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My search for sake in Japan and how I survived eating fugu sashimi - the blow fish that's lethal if not prepared properly

Dan Nicholl tells all about his time in Tokoyo, from the ambience in the stadium whilst our men in green played to the lethal pufferfish and the lovely versatility of sake.

by: Dan Nicholl | 26 Sep 2019
Japanesse sake

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Let’s get the difficult stuff out of the way first. I was in Tokyo last weekend, sitting just a few rows from the sidelines as the Rugby World Cup kicked off properly with an electric game that didn’t end as hoped for South Africans. It was terrific to be there, 72 000 people creating noise and energy that made Yokahama Stadium the centre of the universe for 80 minutes – 73 of which the Springboks handled comfortably. But a few mistakes, a couple of indifferent performances, and the All Blacks’ annoying habit of making the most of the slightest error, meant a losing start for South Africa – the only low point to a fabulous week in Japan.

Tokyo is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s orderly to the point that the Swiss would think it all a little too much (we arrived at 21:01 for a 21:00 reservation, and the manager had closed the kitchen) – look for a video of the Shibuya Crossing for the perfect illustration of a society built on discipline. Technology is everywhere, starting with the Star Trek toilets in every hotel and complete with an array of buttons I don’t have the necessary NASA training to use. But there’s also a constant sense of history, from the temples and gardens across a city of 39 million people to the respect and deference in the continuous bowing that suggests many of those 39 million are chiropractors.

The food and wine was the greatest source of education, however, as I set out to complete two tasks: discover a world of Japanese food beyond the ubiquitous salmon roses served at every second restaurant in South Africa, and get a proper introduction to sake.

Fish Market

The first of those tasks kicked off in Osaka, Japan’s kitchen, two and a half hours from Tokyo in the Bullet Train, which hits its stride at 270 kilometres an hour. I spent a day in Osaka with Megan and Jeremy – two food-obsessed Capetonians intent on exploring local menus – and comedian Siv Ngesi, the human can of Red Bull who makes for a fearless travelling companion. Which he needed to be: our first mouthful in Osaka was fugu sashimi, the puffer or blow fish that’s lethal if not prepared properly. (Spoiler alert: we survived.)


I also ate takoyaki, Osaka’s signature dim sum-style octopus, green onion and ginger ball, done in batter and served at the temperature of molten lava, with barbecue sauce and mayonnaise – pleasant, but not life-changing. And back in Tokyo, I had teppanyaki beef so marbled it looked like a Fourways mansion; and monjayaki, an odd mix of shrimp and cabbage worked into a batter and scraped off the grill like an exotic raclette.

But the sake was the real interest, and so in between some excellent wine – including a couple of bottles of brilliant Chablis at the superb Atelier Joel Robuchon – where the manager is a delightful South African who’s best mates with Luke Dale Roberts – I embarked on a crash course in Japan’s signature drink, sake. I’ve had a little over the years, and while I’ve not disliked it, I was never overly inspired. If there was one place to change that, though…

And so I sampled the rice drink – is it wine, a liqueur, or moonshine? – at every opportunity. Mostly served in 1.8-litre bottles, the offerings ranged from slightly sweet to distinctly drier and more savoury. Sipped – not thrown back shooter-style – and mostly served cold, they weren’t to everyone’s taste at each sampling, but as I worked my through different bottles, my appreciation grew: for the breadth of style, for the subtlety and nuance of the sake, and for its versatility with food.

Japanesse sake

That was my chief takeaway: I’d arrived picturing it as complementing sushi, but sake goes well with far more. From the intense richness of kobe beef to the textured mouthfuls of takoyaki and the surprisingly brilliant Eastern tapas (Japanese and Chinese) at the spot we found in the build-up to the Springbok game, the minimal-nose, maximum-palate drink of Japan has a new fan. Give it a try, experiment with different food, and learn to love a Japanese staple – as you will the country, when you get there. Possibly to watch the Boks beat the All Blacks in the final. 

Wine bottle

What I’m drinking this week: I’ll be in Elgin in a couple of weeks, joining the panel at a chardonnay colloquium with some proper authorities (wine alchemist Richard Kershaw, TV star Joe Wadsack, and the wonderful Cathy Marston). As such, I’ve been doing some training. The aforementioned Chablis at Robuchon was a Domaine Christian Moreau Grand Cru Les Clos – a rich, intense wine with a lovely balance between wood and fruit, and the latter offering a lightly tropical touch. It washed down eight courses at Robuchon very nicely, and added to the excitement of a day of chardonnay in Elgin on October 12.


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