shinkansen and he would just take the slow local train.”


“But when he got out there the brewers would ask, ‘will this sake sell in Tokyo?’ And sometimes even if we came with cash, they wouldn’t sell it to us. The local sakes were selling well enough in the local areas, and they didn’t want to sell to us. They weren’t used to the idea of selling in Tokyo. And they didn’t really trust us. Even if we came there with cash, they were reluctant to sell. We often had to pay at the doorway and then negotiate with them about sales. It was around 1975 that we began purchasing [local sake] and displaying [it] in the shop.”


These developments didn’t mean that sake sales were increasing, the elder Komoshida said. It was only really after 2011 that sake sales began reviving in Japan. Up to then it was a falling market. Only the more exclusive categories of “pure rice sake” (junmaishu) and “pure rice refined sake” (junmai ginjo) have been rising.


“Unlike in the past, sake is no longer the ‘everyday alcohol,’ but the ‘weekend special alcohol.’ So people come to buy a bottle for the weekend. For that reason the 720 milliliter bottle was introduced. There also are more and more people who drink beer and wine on a daily basis.”


The switch from drinking heated (atsukan) sake to chilled sake (reishu) has also influenced the taste of products. “In the old days people drank mostly heated sake. Now people drink it cold, and because they want to keep in the refrigerator, the smaller (720 ml) bottles have increased. The habit of drinking cooled sake became more commone. In the past you couldn’t sell sake in the middle of summer, because it was drunk warmed up. But now even in the summer sales don’t change because you drink it cold.”


Changes in culinary habits have also influenced the taste of sake, Kamoshida said. Now people are not only serving sake with Japanese cuisine, but French and Italian restaurateurs are also coming to buy sake.


“We’ve been selling local sake for 40 years, and the taste has changed. Now people have gotten used to a heavier taste, like convenience store bento boxes and western foods. In the old days the most common taste in Japanese cooking was a clear broth. Now there are heavier flavors.  So now people are happiest with a sake with strong flavor and impact. In the old days people liked something you could just keep drinking, because it was a ‘daily sake.’ Now few of the types of sake you drink cold are a sake you can just keep on drinking. If the temperature goes up they become cloying.”


As for Kamoshida himself, he doesn’t drink the more fashionable sakes of today, but prefers a more orthodox sake and style of sake drinking. Every month he goes through six large bottles (about 10 liters) of warmed sake. His favored brand is “Kikuhime no Saki Yippai” made in Ishikawa Prefecture. For him, this is a sake that you can keep on drinking, though it has some impact. And because of the slight acidity, there is less aftertaste, and a refreshing sharpness.


For Kamoshida, warm sake remains the best match for Japanese cuisine. “Warm sake is easier to pair with foods. With sashimi for example it cuts the raw taste. Cold sake does not cut that fishy smell. Sake matches with shoyu.”


“In the old days there was sake that you only could drink after warming it up. Warming evaporates some of the alcohol and makes it more drinkable. Now there are more sakes with a refined taste for sipping, but on the other hand, if you heat them up they have too much flavor.”


Sake breweries have begun to make products to match this change in taste standards. “So recently, instead of making sake for the local tastes, they are making sakes that will be drunk in Tokyo. People in the countryside are not bothered if a sake is a ‘pure rice sake’ (junmaishu). But Tokyo people want ‘pure rice’ sake. And they want something that has an impact when it is drunk on the weekend. ‘Pure rice’ sake has a more complex taste. In the old days people in the countryside just wanted a sake that you wouldn’t get tired of drinking.”


Mitsuya is known for its sake tastings, attracting people from all over Tokyo as well as locals. There are still more men, but recently the number of women coming alone has increased. But the sake shop faces much competition, from supermarkets and discount liquor shops as well as online shops. Customers may divide their shopping among multiple suppliers. They may go to a discount liquor shop for beer, but if they have a question about sake, the nearby discount seller may send them to Mitsuya.


In the immediate postwar period, Mitsuya used to sell sake to the bars south of Nishiogi station that were frequented by American GIs and their Japanese girlfriends. Now those places are gone, but Nishiogi’s south side still has a large number of bars. And it still has a culture of late-night bar hopping (hashigo nomi = ladder drinking), which is popular with men and women alike.


The grandson Shimada Tomofumi said, “I should thank my grandfather for choosing Nishiogi. It really hasn't changed that much. They didn't build big buildings. It is a good place to do business. People live here and business is steady.”


No matter how famous it has become in Tokyo’s sake community, Mitsuya still understands itself as a local liquor shop. (James Farrer, Fumiko Kimura, June 26, 2016, edited March 14, 2017)

Nishi-Ogikubo Mitsuya
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