Tuesday, November 14, 2017

I died and went to Whisky Heaven : The Yamazaki Distillery Tour

Friends know my predilection for beer but few know that whisky is my secret sin.
Both drinks share  basic ingredients and are even distilled in a similar fashion.
I can drink any kind of beer but for whisky,  I prefer blended whisky which better suits my
proletarian tastes and budgets.
My favourite used to be Johnnie Walker Black (unsophisticated and uncool as that may be) but a
few years ago, I discovered the pleasurable taste of Japanese whisky, specifically Suntory's Hibiki Japanese Harmony.
While I love it a little bit more than old Johnnie,  Hibiki costs more than three times as much ... reason enough to drink it sparingly.
On my trips to Kyoto, I noticed that our train would pass by Suntory's Yamazaki Distillery.
A bit of research yielded the information that the whisky distillery was open to the public through regularly conducted plant tours.  

It took me many trips back to Kyoto  before I finally got around to reserving a spot on the Yamazaki Distillery Plant tour .  Reservations are done online and are essential, you cannot just show up.  
It's easy to get to the distillery, you can take the JR line from Kyoto station or the Hankyu Express Line from Kawaramachi station.

From Kawaramachi station, it's a 30 minute ride to Oyamazaki, the town nearest to the distillery.  Oyamazaki is almost at the centre between Osaka and Kyoto and therefore convenient from either destination.

A large poster greets us as we exit  -- don't worry about getting lost, the 15  minute walk to the distillery is pretty much a straight path from the station.

Along the way, we were surprised to see a sign for the Asahi Beer Museum of Art.  It would have been a good  place to visit but we were afraid we would miss our 11 a.m. reservation for the distillery plant tour.  
The museum is a good reason to visit Oyamazaki again on the next trip to Kyoto.

There are a number of temples in the area but most of them are in the mountainside surrounding the town.  We did get to pass by and visit the Rikyu Hachiman-gu, a shrine along the way to the distillery.

A plain stone torii stands in front of the hondo or main hall.   The shrine was established by the Emperor in 859 but the original buildings have since been destroyed.  The shrine has also lost most of its land area due to the development of the town around it and today it stands on a much smaller property.

In the grounds is a statue of this shrine priest  who discovered how to make egoma oil from the perilla leaf. 

The priest invented this device made of wood and bamboo which could press oil from the leaves.   The oil was then used to light lamps.  For quite a time, the shrine had an "exclusive" right to sell the egoma oil.

From the shrine, we followed the narrow two lane street lined with houses, small stores and cafes. Oyamazaki seems to be primarily a residential area.  Pretty soon, we could see the distillery up ahead framed by mists that partially obscured  the mountain behind it, Mt. Ten-no.

To get to the Yamazaki Distillery, you need to cross the wide train tracks.  As long as you are not inebriated, you will definitely not get run over by a speeding train!

This large pot distiller is the first thing that greets you as you enter the distillery.

The reception area is conveniently located just by the gate.  If you have booked a tour, you pay the (extremely reasonable) 1,000 yen fee here.  If you have not booked a tour, you can just visit their museum and cozy up the the excellent tasting bar where you can imbibe the whisky of your choice -- for a fee of course.

Visitors and tour participants enter through the Museum, which is housed in a building that probably dates back to when the distillery was founded, in 1923. 

You enter through the left of the stairs where you can watch an audio visual presentation showcasing the history of Yamazaki Distillery and the whisky that it produces.

I did not know that Yamazaki is the oldest distillery in Japan.  This is where Japanese malt whisky started and where its story continues today. 

This is Shinjiro Torii, founder of Yamazaki Distillery.  He started out producing and selling western types of wine to suit Japanese palates but in 1923 he made the bold move to create a malt whisky using the local spring waters found here, in Yamazaki Gorge.  

The area around the distillery is mountainous and cool -- Shinjiro Torii thought it was the ideal environment for the creation of fine whisky.  Aside from the ingredients,  air and water quality are essential in producing top quality malt whisky.

After the walking around the museum, we ended up staring at rows and rows of Suntory's many whisky blends.  The display seemed to go on forever and all I could do was just walk through in fascination.  Yes, I had died and gone to whisky heaven!  

An open "barrel" stands in the middle of the room where you can see the bottles of the best whiskies in  the world, not just Suntory's.

Our guided tour was about to start so we headed for the second floor.   In the middle is a display showing the entire process of whisky distillation -- from the raw ingredients to the finished product. 

The tour is conducted in Nihongo but for the few non Japanese like Jay and myself,  we were each given audio guides for english translations of the tour.  

The Yamazaki Distillery Tour is the visitor's chance to enter areas that would normally be closed to the public.
The tour takes you through the actual working distillery,  it is not just a demonstration or lecture in a small room.  We walked through the various areas involved in the distillery's day to day operations.
This room is where the grains are mashed with hot water in this huge vessel called a mash tun. 

Mashing extracts the wort which is what goes into fermentation.  Yeast is added to the wort which will produce alcohol.  These huge wooden barrels are where fermentation takes place.

An employee goes about his daily task, taking no mind of the tour that passes through.  He is in the distillation area and these large copper vessels are called pot distillers.
The wash, which is the result of fermentation, goes into these copper distillers for the final process. The shape of these copper vessels are actually essential to adding taste and refinement to the whisky.

After the wash has been distilled, there is another vital process -- ageing.   Whiskies  are matured in oak barrels for at least three years. Our guide ushers us into the cool dark depths of the Yamazaki warehouse where the ageing takes place.

The cavernous warehouse is dimly lit, it takes my eyes a while to adjust to the gloom.  When I do get my bearings, I see rows and rows of barrels stacked on racks -- these are Yamazaki's various whisky blends and single malts, all being aged and matured to perfection.

The barrels are all properly marked  -- these pure malt whiskies from 2009 may still be considered "young", after all they are only eight years old.
Our guide mentioned that while all the barrels look alike the wood used is not always the same.  Different types of oak are used which affects the taste of the whisky.  There is European, American and Japanese oak.  Some barrels have been previously used to store wine and again, that would add a different note to the whisky's taste. 

Our guide points out the original barrel from the first batch produced in 1923.  There is no whisky inside but it does serve as a reminder that Yamazaki is the pioneer and still the leader in the Japanese whisky industry. 

The barrels seem to go on endlessly -- row after long row of the finest whiskies all waiting for the right time to be bottled and enjoyed.  Larcenous thoughts go through my brain, could I roll one out of the place and how many days would I have to spend in jail if I did so?

From the shadowy interiors of the warehouse, we stepped outside into this sylvan setting -- a bubbling spring, trees, plants, moss and fresh clean mountain air.  
This natural environment is why Shinjiro Torii, chose Yamazaki as the place where he would create Japan's first whisky. 
Torii san knew that the most important ingredients of a fine whisky are the water, the grain and the yeast.  
The natural spring of Yamazaki Gorge is what makes Yamazaki whisky one of the best whiskies in the world.

One does not enjoy the bounty of Nature's goodness without giving thanks.  A plain torii adorned with shimenawa marks the entrance to a shrine within Yamazaki's grounds, carefully tended and cared for by the distillery but visited and used by the people in the community.

It is almost the end of the tour and our guide smilingly says that we are about to enjoy the best part of the afternoon.  She leads us into a modern hall where we are to sample the various blends produced in Yamazaki.  The proof of the distilling is in the drinking!

Everyone in the group is over 21, the legal age for drinking in Japan.  We have also signed forms that state that we are not driving back after the tour.  The distillery is very careful about the safety of its guests.
Tables for two and four people are neatly arranged and each one of us has a tray with several glasses of different whiskies for us to try.

It's all I can do to just dive in!  But first, we have to listen to our guide who schools us on the proper ways of enjoying Suntory whisky. 

Each glass contains a shot of a different whisky.  The glasses have been carefully covered so that the aroma does not escape.  On the leftmost is whisky that has been aged in a white oak barrel, the second glass from the left is whisky that has been aged in a wine cask.  The third and fourth contain single malt whiskies but the last glass has a note that says "to be enjoyed the way you like".  
I can't wait to start tasting!

The first step to enjoying your fine single malt is to look at the amber colour and appreciate the rich golden hue.

Next, bring the glass closer to your nose and sniff the wonderful aroma that only a fine single malt whisky can deliver.

I enjoyed the three glasses neat -- just as we were instructed.  They were all refined, with variations in the tasting notes.  I particularly enjoyed the whisky aged in vintage wine casks as it had a hint of fruity and sweet flavours.
For our last glass, we were taught the fine points on how to prepare the quintessential Japanese highball, a cocktail made of whisky and soda water.  Yamazaki also bottles a premium soda which is the perfect pair to their fine single malt whiskies.
The highball was refreshing and so easy to drink.  I could have sat there and had another one and perhaps another one ....

Jay is a teetotaller as he is allergic to alcohol but even he could not resist a few sips of the excellent whiskies.  He enjoyed it just as much as I did.

After the tasting session (where I reluctantly pried myself away from the table)  it was time to visit the small but excellent gift shop.   You can buy all sorts of whisky paraphernalia and souvenirs and if you wish,  take home a bottle or two of Yamazaki's different brands. 

I wanted to buy a bottle of Hibiki, Yamazaki's blended whisky and my favourite. However, it only came in the very large size so I ended up with a smaller bottle of single malt whisky. I guess I will have to learn to love drinking single malt.

Thank you to the wonderful folks at Yamazaki Distillery for an interesting and informative tour.
This is one experience well worth doing -- don't miss it the next time you are in Kyoto or Osaka
You can reserve your slot online but do so weeks in advance as the tours are small and fill up easily.
You can do that on their web page https://www.suntory.com/factory/yamazaki/introduction/


Back home, I put my highball skills to the test with my new bottle of Suntory's Hakushu Single Malt.  Here's the recipe ... 1 part whisky to 3 parts soda water.  Fill up your glass with ice before you pour the whisky and then add the soda water.   Stir once and enjoy.



Thursday, September 7, 2017

Koyasan, my soul's quiet place : Part 2 A walk around the sacred mountain

Wanting to relax from the (uphill) rigours of the Kumano Kodo and yet not wishing to see our pilgrimage end,  I arranged for a post-Kumano visit to Mt. Koya, the holiest mountain of Shingon Buddhism.  The mountain is directly connected to the Shinto pilgrimage as it is one of the five routes that pilgrims used to and continue to walk on to this very day. 

We woke up very early to get ready for the 6:30  morning sutra chanting service at our shukubo (temple lodging).   There was enough time to walk around the grounds of Eko-in and enjoy the early morning quietude.

The giant peonies were in full bloom in the garden.

Masses of pink rhododendrons with their light delicate fragrance grew all around the temple.

In one corner of the yard is an inari shrine -- not at all unusual to find a Shinto shrine in a Buddhist temple or vice versa.

We were the first to enter Eko-in's main hall for the sutra chanting service.  The monks do this on a daily basis, chanting the Heart Sutra, among others.
Jay and I had attended this before and it is an extraordinary experience.  The rhythmic chanting with the beating of the gong puts me in a meditative state and at that moment, everything else is blocked out.
After the chanting, we are invited to come and offer incense and bow before the Buddha.   Almost everyone participates.   It is a solemn and moving experience.

The morning service takes about half an hour but I hardly notice the time ... it seems to go by so fast. Afterwards, guests are invited to a small building just outside the gate of Eko-in for the next morning ritual.

This is the goma or the fire ritual that is performed In Eko-in and a few other temples in Koyasan, every single morning.  Small wooden plaques or goma-ki with wishes and prayers written on them  are burned along with incense as an offering.
As the fire continues to grow and blaze in the the darkened room, it literally brings us out of the
dark and into the light.  

The goma ritual ends as the fire slowly dies down to embers.  We silently file out and head to our respective rooms where breakfast is waiting.  Each one of us gets a tray of shojin ryori or temple vegetarian cuisine and it seems almost  ascetic in appearance.
There is a small portion of rice,  a disk of boiled tofu mixed with herbs, some simmered greens, pickles and bowl of miso soup.   I savour the roasted rice tea that is served instead of coffee.

After breakfast, time to head out to see more of  Koyasan.
Since we have friends who are first time visitors, I asked Chieko san, a good friend and an excellent Tours by Locals guide to show us around.  This way, our friends can have a better understanding of the historical, cultural and spiritual background of Mt. Koya.  
Our first stop is the head temple of Shingon Buddhism, the Kongobu-ji.  These lovely stone steps lead to the main gate of the temple grounds.

Upon entering, you will notice this graceful wooden structure,  this is the shoro or the bell tower.   Notice the intricately carved beams on its upper levels. 

This beautiful wooden building is the head temple of the hundreds of Shingon Buddhist temples in Japan and all over the world.
It was originally built when Kobo Daishi established this sect of Buddhism in the ninth century but has been destroyed by fire many times.
The entrance on the left that you see protected by a small wooden fence is reserved for members of the Imperial Family, the chief abbott and other high ranking monks.
The entrance on the right where you see the white wooden sign is where visitors like us are allowed to enter.
Do you see the pails on the small wooden structures on the roof?  These are meant to gather rainwater which can be used to help protect the building from fire.  But since the temple has burned down so many times, I wonder just how much protection these rain buckets give?

We are free to walk around most of the areas except for the main hall and other spaces which are used only for important ceremonies.  
While Kongobu-ji, like all of Koyasan, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is also  an active and working temple where monks and other people continue to live and work.
Our guide Chieko san pointed out this enormous kitchen with its super sized cooking pots and stoves  which she said used to provide meals for as many as 2,000 monks in the olden days. 
I sympathise with the poor souls who had to wash all the dishes afterwards. 

Outside the temple building is the largest rock and sand garden in all of Japan.  Stretching out over an area of 2,400 square meters, it was completed in the 12th century.  
The garden is called Banryu-tei  and it features 140 massive rocks meant to symbolise two large dragons rising from the sea to guard the temple. 
Perhaps you can't visualise it from this photo but as I stood there marvelling at this impressive garden from different angles, I could imagine a head, a tail ... until I could see what the garden designer wanted me to see. 
These  heavy rocks came all the way from the island of Shikoku where Kobo Daishi was born.
The meticulously raked sand came from Kyoto.   I cannot imagine how the gardener who designed this managed to bring all those materials up to Mt. Koya, way before 18 wheeler trucks were invented. 

A striking patch of carefully pruned and arranged shrubbery is a refreshing sight amidst the dazzlingly white raked sand.  

From the Kongobu-ji, it is a pleasant walk under  perennially red Japanese maples to our next stop ... the Danjo Garan temple complex.  
If  Kongobu-ji is the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism, the Danjo Garan is the heart of the religion as this is where Kobo Daishi initially established the sect in 816.  
Together with the Okunoin, the Danjo Garan is considered as a most sacred space in the mountain.

We entered via the side gate and the first imposing structure that we saw was the Toto or
the Eastern Stupa.
This maroon painted wooden pagoda is a reconstruction as the original one burned down in
the 1800s.  

Danjo Garan was used by Kobo Daishi as the training centre for his monks.  There are many important buildings within the grounds.   Today,  the Danjo Garan is used for special ceremonies
and to commemorate important occasions.

This beautifully preserved wooden building called the Fudodo was constructed in 1197 and is one of the oldest original structures in Koyasan.  I am amazed that it has not been destroyed by fire.  
The Fudodo was designed and built by four different artisans so each side is different from the next.  Because of this architectural oddity and its ancient history, it is a  National Treasure of Japan.  
I breathe a silent prayer that it may forever be spared from fire or any disaster.

The blindingly vermillion pagoda is known as the Konpon Daito or the Great Stupa.  It is also one 
of the most recognised buildings in Koyasan.  
For a small fee, you can enter to view the statues and images inside.   Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside so I can't share any with you. 

In front of the Great Stupa is the Kondo or the main hall.  This has been burnt and rebuilt many times.  It is the site for many traditional Buddhist services and is also the largest building in the 
Danjo Garan complex.

We wind down our visit to Danjo Garan by the new gate in front of the Kondo.  
I do not recall seeing this during my first visit and Chieko san said it had been constructed in the 
last 3 years.

It has been a hot and sunny morning and we take a break for lunch.  Of course I indulge in an
ice cold glass of nama beer.  This is the real pause that refreshes!

We have just a few hours left before we have to take the train down to Kyoto.  While we did walk through Okunoin last night,  a stroll during daylight allows you to see and appreciate the many interesting things in this largest cemetery in Japan

Aside from the hundreds of thousands of people buried in the cemetery, Japanese companies also own memorial plots where their founders, officers or even some employees can choose to be buried.  Some of the corporate plots give the visitor an idea of what the company's  products or services are ... much like this one marked by a statue of a rocket -- perhaps this belongs to a company involved in products for space technology. 

Fans of the lacto bacilli drink will definitely recognise whose memorial plot this is.

How about some blended coffee?  I do see a very large coffee cup!

This must have been such a beloved family pet.  Man's best friend is also his eternal companion. 

One of the most popular and visited memorial plots is this one belonging to a pest control company. The memorial is dedicated to the millions of termites and other pests that the company has "exterminated".  As Buddhists believe that all life is sacred, the company has put up this mausoleum in their memory.

Even in early afternoon, the shaded paths of Okunoin provide a palpable sense of tranquility.  Because the place is so large, you will often find yourself alone, with no one to intrude on your thoughts.  
In  this graveyard, one cannot feel sad or morbid  ...  Okunoin is a place where you can walk, reflect on your  life and the different paths you take along your journey.  
My favourite of Kobo Daishi's teachings states that there is a Buddha within all of us.  The monk in Eko-in told me that when I think of Kobo Daishi, he will be there with me. 

Dogyo Ninin.
We two, travelling together. 


I am always happy to see Chieko san, an excellent Tours by Locals guide (and who has since
become a good friend).  She  has walked with us through many temples and shrines these past years.  
Her knowledge and experience were invaluable in helping us better appreciate the treasures of Koyasan.

Lessons Learned

1. The most important areas in Koyasan are the Okunoin, Danjo Garan and Kongobu-ji.  Do not miss out on seeing them.
If there is time, there is a very interesting museum you may want to visit. 
2. There are two bus lines that crisscross the main streets.  Taxis are also available. You may also rent bikes from the tourist centre. 
3. At the funicular station that will take you down to the train headed back to Osaka, there is a takyubin or parcel counter that can forward  heavy luggage to your next destination ... be it the airport or a hotel.  Please note that it takes at least 24 hours for your luggage to be delivered.