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Japanese Onsen

January 11th, 2010 No comments

This will be a non-sake post; rather, a cultural tidbit for those of you lucky enough to go to Japan and experience this part of ancient and modern Japanese culture firsthand.

I have had the pleasure to accompany friends to an onsen. An onsen is a public bath that is sometimes a product of a naturally occurring hot-spring.

Unfortunately, this post won’t include pictures for obvious reasons, but I will describe the G-rated version.

For many people living in Japan, a typical retreat is to head off to a local onsen for a much needed wash, scrub, and dip into very warm water before retiring for the night. It is after one crosses the threshold into the bath that they allow the worries and troubles from work, home, and life to fade away. Hot steam envelopes the body as rules require you to bathe and cleanse the body with soap and water before entering the tubs or pools. Old-style methods of washing in Japan require one to be seated on a stool, use a low-profile bucket and the occasional shower-wand (the kind with the hose attached). Most modern onsens have “stations” where people park themselves to clean. Each station has its own supply of soap, shampoo, and conditioner to be used. After cleansing, the now clean body can be permitted to enter the hot tubs of water for relaxation.

The tubs range in size from small swimming pools to large jacuzzies.  And at their deepest, a full grown adult could sit and their head would still be above water. The hot pools can either be situated outside or inside and they can be constructed out of natural materials or look like modern swimming pools. The indoor versions can sometimes be rather steamy – an almost sweatlodge. The outdoor variety are really special during the wintery months when it’s snowing. During my last trip to Japan I sat in an outdoor pool, alone, in the darkness of night with snow drifting down upon my upper torso. It was a special night for being just in a hot tube in the nude.

Most people who use an onsen are used to the practice and have no problem bathing in a semi-public space surrounded by nude members of the same gender.  Others, maybe not so much. To compare, bathing at an onsen is similar to using a shower facility at a local gym or swimming pool.

Almost all onsens have a fee to enter and use the facilities. These costs go to maintaining the facility and ensuring sanitary conditions for all patrons. Before entering the bathing stations, lockers are provided to store clothes and other articles.  Some, onsens will provide a wash towel free of charge, others will ask you pay a modest fee for a small towel you can keep after your visit as a souvenir (I think you can call it that).

After bathing, soaking, and redressing, some onsens have a room with tatami mats to allow patrons to relax and recover after spending time in the hot pool. Some people will actually take short naps here (it was hard not too when I last went).

One final note (and I suppose sake related), some onsens permit alcohol in the actual pool/tub areas. The last one I traveled to in Hakone did not. You could, however, purchase and enjoy a can of beer afterward, but no alcohol was permitted in the tubs themselves. A word of warning, however… because of the hot water, it is easy to get dizzy from sitting and “relaxing” too long. Drinking alcohol will only exacerbate the symptoms. So, if you do venture into a hot bath and decide to enjoy the onsen with sake, do so with caution.

To sum up, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience becoming clean and relaxing in the cold air coupled with the hot water of the tub. I will definitely return to another onsen upon my next return to Japan in the future. I only wish something similar existed in Western culture. A shower or bath at home just does not cut it.

Categories: places Tags: , , , , ,

Sawanohana and Chikumanishiki

January 9th, 2010 No comments
One of the few interns to participate in the same program as me has been successful in becoming one of the kurabito (brewery staff) at a sake brewery in Saku – a town not too far from Nagano. Greg Newton, a Canadian National, has been a resident of Japan for several years with his initial exposure to the country by way of academic research. He currently works at the brewery much like the experiences of the initial internship earlier this past year. However, the work does not cease after a week like the internship did. He has been busy since mid Autumn, working six days a week assisting the other staff of the brewery; working 10+ hour days. The brewery he belongs to is known as Sawanohana. When compared to other companies producing sake throughout Japan, Sawanohana is a modest mid-sized brewery in size and caters to a more local community. However, interest is currently growing within the company and they are experimenting with international exports to other countries. As with many producers, this particular brewery has a diverse selection of sake produced. Everything including Honjozo type sake, Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, and Junmai Daiginjo sake.  Additionally, they produce shochu and liquers with sake as an ingredient.
The Toji, master brewer, is a man of great pride in his sake production and looks to see his brewery’s continued growth and place in the local community and region of Japan. As part of my visit to see Greg, we were shown around the brewery by the Toji and introduced to some of the staff. Following our tour we had the opportunity to sample the entire product line of sake produced by Sawanohana – a real treat indeed. I purchased a bottle of their Junmai and Junmai Daiginjo to bring back with me. I must confess, purchasing two 700ml bottles of sake so early in my trip has made my jourines all the more difficult – all of my luggage is on my back!
One of the difficulties in touring sake breweries throughout Japan is that prime brewing season is in winter. Saku, of all cities, is incredibly cold during that season. We were too early for the dumping of snow, but the weather certainly had a chill in the air that was certainly difficult to shake. A collegue of mine had the pelasure to go wine tasting in very amicable weather in Argentina earlier this past fall (springtime south of the Equator). So, only diehard fans of nihonshu dare venture into the cold that wraps most of Japan during the production season. And as a bit of history trivia, sake production had originally been limited to the colder, winter months because rice obviously does not grow during that season. Many of the farmers of said rice had little to do during the winter with a bounty of rice crop, and so they turned to sake production. Granted, the cold weather is integral to sake production – some breweries expose their sake storage tanks to the outside air for refrigeration because it is so cold.
The following morning after our visit to see Greg and the brewery he works at, we were shown to another brewery in Saku by the name of Kaisan. Kaisan is a producer of award winning sake with a larger physical presence. Their brewery is about two to three times the size of Sawanohana. The size of their staff is also larger to match. We did not have time to visit with Toji nor take a tour of their facilities – we had a train to catch later that morning bound for Tokyo. I did, however, snag a bottle of their top tier Daiginjo to bring back with me (again with the self-punishment of additional weight on back). Our train ride that morning (and Greg’s car drive that afternoon) were both to head to see friends and (in his case) family for the New Year holiday. This may be a bit late, but to those reading, Happy New Year! Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!
All in all, this was a good trip north of Tokyo for a few days to experience a bit of cold, friends, and sake.

One of the few people to participate in the same internship program as me has been successful in becoming one of the kurabito (brewery staff) at a sake brewery in Saku – a town not too far from Nagano. Greg Newton, a Canadian National, has been a resident of Japan for several years with his initial exposure to the country by way of academic research. He currently works at the brewery much like the experiences of the initial internship earlier this past year. However, the work does not cease after a week like the internship did. He has been busy since mid Autumn, working six days a week assisting the other staff of the brewery; working 10+ hour days. The brewery he belongs to is known as Sawanohana. When compared to other companies producing sake throughout Japan, Sawanohana is a modest mid-sized brewery and caters to a more local community. However, interest is currently growing within the company and they are experimenting with international exports to other countries. As with many producers, this particular brewery has a diverse selection of sake produced. Everything including Honjozo type sake, Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, and Junmai Daiginjo sake.  Additionally, they produce shochu and liquers with sake as an ingredient.

Greg Newton speaks with his Toji

Greg Newton speaks with his Toji

The Toji, master brewer, is a man of great pride in his sake production and looks to see his brewery’s continued growth and place in the local community and region of Japan. As part of my visit to see Greg, we were shown around the brewery by the Toji and introduced to some of the staff. Following our tour we had the opportunity to sample the entire product line of sake produced by Sawanohana – a real treat indeed. I purchased a bottle of their Junmai and Junmai Daiginjo to bring back with me. I must confess, purchasing two 700ml bottles of sake so early in my trip has made my journeys all the more difficult – all of my luggage is on my back!

One of the difficulties in touring sake breweries throughout Japan is that prime brewing season is in winter. Saku, of all cities, is incredibly cold during that season. We were too early for the dumping of snow, but the weather certainly had a chill in the air that was certainly difficult to shake. A collegue of mine had the pelasure to go wine tasting in very amicable weather in Argentina earlier this past fall (springtime south of the Equator). So, only diehard fans of nihonshu dare venture into the cold that wraps most of Japan during the production season. And as a bit of history trivia, sake production had originally been limited to the colder, winter months because rice obviously does not grow during that season. Many of the farmers of said rice had little to do during the winter with a bounty of rice crop, and so they turned to sake production. Granted, the cold weather is integral to sake production – some breweries expose their sake storage tanks to the outside air for refrigeration because it is so cold.

Some of Sawanohanas Brands

Some of Sawanohana's Brands

The following morning after our visit to see Greg and the brewery he works at, we were shown to another brewery in Saku by the name of Chikumanishiki. Chikumanishiki is a producer of award winning sake with a larger physical presence. Their brewery is about two to three times the size of Sawanohana. The size of their staff is also larger to match. We did not have time to visit with Toji nor take a tour of their facilities – we had a train to catch later that morning bound for Tokyo. I did, however, snag a bottle of their top tier Daiginjo to bring back with me (again with the self-punishment of additional weight on back). Our train ride that morning (and Greg’s car drive that afternoon) were both to head to see friends and (in his case) family for the New Year holiday. This may be a bit late, but to those reading, Happy New Year! Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!

All in all, this was a good trip north of Tokyo for a few days to experience a bit of cold, friends, and sake.

Additional photos from the Sawanohana visit.

Blogging from Japan

January 9th, 2010 No comments
Yokoso from Japan! As a loyal friend to Los Angeles Sake, the sake industry, and the culture of nihonshu I have graciously accepted the invitation to write about my experiences here in Japan on my three week holiday as they relate to sake. At the time of this writing it is currently the halfway point of my travels and we’ve already visited several breweries, both large and small. From these visits we’ve had the pleasure and privilage to enter into the workplaces and halls of sake production, tradition, and culture. Accompanying me has been my trusty camera with which I have attempted to document the production methods and intricacies of the culture to share with you here. If you are so interested, additional pictures of my trip can be found on my flickr photostream (link at bottom of this post).
But to begin, I should probably write a little about who I am and my experience and exposure to sake.
In February of this past year I had the honor of being selected as one of the six initial participants to the Mukune International Sake Brewing Internship. Yasutaka Daimon, the toji (master brewer) and owner of Mukune Tei, opened his worplace for us to experience the process of producing premium sake firsthand. For an entire week we toiled and labored from morning till sunset assisting the staff of the brewery in every facet of production. Our experiences included washing and soaking rice, sprinkling and handeling the koji mould spores, and pressing batches of sake for eventual pasteurization and bottling. From around the globe participants came to share in this experience and take away a better appreciation for the production of sake and the people behind it.
In addition to the internship experience I have been an avid drinker of sake for several years making time for local events and public gatherings as they relate to sake and the culture of Japan. Despite my passion for sake it is not my career. I am currently an aerospace engineer working on designs of liquid propellant rocket engines that will go into the space shuttle replacement called Ares. It sounds glamerous, but in reality, it’s still engineering and if you didn’t like math and science in school, you won’t like this job. At present I am also a graduate student in engineering at the University of Southern California (USC). With an incredibly full schedule I make time for sake and ensure it is shared with as many people who are interested as possible.
I will be blogging for Los Angeles Sake over the next week or so and share as much as I can as it relates to the inner workings of a very old tradition and industry of Japan. If you have a question, please post a comment and I will be answer it as quickly as I can (Japan is 17 hours ahead of Los Angeles). If you have a more personal question or request, an email is provided below.
I hope you can share in the excitement and knowledge of nihonshu as I travel Japan!
– Tyler LeBrun
tyler@tylerlebrun.com

Yokoso from Japan!

As a loyal friend to Los Angeles Sake, the sake industry, and the culture of nihonshu I have graciously accepted the invitation to write about my experiences here in Japan on my three week holiday as they relate to sake. At the time of this writing it is currently the halfway point of my travels and we’ve already visited several breweries, both large and small. From these visits we’ve had the pleasure and privilage to enter into the workplaces and halls of sake production, tradition, and culture. Accompanying me has been my trusty camera with which I have attempted to document the production methods and intricacies of the culture to share with you here. If you are so interested, additional pictures of my trip can be found on my flickr photostream (link at bottom of this post).

But to begin, I should probably write a little about who I am and my experience and exposure to sake.

In February of this past year I had the honor of being selected as one of the six initial participants to the Mukune International Sake Brewing Internship. Yasutaka Daimon, the Toji (master brewer) and owner of Mukune Tei, opened his worplace for us to experience the process of producing premium sake firsthand. For an entire week we toiled and labored from morning till sunset assisting the staff of the brewery in every facet of production. Our experiences included washing and soaking rice, sprinkling and handeling the koji mould spores, and pressing batches of sake for eventual pasteurization and bottling. From around the globe participants came to share in this experience and take away a better appreciation for the production of sake and the people behind it.

In addition to the internship experience I have been an avid drinker of sake for several years making time for local events and public gatherings as they relate to sake and the culture of Japan. Despite my passion for sake it is not my career. I am currently an aerospace engineer working on designs of liquid propellant rocket engines that will go into the space shuttle replacement called Ares. It sounds glamerous, but in reality, it’s still engineering and if you didn’t like math and science in school, you won’t like this job. At present I am also a graduate student in engineering at the University of Southern California (USC). With an incredibly full schedule I make time for sake and ensure it is shared with as many people who are interested as possible.

I will be blogging for Los Angeles Sake over the next week or so and share as much as I can as it relates to the inner workings of a very old tradition and industry of Japan. If you have a question, please post a comment and I will answer it as quickly as I can (Japan is 17 hours ahead of Los Angeles). If you have a more personal question or request, an email is provided below.

I hope you can share in the excitement and knowledge of nihonshu as I travel Japan!

– Tyler LeBrun

tyler [at] tylerlebrun {dot} com

flickr photostream