What the Tokyo Locals Do: Honkaku Shochu and Awamori Night

In the latest edition of “What the Tokyo Locals Do”, Mac describes an evening at the ‘Honkaku Shochu and Awamori – Taste The Spirit of Japan 2017’ hosted by the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association. Once again, we were able to give Maction Planet Tokyo Private Tour guests access to this industry event! 

Our guests have very kindly described Maction Planet as reinventing custom travel in Tokyo. This is an accolade we take extremely seriously. We run our Tokyo Private Tours to allow visitors to truly feel as local as possible. But what does that actually mean in practice? A large part of it is the access we provide – introducing them to events which residents will participate in, but which still provide the rich cultural, culinary, historical or just plain fun experiences that visitors look for when they are on holiday!

That is exactly what we did last night. We were contacted by our guests Martin and Sally a few weeks ago. They were looking for the opportunity to learn more about shochu and sake, but did not want to participate in ‘Tokyo Sake Tasting’ group tours.

That is where we stepped in. Monday 4 September 2017 was the date of the third annual ‘Honkaku Shochu and Awamori – Taste The Spirit of Japan 2017’ event, hosted by the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association and held at the Togo Kinenkan in Harajuku. We were able to secure tickets to the event for our guests, which was heavily oversubscribed.

I met our guests at their hotel and we grabbed a truly local bowl of tonkatsu in a restaurant run by the owner for the last 45 years. We then headed to Harajuku. A large part of the Maction Planet manifesto is that we don’t believe in ‘compartmentalisation’ of tourism. Just because guests contact us for a food tour, we don’t stop there – we help them understand the history, architecture and curiosities of the areas they are in – so we took a few detours on the way to the venue. (That’s how we ended up handling a $12,000 pair of jeans made in 1922!)

We arrived at the main event, registered and took our seats. The night was compèred by Stuart O. First of all, he introduced the Chairman of the JSS to say a few words. Then it was on to the main speaker of the night, Christopher Pellegrini. It is no exaggeration to say that Christopher is the world’s most famous non-Japanese ambassador for Shochu and Awamori. I am also proud to have been the largest backer of the Kickstarter for his book, “The Shochu Handbook”, the first book on Shochu and Awamori written in a language other than Japanese. Additionally, he is a contributor to the “Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails”. Christopher tours the country giving lectures about Shochu, and is also Maction Planet’s partner when it comes to Shochu and Sake.   

Shochu has a history of over five hundred years. Despite it being the most popular distilled drink in Japan, it has yet to find a market overseas. That is something that Christopher, myself and a few other ambassadors for the drink are trying to change.

Christopher took us through the history, production and even the health benefits and tax status of Shochu. (He is one of the few people who can make Japanese alcohol tax laws interesting). He then talked about five of the best-selling types of Shochu and Awamori and explained the commonalities and differences which perfectly segued into a tasting session. An unmarked cup was also offered and you had to guess which group it came from. I am proud to say our guests were paying attention and correctly identified the distinctive taste of imo (sweet potato) shochu, the most popular shochu group.

After the lecture, we headed downstairs for 90 minutes of all-you-can-drink shochu tasting. There were fifty varieties on offer, reflecting the full spectrum of this amazing drink. Buckwheat shochu, aged ryukyu awamori, sweeter barley shochu, brown sugar shochu, sake lees shochu..!   

During the evening there was an opportunity to do a blind tasting, with prizes available for those who were able to correctly guess all five of the shochu types tasted.

Thanks to Maction Planet’s relationship with Christopher Pellegrini, Martin and Sally were able to enjoy some one-on-one time with him. Christopher was able to introduce his personal favourite drinks to them and answer all their questions about the history and culture surrounding shochu. They were especially interested in the food pairings that were recommended for different types of shochu.

Our guests were also able to interact with members of the JSS and learn about the work they do in promoting shochu and sake to the world.

At the end of the evening, each guest was given a free mini bottle of shochu. We left and explored the Togo Shrine at night, and took some atmospheric photos. Then we continued exploring Japan’s alcohol fabric with some craft beers at the Baird Beer Harajuku Taproom.

Opening up these local and industry events is something that Maction Planet specializes in. And, thanks to our connections and relationships, it goes well beyond just getting a ticket to them.  Tokyo is a vast city with so much happening. Drop us a line with your dates and your interests. You never know what may be going on.

Thank you to the JSS for a memorable evening, and special thanks to Christopher Pellegrini for taking the time to ensure that our guests had a fantastic evening.

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