Seeking out a Legend

During my stay in Kagoshima in October 2013, Tekkan Wakamatsu, the toji at Yamato Zakura Shuzo, where I did my internship, told me about a legendary izakaya in downtown Kagoshima City where the owners was an “ancient magician” (Tekkan-san may have said “a yoda”, as he’s fond of Star Wars references) in the art of “maewari” shochu.

Maewari shochu is the blending of honkaku shochu and water days to weeks before consumption. The alchemy of the shochu water mix subtly changes the flavors and aromas of the shochu, so if you have the patience (and the skill), this is an interesting way to explore the character of your old favorites.

My impromptu decision to return to Kagoshima for Christmas this year lead me to sheepishly ask Tekkan-san if we could visit this izakaya to try this maewari imo (sweet potato) shochu. He seemed surprised, yet pleased, that I remembered his story. After dinner at a local izakaya with several friends, Tekkan-san and I journeyed onward to this place to continue my shochu education. We wandered some familiar and some unfamiliar streets in the Kagoshima City core before arriving in a quiet alleyway.

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Stepping into the ancient izakaya (open since 1917) we’re greeted with smoking middle aged customers in quiet conversations. A waitress efficiently works the 3 sided bar – there is no other seating. The menu is posted on the wall.

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Tekkan-san explains this place only serves one shochu. Kozuru Kuro from Komasa Shuzo. This work-a-day shochu is one of my favorite of the affordable sweet potato shochus in the U.S. and it’s nearly ubiquitous in Kagoshima, available in convenience stores and super markets. Fortunately, there is a master on premises who takes Kuro and turns it into one of the best shochus in all of Japan.

To start off we order dried grilled flying fish. If you’ve not experienced dried grilled fish in Japan, you’re in for an experience. The experience is that the fish, which has been salted and left out in the air, dries out, and then hardens. Putting it on the grill to heat it up, releases a faintly rotting fish aroma and you’ve got a room full of fishy stink that would clear out an American bar in seconds. The Japanese customers take it in stride and within a few minutes our fish arrive.

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They’re warm, but stiff nearly to the point of inedible. This is where my shochu education takes a nearly surreal and unexpected turn. Tekkan-san takes his fish and dumps it head first into his warm glass of maewari shochu. A flick of the wrist to stir, and the fish comes back out and the head goes into his mouth. The shochu softens the dried fish almost instantly, making it chewy instead of impenetrable, and despite the stink that had arisen just minutes before, the fish is salty and rich, a near perfect match for sweet potato shochu.

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At this point the proprietor comes out. An ancient, balding man with roughened hands and a ready smile. He appears nearly blind as I never quite catch a glimpse of his eyes – his squint is so tight. He regales us with stories that I don’t remotely understand as he’s speaking in a Kagoshima dialect that I’ve barely begun to learn. Tekkan-san patiently translates the things he thinks I’ll find interesting as we enjoy a couple more drams of this delicious maewari shochu with some of the more mundane menu items before we decide to call it a night.

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The owner joins us outside to say goodbye and thanks me for visiting his bar. He hopes we’ll come again. I can’t imagine skipping it any time I’m in Kagoshima City. I only hope that after 90+ years in operation it stays open long enough for me to return.

 

Kampai!

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