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As a longtime lover of sake, I was thrilled to go to Tokyo for the first time. I imagined a paradise where junmai and ginjo poured from the city’s faucets.
It wasn’t quite that dramatic, but Tokyo didn’t disappoint. Sake is everywhere. But as an American who doesn’t speak Japanese, sampling the drink took some work – not that I mind a little effort, considering that my métier sometimes involves sipping (and making sense of) 50 pinot noirs in a sitting.
Having a few destinations in mind is key to making the most of a sake safari in Japan’s capital. I wanted to cover the bases and visit a hotel, a department store food hall, a sake bar, and a restaurant. After asking everyone from U.S. importers to Japanese sommeliers for ideas, I set off on my quest.
Even though sake is served and appreciated like wine, it’s brewed like beer and consists of nothing more than rice, water, and yeast. While its alcohol levels are robust, similar to that in a hearty red wine, sake is less acidic than wine and therefore has less impact on the palate. (That means it can be difficult to judge how much one has consumed.)
For a sake beginner newly arrived in Tokyo, starting a tour in a supremely traveler-friendly environment such as a top hotel is a smart choice. It would be hard to imagine a more cosseting embrace than the one offered by the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, seven stories of gleaming luxury atop the Nihombashi Mitsui Tower in the centrally located financial district.
Two primary bar areas, the Oriental Lounge and Mandarin Bar, offer a small but choice sake list ($24 to $60 for carafes serving two) that clearly presents, in English, the three most important types to know: junmai, ginjo, and daiginjo. The terms refer to how much the outside hull of the rice grain is polished before it ferments, but the need-to-know detail is that, in ascending order, the flavors move from the bold to the ethereal. Brassy, full-bodied junmais can stand up well to food while lighter (but with a longer finish) daiginjos are what sake makers consider their highest achievement. Ginjos fall somewhere in between; they’re fruity yet refined. As with wine, flavor styles vary widely.
To get an idea of the vast world of sake, visit the main branch of the upscale department store Takashimaya (2-4-1 Nihombashi, Chuo-ku), a few blocks from the Mandarin. It has a lower-level food hall to rival that of Berlin’s famed KaDeWe – with aisle after aisle of succulent fish, baked goods, and mysterious-looking sweets. Takashimaya’s liquor shop, tucked under an archway, stocks some 600 types of sake and shochu (a popular distilled drink). Generously portioned tastings are always on tap, and the beautiful boxes of sake make for great gifts.
Hasegawa Saketen (hasegawasaketen.com), a combination bar and retail shop, is one of the city’s best sake destinations with an English-speaking staff. Don’t be thrown off by the fact that it’s set on the third floor of the sleek Omotesando Hills shopping center; many of Tokyo’s top destinations are in malls. As vaguely futuristic ambient music plays, settle into the five-seat bar and ask for a menu in English. Choosing the Sake Beginner’s Set ($5 to $14) is a no-brainer, as it offers both a good daiginjo and a charming sparkling sake.
A Japanese tavern turns out to be a relaxed venue to imbibe and learn. Sake no Ana (sakenoana.com), in the middle of the busy Ginza district, is a cozy basement pub that somehow remains largely tourist-free. (The name means “sake hole.”) Its list bears 130 sake selections, but the lack of an English menu led me to an old ordering trick: Since nothing was more than $60, I just said “daiginjo” to the waiter and out came a beguiling carafe. When I found out its name meant Lady Luck, I took it as a sign: Planning trips is all well and good, but in the end luck rules the day.
For general trip-planning information, see our Tokyo Travel Guide.