Review: Walking in a Sake Wonderland: A Year at a Japanese Brewery

Cover image:  Sake tasting at the Japan Society © Meg

Tired of working in the corporate world?   Then, why not work for that drink that you love so much?

That is essentially what Mr. Timothy Sullivan did. Sullivan, who was given the honor of the title, “Sake Samurai” in Kyoto, Japan in 2007, fell in love with something Japanese in 2005 – in New York City. And it was not anime. It was sake.

The sake that he tasted with his delicious sushi that night was a premium Junmai Ginjo by Hakkaisan. He wanted to find out more about sake but realized that there wasn’t enough information out there.

So he began his own blog, urbansake.com, that same year.

According to Mr. Sullivan, sake is “Japanese culture in a cup.”

Why move to Japan? © Meg for WhereNYC

Mr. Sullivan found his calling. He first started teaching at the Sake School of America while working in the corporate world, and eventually transitioned to a full-time career in the sake industry. As he had more opportunities to travel to Japan to promote Hakkaisan products, he decided to move to Japan and live there for a year. He not only wanted to improve his sake knowledge and his Japanese language skills, but also wanted to “get to know the people behind the sake.” So he received a special Japanese visa, which was specifically for cultural activities usually reserved for foreign artists and athletes, and went on a journey to work at the Hakkaisan sake brewery in Niigata, Japan.

Walking over fire for good health?! © Meg for WhereNYC

As he spoke joyfully, comically and nostalgically about his various cultural experiences in Niigata – including how he walked barefoot over soil that was just dramatically lit on fire at the Hakkaisan Shrine Hinata Festival (to wish for “one year of good health”), he also showed many pictures of himself covered from head to toe, working at the brewery. At Hakkaisan, the workers took each step of the sake making process very seriously. Although they also use machines, they believe that many things can only be done well by hand.

While camping out a year at a sakagura in Japan may seem like a loafer’s paradise, it was anything but a holiday. For Mr. Sullivan, it meant serious work: from polishing and milling the rice to meticulously washing each rice bag with his hands. He explained every step in detail. For example, rice becomes very fragile when they are milled, and if they are cooled right away after milling, rice will crack in half.

During the cold winters in Niigata, when trees have a special guard on them to hold the snow up, the majority of the sake making process takes place.

He also spoke about the Koshiki Taoshi, which is a formal dinner that happens among the workers to celebrate the day they stop steaming rice. For them, it was unique occasion to shed their work suits in favor of jackets and ties.

Needless to say, Mr. Sullivan had an unforgettable experience. The chef at the brewery’s staff cafeteria specially served Mr. Sullivan’s self-proclaimed favorite food, chicken pot pie, for his goodbye party. They even gave him a jar of umeboshi (pickled plums), another of his favorites, along with one of the shovels he had to use, albeit unsuccessfully, to place the rice in each bag.

Despite the weather and walking over hot coals, he never got sick even once in Japan. And while his Japanese still could use some polishing, he learned so much more about the craft of sake brewing.

Sake tastings are always a hit at Japan Society (c) Meg for WhereNYC

In the United States, sake, along with ramen shops, has taken off, becoming one of Japan’s biggest export destinations. In New York, there are several sake bars frequented by connoisseurs and hipsters alike. In Japan, it is another story. Still considered a “parents’ drink”, there are no “hip” sake bars and is almost always served with food. Beer is the most popular drink in Japan.

He gave some interesting tips on enjoying sake. Interestingly, it is easy to pair with food because of its ‘umami’ (savory notes) and the fact that it has 1/3 of the acidity of wine.

Temperature matters when you age sake (e.g. Room temperature will cause the sake to darken its color.) Sake lasts around 2-3 weeks after the bottle is open, as long as it is kept in the refrigerator. The more earthy, robust sakes have a longer taste life.

The three sakes! (c) Meg for WhereNYC

 

Our post-talk reception included three Hakkaisan sakes:  the Junmai Ginjo (the “sake that changed [Mr. Sullivan’s] life.”), the Honjozo (best selling Hakkaisan sake) and a special 3-year Snow Aged Junmai Ginjo. The latter is stored in a “Yuki Muro” (i.e. snow storage seller) with 1000 tons of snow in it, for 3 years.

I am no “sake samurai,” but appreciate the taste. Personal favorites included  the Junmai Ginjo and the intriguing Snow Aged. For many of us in the audience, it was a rare opportunity to learn about the inner workings of a brewery and the passion and devotion that the people in the industry give to making sake.

Review: The New York Times Travel Show on January 26-28, 2018

Cover image: Bahamas’ colorful display © Kei Hayashi for WhereNYC

“YOU BELONG HERE.” – Provincetown, MA (From ManAboutWorld Trade Day Reception)

LGBT Travel Booth (c) Meg for WhereNYC

The New York Times Travel Show was full of booths, amazing travelisto/as, awe-inspiring presentations and performances, and loads of places to go and places to stay, no matter who you are and where you are from. This year featured a LGBTQ section, organized by the handsome, beautiful and lovely people from gay travel magazine ManAboutWorld.

Every year, the NYT Travel Show draws thousands of visitors stuffing bags with brochures and goodies from the different booths. While many of the freebies including the quintessential  key chains, some were very creative and special. Mexico’s Puebla region gave out USB drives with pictures and videos of the region. Of course, the live performances stages and cooking demos were again bustling with entertaining shows and serving tasty treats.  As one who loves food, I checked out the Introduction to the Taste of the World presentation, where the speakers demonstrated how they would cook an easy “breakfast couscous” in their RV via the on-stage stovetop.

Live performances including dancers from Thailand © Kei Hayashi for WhereNYC

Camp Cody from New Hampshire had interactive activities for kids (and adults) such as making s’mores. In the same section there was also a compact RV from Taxa, Inc., on display, which I was able to go inside and experience how practical for traveling all over the United States this RV was.

S’mores- sh’mores! You gotta have ’em! © Meg for WhereNYC

As expected, the Caribbean section was full of color, music and energy. Since the end of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, Cuban Guru has been promoting guided tours to island at the travel show, and assured that the travel agents are all Cubans who cater itineraries to each customer, and take care of essentially everything, including your visa.

Korea’s Winter Olympics-themed booth was full of interactive activities such as fishing and curling, which came with various prizes. Many customers were seen taking pictures with Korea’s Winter Olympic mascots who hung out around the booth as well.

Indonesia’s vibrant, mystical carnival costumes stood out as well, which led customers to find out that Indonesia is not just Jakarta and Bali. With over 17,000 islands in the country, there is a lot of diversity and natural beauty that the country has to offer – such as the “hidden secret” (or not so much anymore), Raja Ampat, which had breathtaking views and pictures/videos on display.

Bubble tea at the Taiwan booth at the NY Times Travel Show © WhereNYC

Brazil’s booth was serving an açai drink, which naturally attracted many customers to hear what Brazil was all about. Ms. Masche from Rio de Janeiro said that the “quality of life has become better” after the Olympics, as she is able to easily take the train from her home to the center of Rio now. She also mentioned that Brazil’s visa system has changed for the better. It is cheaper ($40) for U.S. citizens and is an electronic visa that can be processed within 72 hours.

Hanging with the Korean Olympics mascots! © Meg for WhereNYC

Taiwan proudly served bubble tea, which natural attracted many customers who formed a line circling around their booth. Israel served wine, which naturally attracted winos like myself to go to their booth and hear what they have to offer.

Being Japanese, I was very proud to see the organized Japan booths full of customers, and the Ashura live ninja performance presented by the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). They combined suspense, action and humor in a truly shocking, yet enjoyable performance that was interactive and entertaining to watch.

The non-cliché destinations in the Europe section of were Azores, Ukraine, and Belarus. Azores, part of Portugal, was a place that I had never heard of, but after hearing about this remote island state from travel agent Mr. Joao, I am highly convinced that this hidden gem (only 5 hours away from JFK!) is the place to be.

The Japan booth is one of the largest at the Travel Show © Kei Hayashi for WhereNYC

The Ukraine booth was promoting adventure tours, such as a Chernobyl tour, a Shooting tour, and a Tank driving tour. This “politically incorrect” Eastern European country that had only been truly independent for 4 years, was proudly promoting its craziness and uniqueness. Belarus, as it is “where Soviet Union began and ended,” promoted its combination of influence from the Soviet Union (i.e. tank riding) and Western culture (i.e. castles from the medieval times). They were also promoting their “5 Days Visa-Free” initiative, which has already attracted an influx of tourists.

Although South Africa’s booth was by far the most colorful, biggest, and most vibrant, Rwanda’s tour companies stood out to me as the travel agents promoted cultural tours and safari tours in traditional Rwandan dress in the Africa section.

The presentation floor was downstairs, and I watched Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods being interviewed in a large, full pressroom (three rooms combined). Initially, I did not know much about Mr. Zimmern other than the fact that he was a chef on Bizarre Foods. After the talk, I became a fan. He spoke about his childhood growing up in New York City. He kept the audience engaged in his witty, long-winded answers, as he pronounced ‘pho’ like ‘fo,’ “because I am not Vietnamese, and that is the same reason why I would not pronounce ‘Van Gogh’ like ‘Van Gogh’ (imitating Dutch pronunciation).”

Andrew Zimmern is not just the “Bizarre Foods” guy © Meg for WhereNYC

When asked about immigration in the United States, and he said, “The U.S. is like the New England Patriots. Every year we get the best players.” As a self-proclaimed “glass full-full guy,” Mr. Zimmern added that no matter where we live, what language we speak, or what kind of food we eat, “We have more things that unite us than divide us.” Mr. Zimmern continued to show us his authentic and down-to-earth side, when he admitted to having struggled with ‘happiness’ as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, and said that where and when he is happiest is when he is with his son by the water. He closed the talk by complimenting the gastronomical diversity and deliciousness that Queens, New York has to offer (which I completely agree with), and with the thought, ‘Travel is transformative.” Travel changes who we are and how we think.

 

Visit Bhutan © Kei Hayashi for WhereNYC

After inspired by the talk, I visited one of Bhutan’s booths, and was very curious to know why it had been called “the happiest country in the world.” Mr. Tshewang of Zhidey Bhutan Tours & Treks explained that it is the least developed country, and the more developed a country becomes, the more materialistic one becomes, leading to unhappy citizens. He added that backpackers are not allowed in Bhutan, in order to preserve the culture. He also said that one never starves in Bhutan, because “if you have a problem, it is our responsibility to help you.” In Bhutan, people are not focused on the future, as long as one is happy today.

Let us travel more and see the world and become happier, better citizens.

Review: “How to Fight Fake News” Event at the French Consulate on November 14, 2017

Cover image: How to Fight Fake News at the 934 Conférence courtesy of the French Consulate

Consule-Générale Anne-Claire Legendre – Courtesy of the French Consulate

 

“You will be the heroes of this topic,” Alexander Eisenchteter began. Little did we know in the audience that we would be the ones “debating” and “co-creating solutions” at the How to Fight Against Fake News 934 Conférence at the French Consulate.

I suddenly felt more relaxed, although up until that point, I had been in awe of the glamour and trappings of the French Consulate on Fifth Avenue. Looking at my attire, I wondered whether I’d fit in among the well dressed. Straightening my dress, taking a mental deep breath, I switched to “French mode.”

Interior of the French Consulate © Meg for WhereNYC

 

 

Before me stood six large round tables, enough to seat six people each, complete with iPads. As a public school teacher who reads the “5 Things to Know for Your New Day” every morning on the CNN app on my daily commute (and not much more), I though I was out of my depth.

Alexander Eisenchter making the rounds. Courtesy of the French Consulate

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Eisenchteter, co-founder of Stormz, a friendly looking guy with red glasses, approached our table and introduced himself. His interactive presentation focused largely on the audience, as we discovered with the iPads on our table. For a teacher like myself, I know that student-centered lessons are always a plus.

After a brief introduction by Consule-Générale Anne-Claire Legendre, David Andelman, both former editor and publisher of World Policy Journal and journalist for the New York Times discussed the phenomena of “old news that’s surviving today.” Before 24-hours news stations existed, few considered news as ‘fake,’ whereas now, the majority of public have grown skeptical. With the many layers of readers and writers and the complexity of the Internet, for Mr. Andelman, “trust is the most important thing” in order to fight against fake news.

“Nous sommes tous les médias!”  – Courtesy of the French Consulate

Mathieu Magnaudeix, U.S. correspondent for the French-based news agency Mediapart, defined fake news as “false information,” often created by “ideological people.” While President Donald Trump derides unfavorable coverage as “fake news to appear as a victim of the media,” his constant presence in the news can inadvertently aid his popularity.

Mediapart calls itself an “ad-free, investigative news website,” that depends on the support of its subscribers. When comparing news coverage in both America and across the pond, Mr. Magnaudeix states that the coverage in the U.S. tends to be more polemical and “talks too much of fights and not much about ‘real’ problems” — unlike its European counterparts. For Mr. Magnaudeix, the solution is to educate oneself rather than complain about fake news. But some in the audience believed that fake news like tabloids are popular due to the entertainment and “instant gratification over what reality is.”

It was then our turn to be media sleuths as we worked on the following:

1) Challenge Storming (i.e. Come up with “How to” questions related to the topic)

2) Generate Seeds of Ideas (i.e. Come up with possible answers to the “How to” questions)

3) Select Most Appealing Seeds (i.e. Add points to appealing answers to the “How to” questions)

4) Present one “solution” as a group

Using the Stormz app on our iPads placed on the tables, each group collaboratively brainstormed questions and ideas. Mr. Eisenchteter, our animated facilitator, brought the whole audience together for a debrief after every 10-15 minutes.

Following the “Challenge Storming,” we searched for common words used among our groups. For example, a commonly used word in our “How to” questions was “reliable,” as in, “How to identify a reliable source?” Like Presi or NearPod, The Stormz app was very engaging and easy to use, allowing us to type our answers, or ‘seeds’ of ideas, while seeing the other groups’ seeds, and then providing feedback. Mr. Eisenchteter then projected the most popular ‘seeds’ including: “Advertising transparency – who is paying for the news?” As an educator, I would definitely consider using Stormz in my classroom.

Our table group came up with the following solution: “We are all media. We are responsible. – Eliminate safe harbor from legal liability for online publishers of fake news,”  which received a round of applause. Some ideas that other groups came up with were “create media literacy classes in schools” and “emphasize critical thinking in the education system.” Although perhaps I was the only teacher amongst the audience, it was refreshing to see how pedagogical activities like this can be used to discuss global affairs – and lead back to education.

French hospitality – Courtesy of the French Consulate

Mr. Andelman concluded the event with “Don’t sue [journalists],” and “I love the idea of democracy taking its course.”

After the event, wine and orange juice were on offer in the reception across the hall. As I was on an empty stomach, I enjoyed a glass of orange juice, and left during the  mingling portion of the evening.

It was a satisfying experience to attend, and any teacher would probably appreciate Mr. Eisenchteter’s interactive approach to understanding current events.

Merci, French Consulate, for a very educational event. And yes, I take full responsibility for my words. This is not fake news.

For more information visit the 934 Conference.

Review: New York City Craft Beer Festival on November 4, 2017

Cover image: © Tatsuya Aoki for WhereNYC

It was an afternoon of absolute beer-filled bliss at the New York City Craft Beer Festival event on Saturday. After arriving, I was immediately mesmerized by the beer tastings and more (They had a million flavors of beef jerky for sale and even candles made from beer bottles!).

Lit Up candles for sale at Beer Fest (c) Meg for WhereNYC

Upon entering, each patron received a complementary beer-tasting shot glass. Tables stacked with different beers made it difficult to choose where to start. While the afternoon had a slightly low-key crowd, both sessions were full of people who were prepared to go par-tay after they were done enjoying their beer tastings.

Happily, many of the brews were local, along with others from different states and countries (even one from Nicaragua!). Most breweries displayed their flagship beers and new flavors.

Panga Drops beer, brewed in Nicaragua, one of the most unique displays (c) Meg for WhereNYC

There were several highlights of the beers we tried, including the Caramel Porter by Saranac (brewed in Utica, New York). According to the Saranac representative, this beer is a fall/winter beer due to its “darker, sweeter flavor.” On the contrary, the summer and spring flavors are “lighter and more bitter.” The caramel taste of the Caramel Porter was something unexpected. It was not too sweet, and the caramel taste gradually appeared in your mouth, leading to a, “Yep, that’s definitely caramel,” comment that my friend and I both made after we sipped the beer from our shot glasses.

Caramel Porter by Saranac © Meg for WhereNYC

Others were funky yet with delicious flavors, such as Westbrook’s Key Lime Pie flavored beer (brewed in South Carolina), and Golden Road’s Mango Cart beer (brewed in California). These are year round flavors due to their brewing locations. Golden Road’s Mango Cart is inspired by California’s beach weather, and beer fest customers each got a Golden Road cap, which certainly matched the brewery’s Southern California image.

Golden Road’s Cali style beers (c) Meg for WhereNYC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As my friend and I did our rounds, we learned about beer trivia, including the basics. For example, did you know that IPA stands for Indian Pale Ale? Also, apparently IPAs, which tend to be bitter, are more “West Coast style” than “East Coast style.” According to the folks at Five Boroughs Brewing Company, East Coast style tends to be more “juicy” and less bitter. Hence, the Gose was their “East Coast style” beer. (I did not even know that Gose was a beer style, so this was all new to me.) I guess, for East Coasters, we experience enough daily bitterness from our stressful, uptight lifestyles, so an IPA would not be our go-to beer?

West Coast Style vs. East Coast Style beers by Five Boroughs Brewing Co. (c) Meg for WhereNYC

The festival also featured spirits, such as brandy (e.g. Western Grace), cognac (e.g. Camus), and even tequila (e.g. Blue Nectar). They had beer cocktail tastings that included these spirits, and my favorite mix was the Caramel Porter and Camus mix, naturally. For whiskey lovers, I recommend the Blue Nectar Arejo. If you did not know it was tequila, you would think it was whiskey. It was that whiskey-licious.

Camus Cognac x Caramel Porter = Oh la la… (c) Meg for WhereNYC

Blue Nectar Tequila (c) Meg for WhereNYC

Furthermore, Kombucha was also poppin’ at the event. As a Japanese person, I thought of Kombucha as “kelp tea,” which is what kombucha is in Japan. Here, however, it is actually a “fermented tea” with many health benefits (such as energy gain, improved digestion, etc.) which can have alcohol content. There were many kombucha beers (?), such as Kombrewcha from Patchogue, Long Island. My confused self felt rewarded by the health benefits and did not feel like I was drinking alcohol at all when I tried these “kombucha” beers.

Kombrewcha (Is this beer?) (c) Meg for WhereNYC

Needless to say, the beer festival was an excellent event, even for ones who may not be self-proclaimed beer lovers (like myself).

For more information on upcoming events, please visit New York City Craft Beer Festival.

 

 

Review: How to Eat Like a Samurai Event on September 26, 2017

Cover image: Discussion with Kanna Himiya at the Japan Society © Meg for WhereNYC

“In order to conquer the world, we need to live a long life. And in order to live a long life, we need to eat properly, having the best food at the proper time.”

From the moment Ms. Kanna Himiya stood up from her seat, I was mesmerized by her pure elegance.

Mr. Romano introducing Ms. Himiya © Meg for WhereNYC

After New York City-based executive chef and restaurant owner in Japan, Mr. Michael Romano, presented Ms. Himiya, she stood up perfectly from her seat without moving her back, which was already formed in perfect posture. Then, before she climbed up the steps to the stage, she faced the audience, revealing her beautiful blue kimono, and bowed in a perfect 45-degree angle. I heard gasps and various “Wow” whispers from people sitting around me. As an American-born Japanese person, I, too, felt the urge to straighten my back in my seat.

For the Japanese, eating is a “Godly act” (i.e. shinji), because one shows grace to honor life, earth, peace and love. The term “Itadakimasu” used before eating, roughly translates as, “I will gratefully have your food.” “Gochiso-samadeshita,” said after eating, means, “I have finished your food and I thank you for giving me this food.” Ms. Himiya adds through an interpreter, “Even though Japan is a tiny island, I believe that it has the best cuisine, full of the most profound history and culture.”

Samurai Cuisine Introduction © Meg for WhereNYC

For Ms. Himiya, Kanazawa, in the Ishikawa prefecture of Japan, has the “healthiest cuisine” and is  the “birth place of samurai cuisine.”

What is the samurai diet?

Essentially, it consists of healthy, well-balanced food with the freshest and most seasonal ingredients. It served both to entertain and represent the samurai’s land and power. The origins of the “samurai diet” started in the Sengoku Period, which directly translates to the “Period of Battle Country.” During this period, the samurais held miso shiru (i.e. miso soup) parties, or shirukou, allowing them to forge alliances. The samurai regimen featured “ritual foods for good luck” before they went to battle. This led to “Kyouoh” (i.e. banquets) during the following long, peaceful Edo Period in Japan, led by Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu. Under Tokugawa, the daimyos had to entertain each other, and they did this through Kyouohs, which were full of the “spirit of thanks,” or omotenashi  as they honored each other.

Beer from the Ishikawa Prefecture was also a hit. © Meg for WhereNYC

The samurai’s philosophy of a healthy diet contributed to the betterment of Japanese culture during the Edo period. The samurai regarded fresh, seasonal ingredients as “medicinal.” Staples such as miso, soy sauce, vinegar, salt, and umeboshi (i.e. pickled plums) were key to “umami,” which “can only be expressed in Japanese food,” explained Ms. Himiya, who believes that naturally delicious food made with the “spirit of thanks” (i.e. omotenashi) can help achieve world peace.

Soy sauce and dried soy sauce.. along with dressing. Soy-yummy! © Meg for WhereNYC

“I believe [cultural exchange] is the key to having a better world,” said Ms. Himiya through her interpreter. Perhaps a reference to today’s political climate, Mr. Romano, bluntly remarked, “If only our government could see that…” followed by rapturous applause in the audience.

The reception following the talk showcased an array of delicious food and sake samples from Ishikawa prefecture. One could feel like a true samurai in Edo Japan. The exchange of good food, sake, and conversation was almost therapeutic, making me feel very peaceful.

Sake tasting- tastic! © Meg for WhereNYC

The talk by Ms. Himiya was truly sublime, and the sake and food tasting from the Ishikawa prefecture added to the whole experience. It was so enjoyable that I unfortunately missed my chance to receive a signed copy of Ms. Himiya’s book, The Samurai Gourmet. Ah, well… Gochiso-samadeshita.

For more information on upcoming events including Escape East @ 333, Fri. Oct 20, please visit the Japan Society.