Day 5: The Devil Behind the Bar

I awoke to the news that a typhoon is headed toward Kyushu and will likely hit Tuesday morning, which has washed away my Iki Island plans. Quite disappointing since Iki holds Appellation of Original status for its barley shochus. I guess I now have another excuse to visit Kyushu in the near future to continue my shochu education.

With no travel plans today I visited Mai-san’s office at Nagasaki University where she teaches English to medical students. I’ve been invited to speak to her class tomorrow to help them practice their English conversation skills. Truthfully, I’d rather practice my Japanese. I’m feeling quite insecure about being ready to work in a kura in another 10 days or so.

After she finishes for the day, we head downtown to Hamanomachi neighborhood, which is packed with bars and restaurants. We duck into a local sushi-ya filled with older locals smoking cigarettes and enjoying their evening. A couple at the other end of the bar drink Iki shochu, a guy eating alone drinks beer from the bottle, and two women sitting next to us drink nihon-shu from a carafe before switching to shochu later in the meal. We start with draft beer, of course, but quickly switch to shochu in anticipation of me reaching 100 different shochus for the trip. Our first course (after the amuse bouche, described below) was a great sashimi platter complete with barracuda (far left).


Mai-san had told me that whale was popular in Nagasaki, one of the only places in Japan where whale meat is available for consumption due to the limited number of whales that are edible and the international restrictions placed on whaling. I’d tried gnarwhal in Oslo, Norway a few years ago. A single bite of seared meat. I was expecting something similar from whale sashimi, but as with many things in traveling Japan, it defied expectations.

As an aside, in many Japanese restaurants you are given a small amuse bouche (tsukedashi or otoshi depending on where you are in Japan) prior to ordering your food and drinks. This is accompanied by a service charge in lieu of tips. It’s basically as if you pay an admission fee for your seat in the izakaya. It makes a lot of sense in that context, but can surprising when it shows up on your bill if you’re not anticipating it. In the case of this sushi-ya, it was well worth it. Our amuse was one dish mixing finely chopped whale and pickled vegetables and another dish of egg tofu topped with kani miso (crab roe). The whale was surprisingly like other fish sashimi (given that it’s a mammal).

The whale sashimi that followed was a surprise again as it was not meat at all. We were served mink whale tongue sashimi, which was a mix of buttery and chewy and salty that is pretty much impossible to prepare for. It turns out actual whale meat sashimi is quite difficult to find and not at all affordable.


The rest of our sushi dinner was impecable and the chef, once he realized what I was in Kyushu, broke out his bottle of Ao Chu, which is a rare Tokyo island, Aogashima, sweet potato shochu made by 8 old ladies using mugi koji. This ended up being shochu number 99 and given its rarity probably should be have been 100. That would come at the next bar.

We moved on to a homey izakaya, Hifumi-tei, a 5 minute walk away with 4 old women putter around serving drinks and food to the happy customers of this popular izakaya. This is about as homestyle as imaginable with dishes laid out on the counter for customers to look over before deciding what to order. However, the star here is ojiya, a thrice simmered rice dish with dashi and tomago (egg) topped with sesame and green onions. This is the Nagasaki version of late night pizza or post-izakaya ramen.


The final stop of the night was Jamaica Pub, a legit whiskey bar full of bourbons, single malts, and Japanese whiskeys. I had a Nikka, because I have rarely had a chance to try this Japanese blended whiskey. After so much shochu its smokiness was almost overpowering. When the owner realized I was on a shochu adventure, he nodded, smiled, and pulled a bottle out from behind the bar. An isshobin of Maou – The king of the devils – and one of my favorite shochus.  This is now one of the most expensive shochus in Japan, at least outside of Kyushu, but this bottle had clearly been purchased prior to the shochu boom in the early 2000s. The label was stained and worn, but it still carried the majesty of the devil himself. And boy does he go down easy when you drink him straight.



One Response to “Day 5: The Devil Behind the Bar”
  1. Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    I gotta say, the whale tongue doesn’t look very appealing.

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