Saturday, March 6, 2010

Omasa Komasa, Higashi Nakano (大政小政)

He means well. I want to preface all that follows with my emphatic belief that he does mean well.

The waitress at Ranman (who was really lovely, in such a sweet and motherly way) told us it would take about 15 minutes to walk to Higashi Nakano, but warned that "It's really dark." While a group of 180cm+ foreign men probably has nothing to fear, we still took the train. It's only one stop.

And just a trip, stumble and fall from the northeast exit of the station lies the decomposing entertainment district, Moon Road. My nipples fairly exploded with delight when I saw this sign on the GoogleMapz, and in person it was even more rundown that I had hoped!!! Part of the problem is that it was Saturday; I'm sure it's more lively during the week. There are two curving streets that make up the Moon Road district, and while there are other appealing places, we were hell-bent on an assignation with destiny in the form of。。。

Omasa Komasa.

It actually was pretty much as eerie as this on the street. A lot of signs weren't lit, including this one for the place we were visiting. This put us in mind of the reviews we'd read - 'Dark and scary', 'Tempermental master, may not let you in'.

When I opened the door, I was pretty surprised to find it empty. The master was sitting alone in his dirty white coat, at one of the tables, reading a book in front of a lit gas burner gently boiling some water. He confirmed that yes, he could manage to fit us in, and we went about getting situated. I'm sure he meant well.

Dark and scary? I'm not sure. But certainly not bright and cheerful, nor dim and moody. 'Dingy' might be a better word. He's been doing it there for over 30 years, and it shows.

This 'walking away' picture is a good illustration of the degree of welcome we all felt we received. As I've experienced at other places, we started with a little 'Are you a serious drinker of nihonshu' quiz session even more intense than the one at Tamanegiya. It tested both my language skills and my patience, going a little like this:
Him: So, what do you want to drink?
Me: Well, we all like junmaiginjo.
H: Errrrr...but what kind of junmaiginjo?
M: Oh, usually light, fruity things with strong frangrance.
H: Errrr..., OK give me some brands that you like.
M: Well, last night I had Shimeharitsuru's Jun [keep in mind this is #1 in The Book]. I liked that.
H: liked that? You...thought that had a good nose? I...see. Well, I guess I get the idea. What else?
M: Well, we saw that you have a lot of Juyondai, and we wanted to try that.
H: I see. Have you had any Juyondai before? Where did you drink it?
M: I've only had the honjozo before. Actually we've recently been to Kappore and Kawashima [both of which share a web site with this place].
H: Only the honjozo?! Those places have too many varieties, so they're not always fresh. OK, I guess I can recommend some things.

Can I just point out briefly that I'm the customer here? Some people would certainly be intimidated by this; I was getting pains in my abdomen from trying so hard not too laugh. Let's pause and look at this pretty faux-stained glass over the counter before we move on.
H: Now, you can't drink without eating something. Sake doesn't work that way. What do you want to eat?
M: Errr...[haven't been allowed to look at the menu], well, maybe some salted salmon would be nice?
H: [disgusted face] Salted salmon?!
M: Oh fer chrissakes, would you just get it over with and tell us what we have to eat?
H: You see, it's important to pick the right food, and the right sequence of food, and the right sequence of sake, because it will all taste different depending on what order you eat and drink it. You should start with my special tofu.
M: Lead on, genius.

As I also encountered at Tamanegiya, every bottle in the fridge is wrapped in plastic and sealed with a twist-tie. I can't help thinking that maybe the air in the bottle is a more significant source of oxidation than air penetrating the seal of the cork, but to each his obsessive-compulsive own [Dec '10: I've since learned that people generally agree on 0-4C is a good temperature to keep your sake, or even below zero for long storage, and that there are residual organisms in namazake that are inert at those temperatures. Ignore my bitching below; sake's not wine.]. For a serious sake drinker though, this is one hell of a view. The third door from left is basically all Juyondai, currently Japan's single most popular brand (as measured by snobbery value) and to the left of that you can make out some Jikon...then it gets harder.

Now, he currently lists twenty-two varieties of Juyondai on his web site. But this doesn't sum up the situation. Twice, he served us different vintages of the same sake for comparitive purposes. Over and over again, he emphasized how his sake is better than others':
H: I store everything at 4 C. Sake is full of living organisms, and if they're too active, it gets bad. The cold keeps it fresher and lets it age well. That's why my sake tastes better than the same brands at other [lesser] stores.
M: Riiiight.
H: No, it's true. You wouldn't go to two different stores and expect the curry to taste the same, would you? So my sake tastes better.
M: (internally) [OK chief, but the curry doesn't all come from one vat at a factory in another state. The sake does. Further, if I remember my Brewing 101, the yeast is all dead, and in fact filtered, and the thing that makes beverages go bad is air. [Dec '10: And there's lots of raw, unfiltered much of what he serves. Again, just ignore me. I was ig'nant.]]

I'm going to be spanked for my sins, but I can't remember right now what two of the varieties were here. The one on the right was definitely Juyondai's Honmaru, which is their honjozo (this bottle was brewed in February), and the small glass in front was an older version of it (last Feburary). I drank this at Santensan in Kamiyamada, and thought it was a great honjozo, but still clearly a honjozo. In this case, I thought it was pretty much stunning. Didn't you? Considering that it was a 1-month-old honjozo, it didn't taste acidic like a new sake nor rough like a honjozo. It tasted more...maru, if you will. Hontouni. This of course occasioned another little exchange: Me: "Actually I like the younger one better." Him: "Yeah, young people and women usually say that." Grit teeth. Repeat: He means well. Actually I wasn't thinking that at this point.

Oh, I've just remembered what the other two were: One was a straight junmaiginjo, no fancy name, from Juyondai, and the other was their fancy-named Omachi (雄町) junmaiginjo. We later received some wisdom about how the brewer's art is all about bringing out the best of various ingredients, and that's why it's OK that Juyondai makes so many varieties. Omachi is another type of rice; I get the sense that Juyondai just makes limited runs of lots of different things for fun - which I heartily approve of.

This is a sake-kasu cream cheese. He wouldn't let us order the daiginjo one, was is too sharp-tasting and doesn't go with the sake we were drinking.

Like a knob, I forgot to take any pictures of the tofu, which is the #1 ninki item. We had an extended lecture on the value of this tofu. Let me summarize: It's made with 100% domestic soy beans (which is largely untrue elsewhere; I think he said 99%+ imported, but I dunno). He squeezes the beans himself. He uses all-natural nigari (casein, says Big Bird). And most importantly, he makes it at your table while you watch. "If you buy tofu in the stores, it doesn't have any flavor, right? That's why you put soy sauce, or ginger, or onions on it. Tofu is made from beans. If you have tofu and it doesn't taste like beans, there's something wrong." 

Holy cow, that was some good tofu. I've had fresh tofu, and I've had tofu that was still warm from being made at the table, but this was it. Coupled with the quality of the sake, it started changing my mind about the place.

H: What else would you like to eat?
M: You know, I'd like to order something else, but you're scary. Every time I say something, I'm wrong. [I really said this, or the best facsimile I could manage in Japanese, and that really helped loosen things up.]

I saw a 'smoked takuan' on the menu. In addition to liking this a lot, I was happy that I could remember after about 30 seconds that it's called iburigakko, and I said so. He immediately corrected me, noting that the real iburigakko was just above the takuan, which he smokes himself. And he gave us some of each.

For a second round of sake, we got three varieties. First was this Jikon junmaiginjo. Pretty good...

But two vintages of this Juyondai, made from Dewasansan rice (出羽燦々), were phenomenal. I just loved the complexity and unexpected flavors, in addition to the clarity and balance and everything else...and again I realized that I really have no vocabulary to describe sake. Too bad, but it least it keeps me from going on even longer than I already do.

For those keeping score, I much preferred the 1-year-old version of this.

20 Apr 2010: It just occured to me that I might as well try to buy this online. If you get yerself to Rakuten, you'll find that it's limited-availability, and a 1.8l bottle will run you somewhere between $120 and $180 depending on the store. Aha.


Just to show that we were really getting in the good graces, we got free samples of two other beverages as well as another lecture. These were described as 'Things everyone likes to drink,' which got me worried that my idea of the ideal sake may be too mainstream and insufficiently tolerant of flavular diversity.

On the left is the junmaidaiginjo from Shuhou (秀鳳, as any dunce can plainly read). On the right is the Origarami from Sasaichi (さ々一). While these were plainly excellent, the real interest was in the lecture - origarami evidently refers to the sake that floats to the top of the tank in the brewing process - as in 'We siphoned off only the top part for this.' Most brewers just stir it all up, filter, and bottle (there was a long discussion about drip-filtering through bags vs. press-filtering too...). I'm not sure it's supposed to be better to do this, just different.

We finished with soba, which the master makes himself, listing a 2:8 ratio (of regular flour to buckwheat). I approve of this, actually, having concluded some time ago that 100% soba, while a fun selling point, doesn't yield the best texture. These were excellent, and completed my mental transformation from 'This guy is a huge pain in the ass!' to 'Well, he may be obsessive, but his sake and food tastes good enough to justify it.' I'm not sure what the other guys think, but I could even imagine going back here. Now that I've gotten over the pain of getting acquainted, I'd love to drink some more of his sake. I also liked his parting shot, "Please come back again if it isn't too scary!"

You'll have to make your own decision about whether to attempt a visit. Maybe if you just order something and don't admit to the possibility of debate, you can save time and still enjoy yourself. And if you fail, Moon Road will certainly have other places that will take care of you.

It was late at this point; Woody had already begun his trek back to the countryside, and Big Bird and I were left to get back to the station. I had forgotten that there was an Oedo line stop in Higashi Nakano. When I remembered that, I decided not to make the walk up to Ochiai and the Tozai sen. Mistake! The Oedo sen, deep and inconvenient as usual, runs only every 15 minutes, most of which I had to wait. Plus the train home for me was the one to go down south - through Tochomae, Roppongi, etc. A lengthy detour, and a mistake I shant make again. Everyone else was pretty bummed too, but some just took matters into their own hands by passing out.

I was pretty into that idea too - this was the 12:00 train, after all, and I had been in Nakano since 4:00, between the bath and the fireplace and the living room and the sake scientist. To make matters worse, my music player's battery was dead, so I couldn't reprise listening to the Allman Brother's "Mountain Jam" that I had gone through on the way out (33 minutes - 1 song door to door!). But I soldiered on. And on. And on. Nuts to the Oedo sen.

He meant well. Really.

A funny thing here is that there's also a Gurunabi page, and it lists Y1500 all-you-can-drink courses of super-cheap liquor.


  1. I think I would really enjoy this place. The selection of nihonshu is amazing and this owner's pride and ego is quite sweet (lol). I make my own tofu often and understand what he is saying. The taste is different when it is freshly made and also the taste depends on amount of daizu as well as the type of daizu used. Nihachi soba making too.....that is very nice. And, homemade takuan. Yeah, I gotta visit this place too. Thanks for these great posts.

  2. Jon, love the blog. Just a small point: nigari is magnesium chloride. Kinda nonsense to describe it as "natural" - it's hard to know how you could get "non-natural" MgCl2.

  3. Ooooh, chemistry-food geek? Thanks!
    Could it mean something like "This nigari was made from only the finest Japanese seawater, while my lesser competitors use chemically synthesized product"?
    As far as influence on the taste, I suspect you're going to say it wouldn't make a difference, and I'm going to agree.

  4. My guess would be that nigari produced in any other way would be more expensive than that from seawater, but, yeah, he could say that, and yeah, the difference might be tricky to detect. What might make a difference though is its purity. Specifically less pure nigari (for example of the let's-just-evapourate-this-bucket-of-seawater type) might have lots of tatsy friends that come along for the ride. Of course there'd be plenty of sodium chloride - sel de table - but doubtless plenty else too. It's composition would vary from place to place...kinda like the nigari having a terroir. A bit fanciful, but not impossible.