Continued from “A Day at Yamasa Shoyu“
Early next morning, despite being hideously hungover yet again, we’re thrilled to go to where the three of us have never been before: Fukui Prefecture. It’s a smooth train ride with a yummy yakitori bento that only Shinkansen can provide. I should sleep, but am swept up with giddy nostalgia as we pass through Nagoya, where I spent rather fun formative years at Nanzan University (almost a decade ago now!)
At Sabae Station, the CEO of BORN sake Atsuhide Kato, picks us up himself. A thoroughly accommodating and quirky giant of a man, upbeat and buoyant, with a relentless sense of humour. Every other sentence out of his mouth is a ridiculous dajare (tongue in cheek Japanese word play) or a self-deprecating joke that compels you to laugh out loud and match his energy output.
Belonging to the 11th generation of the illustrious local sake-brewing clan, Kato subsequently owns almost half of the town, Yoshie ward, an unbelievably idyllic “traditional Japan” of charming wooden houses and rolling green hills.
And he calls a tangible cultural heritage building (that’s older than America) — complete with artfully arranged moss and rock garden — as home.
“It’s a pain! I can never renovate however I want to…” Kato laments cheekily.
He has more freedom when it comes to modernizing his brewing business. though. Massive, old wooden kura warehouses hide supermodern interiors and pristine facilities, like the Bat Cave. Sake bubbles in ceramic vats, including his smooth and strident award-winning “Dreams Come True”, fermented for five years in strictly controlled temperatures. (Prime Minister Hatoyama gave Obama this sake in 2008 for celebrating his presidency)
Unfailingly original, Kato rebranded his family sake as “BORN”.「梵」, the Chinese character read “Bon” in Japanese, is the transliteration of the Sanskrit word “Brahman,” which Kato-san explains as “Truth”; in the Vedic philosophy that I am familiar with, it represents “Ultimate Reality.” or God.
After checking into our onsen hotel and passing out for an hour, Kato-san takes us to Kaikatei. It’s a ryōtei, a traditional fine-dining establishment where politics or high-level business takes place discreetly, and it’s around 120 years old.
Kato’s dutiful wife, along with 12 bottles of BORN for tonight’s sake-pairing dinner, waits patiently for us at the entrance of the ryōtei.
Kimono-clad hostesses kneel at the grand foyer, faces to the floor as we shed shoes. Plush Persian carpets give way to tatami, supple and springy as turf underfoot. We sit in a spacious room with paper walls imprinted with gold leaf.
“I’ve called some girls.” Kato announces mischievously. His wife frowns in jest. Two geisha appear.
The conversation is initially rigid and desultory, but grows rambunctious with each pour of sake. I try to ask as many questions as I can about their flower and willow world.
It’s simply one of the most magnificent kaiseki meals we’ve ever had as each successive course trumps the former in exquisiteness. The arrestingly beautiful presentation and utter freshness of the sashimi course made my heart yodel praises to the Shinto sea gods.
And I can firmly declare that I’ve never had such perfectly enjoyable dadami before. That’s cod milt in the Fukui dialect. Which means it’s fish genitalia containing the sperm. Yes, cod cum was grilled to perfection and absolutely unctuous, bursting with creamy umami.
Inhibitions down, we gladly dance a traditional jig with the geisha while Kato shoots an incriminating video of us on his iPad.
We’re not let go so easily and are led to a boutique bar Isaka, where beautiful bartender/owner Maki Isaka concocts potent cocktails from the freshest Japanese fruit. Then we’re taken to a yakitori joint. Amid the boisterous post-clubbing clientele, equally raucous grillers shout out the orders. We all have tankards of cold beer and more than 10 skewers of charcoal-grilled goodness forced upon each of us. I’m astounded that I’m thoroughly enjoying sticks of chicken skin and gizzards after a full 12-course dinner. Fortunately, Kato’s wife drags him home when he proposes ending the night at his favourite rāmen joint.
Next up, a pilgrimage to Eiheiji, the temple that started Zen in Japan.
A concise version of this journey was published in Prestige Feb 2013, titled “Endo Days.”