The tagline for Tamaki-ya Ryokan in Matsunoyama Onsen is sake-no-yado, or The Sake Inn. The first sight that greets you as you walk through the door are shelves made of fine wine crates displaying sake and drinking paraphernalia.
If you are no expert on sake then you have come to the right place as there are two sake masters at Tamaki-ya, and if you opt for their sake pairing course you are going to get a masterclass in Japanese sake.
Sake is every bit as deeply nuanced as fine wine, and watching the owner talk on his favorite subject, his passion is obvious.
Niigata produces some of the best sake in the whole of Japan with its fertile rice growing areas and abundance of fresh, pure water. The sake pairing course for most people leans heavily to local sakes, but should you be from the area, the cellar is so well stocked that they can entertain you with sakes that you are likely not to have tasted before.
The full course dinner is nine courses and you will try seven different kinds of sake specially selected to compliment the dishes. It is also possible to add an additional drink to the dessert course though this is an optional extra.
The job of the sake master is incredibly involved. They need to know what is coming out of the kitchen and what will pair well with each dish. Add to that the seasonal changes in the menu, changes on a daily basis for customers staying for more than one night, and even changes on the fly to accommodate tastes and characters of individual guests. It is much like being a performer riffing on a theme. A great deal of thought goes into the process and it is not just a set selection each night.
The sakes too are changing. After they are opened they can oxidise in the bottle which can alter the taste. Age and temperature can also make a difference, and of course there are several levels of sake from each brewery, each with their own characteristic. The cup they are served in can also affect the flavor with different shapes bringing out
certain qualities like umami, or dryness. The material of the cup can also make a difference, for example a cedar cup can add a taste of that wood to the sake, much like the traditional celebratory sake that comes in a cedar barrel. And if all that wasn’t enough new combinations of flavors are available by adding peels, spices, or herbs.
The dining and sake experience at Tamaki-ya is a real treat for any foodie and comes highly recommended. Book well in advance to avoid disappointment, and if sake isn’t your thing, there is also a full course meal with wine pairing available too. Why not stay two nights and do both?