Saturday, March 17, 2007

A reprieve from the hangover gods

March 17

Naren and I greeted each other with some confusion in the hotel lobby at 7:50 a.m., ready to leave for Niigata. It wasn’t the morning-after confusion brought on by sleep deprivation, dehydration and alcohol withdrawal that one could reasonably have expected from the night before. No, we were confused by the lucidity and general sense of well-being we both were enjoying.
In fact, although we had left Akiko in the hotel so we could findt ramen at 2:30 a.m., and she had given us a stern warning about the need to look sharp in case Niigata television wanted to interview us, we had beaten her downstairs.
We spent the hour-and-half on the bullet train to Niigata photographing and asking questions about seven bento boxes that one of our growing number of traveling companions from Japan Railways had fetched for us — one from Tokyo, six from Niigata.
We arrived in Niigata and were greeted by more JR people and government types, checked into the hotel and then headed to a sake festival, at which 92 of Niigata's 97 breweries participated.
It looked like a trade show. We were led around by the event's organizer — one of the brewery owners — who explained the finer points of sake to Naren while I chatted with Philip Sugai, who teaches marketing at the International University of Japan in Niigata. He’s a white guy from Rhode Island, but he has been in Niigata prefecture for seven years, having married a Japanese woman and taken her surname. This, he said, is quite a common practice in Japan and has been for centuries. Families without reputable sons often adopt their daughters' husbands to continue the family lineage, he said.
Anyway, Philip and his wife Yoshie clued me in on many of Niigata’s delicacies while I followed the sake tasters around and sampled their wares.
I kind of paid attention to the sake facts, too. I learned that Niigata is the third-largest producer of sake and that, while the producers in Kyoto and Tokyo tend to produce sake on a large scale, Niigata's sake brewers tend to be smaller and more boutiquish. Their sake is relatively mild, owing to the indigenous rice variety, Gohuakumangoku. However they have been crossbreeding that rice with Yamadanishiki from Kyoto. The resulting rice, Koshi-Tanrei, combines the smoothness of one parent with the rich body of the other.
At the festival we also ate many fried things and witnessed the comedic stylings of a Manzai team.
Philip said Manzai is a brand of comedy from Osaka in which two guys play off of each other à la Abbot and Costello.
There also were Ginza dancers.
Oh, and Naren and I were interviewed by a local TV journalist.
After the festival I could have taken a nap, but I didn’t need one. It is truly strange.
And now, I'm off to dinner...

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