I learned an important lifeskill yesterday: how to get drunk on sake before lunch. If you wish to follow in my footsteps, go on a sake-tasting walking tour, a.k.a. a sake pilgrimage. More specifically, have only a light breakfast, then walk for about three hours straight, then partake of a healthy amount of sake (on a very empty stomach).
The particular sake pilgrimage we embarked upon yesterday led us on an adventure through our own backyard. The tour started at our local train station in Sakura. Upon our arrival at the station, we were given a hand-drawn map of our route. We soon learned that this map was not to scale.
The first third of our route (according to the map) took us back up the hill, close to our apartment. We figured we’d have to do a fair amount of backtracking, as we had passed hordes of people walking the opposite direction on our way to the station. We eventually ducked off the main route which was taking us back towards our house, and into a small neighbourhood we’ve never explored before that lays just under the shadow of our hill. This leg of the journey took no longer than 30 minutes.
The second third of our route (according to the map) took us up a trail through a forest, to the top of a tall hill with a shrine and abandoned playground, past a bamboo forest, through rolling tea fields, and along a path lined with senbonzakura “a thousand cherry blossom trees.” All of this, in our own backyard, apparently. I will try to help you envision this part of the pilgrimage, through pictures:
As we left the town and entered the forest, our trek started to feel more like a pilgrimage.
Eventually the path turned into a steep, climbing staircase. We passed a few of the older trekkers on our way up.
Finally this trail marker informed us that we had reached the top of the hill. Well, actually it didn’t inform us of much, since we couldn’t read it, but we assumed that’s what it was saying. Success!
This sign was at the peak, marking a lookout of sorts. Again, I don’t know what it says, but some other Japanese guys were reading it intently, then taking pictures of it. So I decided it was important.
We emerged from the bamboo forest onto a path through these rolling tea fields. I’ve seen many tea fields from the highway, but this was my first time seeing them up close. It was a pretty cool sight!
After this point, we walked alongside a stream lined with sakura trees. The trees were but shells, but a few hinted at the blossoms they would soon be producing. In a few weeks time, this path we’ve discovered will be blooming with senbonzakura. Slowly more houses began appearing along the path, and the path turned into a road. We had made it through the second leg of our journey (according to the map), in about two hours. See what I mean about the map not being to scale?
The last third of our journey took us through more of the town, and ended at the sake brewery. We meandered through the town streets for about 30 minutes or so, and finally rounded a corner to see this sight:
The sake is near! We and the people around us laughed when we rounded the corner, as it was so sudden a sight after all the walking through nature. We knew there were a lot of other people on the trail – we had passed many of them on our way to the station, initially – but we hadn’t been surrounded by very many people on our own part of the journey.
The lineup took awhile but everyone’s mood was jovial, and eventually we rounded another corner to see our goal: the sake-tasting station! We made our way through the lineup, first to the raffle station. Everyone who had a map to prove they had done the pilgrimage was allowed to pull a sake bottle stopper out of a box, to see if they could win a prize. I won a bag of sake… curds! I’m not sure what they’re called, actually, but from what I gathered through fellow pilgrims attempting to explain them to me in Japanese, they’re produced during the sake-making process, and I can put them in miso soup. Sake miso! We’ll definitely have to try that soon, but not before driving anywhere.
Finally, we got what we came for, some samples of sake, and a nice plastic glassful for a mere 200 yen each. The barrel on the right is a hot, sweet, milky variety of sake, it was so delicious we bought a bottle to take home for ourselves. The barrel on the left is the sake we had to buy, and it was also strong and delicious.
After we got our last glasses of sake (or so we thought), we were about to leave, when a group of Japanese people invited us into their circle. We all had great fun attempting to communicate in Japanese and English, and developing the bonds of sake-infused, momentary friendship. This was facilitated somewhat by our iPhone dictionaries, to look up Japanese words we didn’t know. At one point, one of our new friends, an older and very energetic man, pointed at a younger woman sitting across the circle, and said “Uwaki!” We looked it up and both died laughing at the translation, because the options included, “extramarital sex, affair, fooling around, cheater, unfaithful person, bimbo, slut, cheating heart, adulterous partner… etc.” We figured we must have got the word wrong, so we passed him the phone to confirm the Kanji, and he pointed definitively at the first option, “extramarital sex, affair, fooling around.” The woman smiled politely. We tried to calm our laughter down to polite smile level as well, but it was probably too late. Luckily, the moment was saved by the president of the sake brewery, who came over to introduce himself to us, and give Jordan his business card. Sadly, we might have offended him too, as we had no business cards to offer in exchange, and felt that he was expecting one. As we consulted with our newfound friends about how to tell him this, he simply walked away mid-conversation. Cross-cultural fail.
Alas, these awkward moments didn’t ruin the mood. The guy on the right above astroviper is the one that called his companion an uwaki. He is also the one that, when I had emptied my sake glass before astroviper, commented about how strong I was, and rushed to buy me another glass. I did not need another glass, but I couldn’t refuse it. This is where the “drunk on sake before lunch” part comes in. I drank it slowly, but it was too late. I was done. We soon had to leave as we were one of the last remaining groups, and it was an interesting walk back to the train station, and then home.
Later in the day, we went to a friend’s birthday party, and as everyone else went to buy their drinks, I had to refuse, saying I had finished my drinking before lunch, and was done. It was a grand adventure through our own backyard, and we will definitely go on another sake tasting tour in the near future, as apparently ’tis the season. Next time, though, I will definitely have to pack a lunch: a pack of quaker’s oatmeal in the morning plus three hours walking plus over three large plastic glasses of sake makes for a biological combination I don’t wish to repeat anytime soon.
*p.s. NOTE TO READERS:
I’ve tried a new format with this blog post, by putting the pictures directly in with the text, rather than in a slideshow at the end. Please let me know if you like this format better, or prefer the slideshow format, or if you think both are okay depending on the context. You can let me know by posting a comment, thanks!