On Monday, July 16 Japan had a national holiday, Marine (or Sea or Ocean) Day (Umi no Hi). While most people go to the beach to celebrate the day off, my family took the other way, and headed to the mountainous interior of Yamaguchi prefecture to a town/area called Mine. My wife wanted to go to a lovely spring fed pond called Benten…which just happens to be where Ohmine Shuzo gets its water.
Naturally, since we were already in the neighborhood, I figured it would be nice to pay a visit to this trendy new kura.
The day was blistering hot, in the mid 30s (centigrade) and sunny. Perfect for a drive and a sip, although I did end up getting there at 11 in the morning. My wife, saint that she is, agreed to drive the rest of the way, so I was free to try the wares.
But first, let’s talk about this place.
The building is built to host customers, unlike most Kura, which tend toward the traditional and forbidding in design. This one has a bright white exterior leading to a wood-tone and white, well-lit interior.
There was no tour of the facilities, but visitors were free to take pictures and the cafe has windows directly into the brewing facilities. There is also free wi-fi, which is welcome as cell coverage can be spotty out here.
Visitors are greeted by the bare concrete counter on the right, where sake and soft drinks are served, and a display of products. There are wooden benches with mini drink tables, and behind a wire mesh partition a room where you can see into the brewing area.
Above are pictures of the brewing facility taken through the windows.
The whole time we were there, R&B and hip-hop was playing…and no other customers came.
I, of course, had to try some sake while I was there, and since I’m loathe to part with the 5000+ yen needed for a full 720ml of their 1 grain Junmai Daiginjo, I got a generous choko (one masu? 180ml ?) of if at the cafe.
I previously tried the 3 grain and was not overly impressed. It was much too sweet and not interesting. This, on the other hand, was much better. It was balanced with very nice rice umami, without the overpowering apple of the 3 grain, and had a smooth finish that didn’t linger at all. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m still not sold on the price, but it was a much more mature take on the sake, and it was clear that the kura is working hard on their product (They’ve just shipped their second batch, called “Summer Nudy” after their first batch “Like a Virgin).
I was also very interested in the use of Benten water, as Benten is famous in Yamaguchi for pure, clean, delicious water. They serve the water in the cafe (for free) and I could actually tell from the comparison how the water contributed to the smoothness and low-impact aftertaste of the sake. This is clearly softer water, and it helps round out the drink a lot.
So having visited the shuzo, and talked with the staff, and tried some more of the sake, here’s what I think.
Ohmine makes decent Junmai Daiginjo. They are riding the wave of popularity kicked off by Dassai (and might benefit from Asahi Shuzo’s current troubles) and are focusing on sales through trendy, hip marketing. They don’t care much about current regular sake drinkers, they want that expensive premium and gift market, but they aren’t ignoring their product. I was worried about that from my first taste, but their current batch has calmed those fears.
But then there’s this cafe. It’s so odd. It has a cool atmosphere, and the design touches are interesting and fresh…but did you see where it is? Go back up and look at those pictures. It’s in the middle of NOWHERE. An hour drive from the nearest Shinkansen station, 20 minutes from the local line. No highways, no hotels, nothing. It’s a trendy Shibuya-ready cafe in the middle of rice fields. Even I, someone who makes a hobby of seeking out hard to get sake, only went because we were going to be in the neighborhood anyway.
Who is this place for? Why did they build it? Is it just an afterthought? A “what-if” kind of idea? It makes me very curious about what future plans the company has. I genuinely wish them success, if only because of the attention it would bring to the region (which is absolutely gorgeous, and filled with some pretty spectacular natural wonders) and of course the jobs it would provide locally. I just don’t know how that success will come.
And now, for the heck of it, some of that lovely local scenery.