Saturday, 10 March 2012

SSparkle Sights: Hokkaido Day 3 - 男山 Sake & Ice Sculptures

 Know much about sake? I didn't. I always thought Sake was a tad too strong for my stomach, and that all Sake tasted similar, that they were all meant to taste harsh. Boy was I so wrong....

On the evening of my family's day 3 in Hokkaido, we were brought to this Sake brewery known as 男山 - Otokoyama. Otokoyama when translated means Man Mountain.

Otokoyama Sake has a history dating back 340 years, so it's been around for a long long time. It is famed for their superior sake and if you pay attention to some Ukiyoe artwork from Japan, you would see traces of Otokoyama.

A little background about Sake. We always just call this Japanese alcohol Sake, but in Japan, all alcoholic beverages are called Sake, or O-sake. This specific fermented rice beverage is known as Nihonshu (日本酒) in Japan, so next time you go to Japan and want to get directions to a Sake store, ask for where you can get Nihonshu instead. =)

It is similar to wine, but has a brewing process like beer. For wine, alcohol is produced by fermenting the sugar naturally present in the fruit itself, but for beer and sake, the sugar must first be converted to starch. Then again, for beer it's starch --> sugar --ferment--> alcohol. For sake, the conversion from starch to sugar to alcohol happens simultaneously! Cheem. A bit hard to digest?

So what is it? A wine? Beer? Spirit? Or what??? None of the above. Sake is a type of alcohol category on its own - sake.

Never mind, just remember that mostly for wines, alcohol content is between 6-16%, beer 3-9%, and sake a whopping 18-20%! Most breweries will add water to dilute it to become about 15% so it's easier on the palate. Good thing to know? You will never get a hangover from good quality sake. So if you must "dah!" (drinking a whole glass/glasses of alcohol in one shot), do it with sake. Lol~

 There is no good year or bad year unlike wine in which the year the grapes were harvested determines the taste of the wine. Much of sake's taste derives from the brewing technique of the drink.


You know how our older generation folks will tell you that if you keep alcohol like your XO longer, the taste will be better? Don't try it with sake. Sake is best served within a year after bottling, unless it's a specific type of aged sake which is meant to be well, aged.

Always check the date: If a sake was brewed in Japan and not dated the usual way (e.g. 08.2011), but in this format: 10.3.23, the number 10 (In Heisei) means 1998. So 9.6.25 would mean that the Sake is bottled on 25 June 1997!!!! Leave it on the shelf! Look for one with at least 23 as the starting number, as that would mean it was bottled in 2011, last year. ;)

This one will be quite shocking to you: Sake is best if it can be served chilled, or at room temperature?
HUH??? Yeah this came as a shock to me as well. I always thought Sake is meant to be served hot. TNGEH~~~~~!!!! Not entirely wrong, but good sake should taste very good on its own or slightly chilled. Warm, not hot, if you prefer.

Premium or high-grade Sake is meant to be served chilled or just as it is. Because most premium sake is quite delicate in flavor, heating it will affect its taste. If you're taking low-grade or cheap sake, heating it is the way to go to make it smoother.

Premium sake is made with ONLY rice and water, no other additives. And the quality of the water is a huge determining factor, with 80% of the final product pure water. The best sake is made in winter, because the cold temperatures aided in the hot fermentation cycles, and airborne yeasts are kept to a minimum.

Otokoyama lies in the northern most part of Japan - Hokkaido, where there is often plenty of snow, and an abundance of pristine spring water originating from Mt Taisetsu. It is said that this spring water has healing properties and is known as the "Water of Longevity".

Wah so good. Mai tu liao~ Da bao!
Ode to long life and good health!

Bring back & drink with our Fit Solution. Hoseibo! Lol!!!

Otokoyama lets visitors try their sake for free!

Never pass up a good bargain, since you'd have to pay like $8 to get a small glass of Otokoyama elsewhere.

I realized every sake has a distinctively different taste! Some more fruity, more acidic, some milder / smoother than the rest.

We got to try most of the sakes, except the most Premium item:

The Otokoyama Junmai Daiginjo Sake.
If you want to try they charge 500yen for a full small glass. And I mean a FULL glass.

This is already after a sip.

Very smooth~ 

The Otokoyama has won the Gold medal in many International competitions, so it's a really recognized brand of sake all over the world.

Inside the brewery, there is a museum which tells you about the making of Sake and its history.

There are quite a few types of rice varietals used to make sake, but the King of Sake? Yamada Nishiki, which is a top grade sake rice.

Seimaibuai is the degree of which rice has been milled. The lower the number, meaning the more the rice has been milled, the cleaner and more elegant the flavor of the sake. 

On the 3rd floor is a showcase of all the tools used for sake making in the olden days.

So many types of parangs!!!

A huge bee tang 米桶。

Wondering if you can find Otokoyama in your country? Good news, Otokoyama is available in all these places...

(The first column reads Portland and Honolulu)

In case you can't see: London, Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, across Belgium, Dusseldorf, and Milan.

Types of sake out there? Plenty, but here are 5 main, usually good, types for your reference:
  • Junmai-shu (pure rice wine; no adding of distilled alcohol)
    NOTE: Until recently, at least 30% of the rice used for Junmai sake had to be milled away. But the laws have changed, and Junmai no longer requires a specified milling rate. Nevertheless, the amount milled away must, by law, be listed somewhere on the label.  
  • Honjozo-shu (at least 30% of rice polished away; a tad of distilled alcohol is added) 
  • Ginjo-shu (at least 40% of rice polished away; with or without alcohol added; if bottle is labeled Ginjo, it means distilled alcohol was added; if labeled Junmai Ginjo, it means no alcohol added)
  • Daiginjo-shu (at least 50% of rice polished away; again with or without added alcohol; if bottle is labeled Daiginjo, it means distilled alcohol was added; if labeled Junmai Daiginjo, it means no alcohol added) 
  • Namazake (special 5th designation for unpasteurized sake; incorporates all four above)

The label on a bottle of sake gives a rough indication of its taste. The above are a few sample labels I found on the internet. I'm going to break down the last label for you:
  1. Brand
  2. Seimaibuai Level - degree of milling, as discussed earlier.
  3. Nihonshu-do (日本酒度), or sake meter value, is a numerical rating of the relative dryness or sweetness of sake. The higher the sugar content of a sake, the sweeter the flavor and the closer to the negative number end of the sake meter value scale. For example, "+10" is very dry, and "−10" is very sweet.
  4. Ingredients
  5. Alcohol Content
  6. Date of Production
  7. San-do (酸度) or Acidity. This is the overall acidity and determines the body and how the flavor spreads. Anything below 1.3 and the sake will usually be very light (gentle) and light bodied, and anything above 1.5 tends to be more full-bodied and rich in most cases.
  8. Aminosan-do (アミノ酸度), or Amino Acid Content. The lower the aminosan-do value the thinner the sake tends to be. Higher levels of amino sando are accompanied by higher viscosity and rounder flavors.

So how do you tell a good sake from a bad?

Without tasting? 

Try something with the words Junmai 純米Honjoso 本釀造Ginjo 吟釀
or Daiginjo 大吟釀. These should be safe, provided they're not aged, or oxidized, or have become dark brown. 

Slurps! Pure 純米大吟釀! Definitely worth trying!

As we leave, we spotted this huge snowman outside the Otokoyama Brewery! ^.^

I mentioned we missed the Ice Festival in Otari Park right? Near our hotel for the night in Sounkyo, there was another Ice Festival going on! 
Nestled in the deep gorge at the foot of Mt Taisetsu or Daisetsuzan range, by the Ishikari River, is the Hyoubaku Matsuri, also known as the Ice Waterfall Festival.

If you spot this, you're somewhere near. 
Note: Don't bother if you see the 映月橋 in Hangzhou or Taiwan. You won't find the festival. 

A frozen waterfall. It's amazing how a waterfall of this magnitude can actually freeze. Goes to show how cold it was out there. (It was definitely much colder than your freezer, I promise.)

 Us all wrapped up like ba zhangs, and still feeling freaking cold.

 This Ice Waterfall Festival has been around for 37 years! Wow!

 Because it was so cold, there was ice on the steps. We had to be careful or we'd fall and die la... 

 If you please? I wonder if people can actually go through without paying 200¥. 

Better not try.

It's not snow anymore. Welcome to Ice Land.

Icicles hanging from the ceilings! This is like in the movies!!!
P.S We actually spotted a boy who twisted one of these off and was sucking on it like a popsicle. 

It got to a point when I wasn't sure if it was raining or snowing or falling crushed ice.

The use of lights is actually the highlight of this Ice Festival and not so much the ice sculptures. To be honest, it would look pretty boring and ... white...without the colored lights.

Sis was so funny la, she was like standing there with one leg up on the raised ice, looking far far away into the distance...then...

Mum "Let's go. Why are you standing there?"
Me "She is waiting for me to help her take picture la!"

Which, yes, was her intention. LOL!!!!

Beautiful. So beautiful. Like there's this part between ice, snow and water coexisting in one picture. Wow...

A staircase entirely carved out of ice. Slippery as hell. We practically held on to any uneven protruding surface and walked sideways up this flight of stairs, and then down.

It was so cold I had I-don't-know-if-it's-mucus-or-condensation dripping out of my nose. 
Totally glamourous. 

More icicles! They constructed this out of log, and the water that dripped down formed this amazing yet scary-looking ceiling. I kept feeling like one might just break off and pierce through and kill me and I would be immortalized here since I won't be able to decompose in the cold. #morbid thoughts

Quick faster take picture and go out! Lol~

And off to seek refuge in a supposedly safer place. 
冰暴神社 leh, mai siao siao.

No well to make wishes with? Never mind, stick coins on the spiritual ice rock! 

As we ventured further in, we discovered ice furniture!

It's supposed to be an armchair I think, but somehow it looks like an elevated toilet bowl here. 

More! Complete set with armchair, coffee table and a sofa!

Er...I know it doesn't look like it here, but this was the "sofa". 

Nice. It's actually less chilly here than out there, probably due to no winds. 
Which reminds me, I've read about Ice hotels abroad, one in Quebec, and another in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden. 

The world's first Ice Hotel, located in Sweden, and built every single year. 


There's more. Check out their bedrooms!

I'm sure there are more. Sounds really interesting! Will do a separate post on these!!! Wee~~~

It's really amazing what nature lets us do. ^.^
Maybe Hokkaido can start building one?

The Ice Waterfall Festival is actually still on, until 25th March 2012! So if you're in Hokkaido and heading to Sounkyo for the hot springs, go take a look!


  1. so did you buy their winning wine ?

    1. Nope we didn't! Not really too much of an alcohol person (i.e only drink occasionally) so we only tried one glass. =)