Every February, the four sake breweries in Oyama, Yamagata, open up their doors to ticket-wielding sake-otaku for samples of the new year’s batch.
Despite the cold and snow, over 2,000 people flocked to this normally sleepy town to imbibe some of the finest, freshest sake in all of Japan.
Unfortunately, as the 2,000 advance tickets sold out within twenty minutes of sales opening up back in December, we had to wake up early in hopes of nabbing one of the 100 day-of tickets. And by we, I mean Jeff–I’ve come down with a pretty gnarly sore throat/head cold, so in hopes that I would be well enough to spend the day drinking and cavorting out around in the wintery wonderland, he let me sleep in and set off by his lonesome at 7 AM to line up for tickets. He came home with the tickets, plus throat lozenges and foot warmers.
We set off to catch the 10:05 train to Oyama. Japan has a zero tolerance law when it comes to alcohol, so the moment any of the sweet intoxicant so much as touches your lips, you are deemed unfit to drive for at least eight hours. Thus we and hundreds of other Oyama festival-goers found ourselves jammed into a train car that normally only sees a few dozen people, if that.
The doors to the breweries open up at noon, but the food stalls were prepped and ready for us, so we loaded up on warm tasties like udon and grilled rice balls before lining up at the first of the four: Haneda.
The temperature dropped and snow started to fall just as we were admitted into the brewery. We crammed into the brewery and held out our small cups to the staff for shot after shot of fresh sake and umeshu (plum wine). Jeff attracted the attention of the local papers again, and they filmed him taking a sip of sake and professing how delicious it tasted.
By the time we left Haneda, ten minutes and just as many sake cupfuls later, I was a bit tipsy.
Brewery number two, Dewanoyuki, had kerosine heaters set up in the middle of the tasting floor, so after we had our sake cupfuls, we huddled around one of those, nursing warm paper cups of amazake. Amazake is a non-alcoholic, mildly sweet drink made from the rice that’s left over from the fermentation process, and also the nectar of the gods. I bought a bottle to take back with me and bid goodbye to the kerosine heaters to brave the cold outside again.
Halftime found us in the community center where Jeff had bought our tickets earlier that morning, munching on curry and mochi and other warm delights from the vendors to help get us through the last two breweries, Fuji and Katou.
The line for Fuji lasted for what might have been an entire week. We stamped and wriggled to try and keep warm. The trip inside was brief and filled with more shots of tongue-stinging liquor, and then we meandered over to our final destination: Katou, the maker of Oyama’s self-named brand.
Luckily we were able to go right inside Katou’s brewery, where we stayed and drank cup after cup of their own amazake. The staff told us to mix in a little bit of ground ginger to make it extra warming, not to mention extra delicious. I’ll never drink my amazake the same again.
It was fortunate that we were in the presence of a sober friend nice enough to give us a lift back to Jeff’s apartment, where we thought about what we’d done–a whole day squandered in drink and debauchery, and me with a head cold!–and then went right to dinner and drinks with fellow teachers.
Will we ever learn?