Dignified-looking men lay unconscious under tables. A young woman, red-faced, head slung to the side, is rushed out in a wheelchair. Then a crash — three of them in quick succession. POOSH! POSH! PSSH! I spin around. A woman screams.
A bottle slipped through the woman’s grasp mid-transaction; in an effort to save it, two more bit the dust. Kirinzan Junmai Daiginjo: top-shelf sake. The middle-aged woman, paisley scarf –rather chic– is distinctly under the influence. She wobbles around on stilts reaching for pieces of glass. The clean up crew hustles in.
These are not the first casualties of the day. This is nature of the event. It is not a war zone. It is Sake no Jin.
Sake no Jin is the Ultimate Fighting Championship of sake festivals, cramming tens of thousands of people over two days into Toki Messe Convention Center to bump elbows and taste Niigata sake — what is widely regarded as Japan’s best. Invoking the transitive property, we deduce it is therefore the best sake in the world.
Without going into the nitty-gritty, Niigata is known for rice. Beyond the eating variety koshihikari, there is a wide assortment of sake-brewing rices that lend to a spectrum of nuanced tastes. Niigata’s seasonal temperatures and the purity of the spring snowmelt also contribute to the quality of Niigata sake. Enjoy these subtleties while they still register on your tongue.
At the entrance, you get a choko, the vessel with which you receive sake from vendors. From there you are free to make the rounds — though I wouldn’t recommend sampling all 90 or so breweries in attendance. Vendors pour without reserve. There are no drink limits. There are no rules beyond these:
In a country where in-groups and out-groups dictate who talks to who, it’s liberating when those lines disappear. From the west, we take for granted a passing smile, a nod, idle small talk at the checkout; acknowledgement. Sake, you devil you, is Japan’s oldest social lubricant, and I’m happy they embrace it. Because when booze mixes with blood, everyone is in the in-group. Come out, have a drink and make some friends.
Keep an eye out for advance tickets starting in February and save yourself 500 yen.