A few weeks ago, our friendly local liquor store owner / school landlord invited us to take a tour and tasting at a local sake brewery, Kikuzakari. It's a small brewery that has been in the same family for generations. The current president is the founder's great-great grandson, and he took us on the tour personally.

One thing that's obvious when you tour a sake brewery is that OSHA holds no sway here. Workplace safety is your own lookout. Even customers taking a tour are expected to look out for themselves, walking about in poor lighting on wet floors, stepping over the hoses and wires strewn everywhere.

Of course, it was well worth it just to get to spend time surrounded by the yummy yeasty smell of brewing alcohol. It was heavenly. At one point we got to try the somewhat sweet and tart raw sake from a vat that was just about ready for filtering and bottling.

Being a small brewery, many tasks that would be done by machine at a large brewery are done by hand. The day we were there, this guy was gluing the labels to the bottles. It's not a very exciting job — grab a crate, wipe all the bottles clean, spread glue on a label, carefully line it up and press it in place, move on to the next bottle — but I guess somebody has to do it.

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The Shortest Day 

On Toji, the winter solstice, the Japanese greet the end of darkening days with traditions aimed at improving health. Grocery stores are filled with yuzu, a small yellow citrus fruit with a taste and aroma similar to grapefruit. It is traditional to toss a few yuzu into the ofuro, allowing you to relax in a hot bath surrounded by the fragrant oils. Similarly, eating kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) on the solstice is believed to prevent colds in the coming year.

We celebrated Toji by mixing traditions and cocktails. An acquaintance had gifted us with a kabocha some time ago, so we simmered it for dinner with some fresh ginger (given our track record, we're all about combining as many cold-prevention ingredients and traditions as possible). We filled our ofuro with sliced yuzu for a refreshing end to a difficult week. And, we shook yuzu juice with gin and Cointreau in a celebratory cocktail, raising our glasses to the return of light and the prospect of good health in the coming year.
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Let's Biiru! 

Just some gift beer we enjoyed last night. Yum! The brewery is in Morioka (about an hour train ride away).
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On a couple of occasions during Undoukai, neighbors told us that a party would take place immediately afterwards. Indeed, while the event judges tallied up the points, each team set up picnic spaces on the outer edges of the field. We had lots of sushi, sashimi, pickles, dango (rice dumplings covered with black sesame, sweetened soy sauce, adzuki bean paste, or edamame paste), onigiri, and packages of cookies and otsumami (beer snacks).

Good thing for all that otsumami, because we had plenty of beer. Including beer in cans so big, they required handles.

After some time, team captains started circulating, carrying their bottles of sake to share. Matthew was the lucky recipient of many refills and friendly visits. I think everyone was impressed that he could speak some Japanese. Or by his moustache.

We ate, drank, chatted, and laughed with our neighbors well into the afternoon. When the party broke up, everyone pitched in to clean up. Clean-up involved separating refuse into burnable trash, non-burnable trash, and the various types of recyclables (plastics, paper, etc). *sigh* I love Japanese organization.

We walked our bikes home along with our neighbors from across the street. No riding for us — in Japan, it's illegal to ride your bike after drinking.
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It's a little after 4:00 pm, and we're drunk. This can only mean one thing: undoukai! Undou(exercise)kai(meet) is an annual "sports day" when neighborhoods compete with each other in "sports" such as Rock-Paper-Scissors and the 1500 meter "marathon". For the over-fifty crowd there was even a rope-making contest, which was quite a sight to see. (Our neighborhood, Kunenbashi, came in third out of five with about 4 meters of rope in about 5 minutes.)

All that's in the morning, though. The real reason everybody goes is for the after-party/picnic. Sushi, sashimi, fried foods, crackers, dessert, and all the beer or sake you can drink actually, more than you can drink, because everyone will want to refill your glass and drink with you, at least if you're a foreigner.

It was fun, but now we're tired and drunk, so we'll write more and post some photos later. Ja, mata ne! Gokurou-sama deshita!
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Miyazawa Kenji (the cocktail) 

2 oz. Suntory Whisky
1/4 oz. Sweet Vermouth
Dash of bitters

Shake ingredients with cracked ice in a cocktail shaker. Pour into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with an awful maraschino cherry (or substitute a decent maraschino cherry if you can get one).

This drink is basically a Rob Roy made with Japanese whisky instead of Scotch. It is named after a famous writer who was born in Hanamaki, the next town over. People in this area are quite proud of Miyazawa's heritage here. More information about Miyazawa Kenji can be found on the internet.

The name is not particularly tied to this cocktail; we just chose it because we thought it should be named after a famous Japanese (as the Rob Roy is named after a famous Scot), and decided that Miyazawa gave it some local flavor.
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