One mid-February day each year, in the harsh cold of mid-winter, four sake breweries in the tiny town of Oyama open up their doors and invite people inside the cavernous spaces where the sake has been brewed and bottled for hundreds of years. Oyama, which is too small to warrant even a Wikipedia page, sits on the northwest coast of the island facing the Japan Sea. Its inhabitants, mostly construction workers, fisherman and artisans, spend most of winter collectively squinting west against winds which sail across from Siberia. But for the festival, locals and sake enthusiasts alike wait in fantastically long lines outside large, mostly empty buildings to exchange their vouchers for a small wooden box made of fragrant cedar, with Chinese characters etched into its sides. This box becomes your free pass and drinking vessel for as long as you can stand or see straight.
Walking the streets with a gang of teachers from the local fisheries and aquaculture high school, we made our way through town along with thousands of other revelers. No sooner had we left the ticketing area when, cups in hand, we encountered our first brewery, with the typical round reed ball hanging from the roof that distinguishes places where sake is made. Like the Trappist monks of Belgium, monks at temples and shrines across Japan began brewing sake in the 10th century for religious festivals, and it soon trickled down into the general population to become the most popular drink in Japan for the last ten centuries.
Outside the wide barndoors at Watarai Honten Brewery was a line of people that stretched around the corner and across a small foot bridge, its end blocks away. Despite the wait and the dismal weather, windy as always and sleeting (a rarity! I was told), the crowd was jovial and bottles of lesser sake flowed from stashes inside jacket pockets and cold-weather gear. Drinking sake at warm or room temperature is a traditional part of a sake drinking ceremony, much like a tea ceremony; however since sake is brewed more like beer than fermented from natural sugars like wine, it is a more common practice to drink it cold. The sake crowd in line at Ooyama was more tail-gating than wine-touring. A warm sake bottle is a much more efficient portable heater than a cold one, and guaranteed to make you more friends as you exchange boxful for boxful.
As we neared the main entrance, a man in a fox-pelt hat (tiny face still intact and facing forward, tail hanging limply behind) joked about the opportunity we’d have inside to rub elbows with some important political figures. He was talking about the brewers themselves, the sake they make here is the current prime minister of Japan’s preferred brand and a favorite of PMs for decades. The brewery itself has stood for over 380 years. Quality of rice and river water in the town make the sake taste good, but what makes its legacy last are its brewers. Among the kercheifed men pouring freely in front of the squat barrels and heavy machinery were the brewmasters, the 17th and 18th generations of the Watarai family .
Similar lines and local lore followed at the Fuji and Katou breweries, as well as street stands selling hot and messy grilled scallops on shells the size of an outstretched hand. A certain hot fish broth, made of cod from tip to tail, was manna to this cold-footed drinker in the February weather. I ate a bowl happily if skeptically, avoiding the more questionable cod parts. Smoked salmon, ham, dried octopus and vanilla biscuits were produced from coat pockets,offered around in the circle. If there’s a kind of force-fed I’d like to be, it’s under peer pressure from a smiling group of small drunken men with crinkly eyes and a ziplock baggie full of garlic squid.
“Happy Valentines Day!” they said, and I smiled back with a mouthful of squid.
“No kiss! No kiss for you!”