I bid my farewell to Mai-san in the morning, taking a taxi to Nagasaki Station to catch an express train to Fukuoka for a meeting of The Shochu Project, a new initiative at Kyushu University to promote shochu internationally. At Nagaski train station I found a whale shop. Couldn’t do that for breakfast so I had a coffee and pastry.
Matsuda-san from Sengetsu Shuzo picked me up at Hakata Station where we grabbed a quick bowl of the richest tonkotsu ramen I’ve ever had. I’m pretty sure if it were left to cool to room temperature, it would become solid. The taxi ride out to Kyushu University was almost comical as the taxi driver nor Matsuda-san knew how to get onto the campus so we drove around the entire perimeter before finding our way in – nearly all of the existing gates are now pedestrian-only.
The Shochu Project meeting consisted of representative from 13 distilleries, a facilitator, Prof. Sakaguchi (who I’d met in NYC last month), and myself. The discussion centered around their efforts and there was a lively discussion with quite a bit of input from Watanabe-san from Kyoya Shuzo and Yoshida-san from Nishi Yoshida Shuzo. While my Japanese is quite limited, I could pick up context from the slides and the English words that would pop up in the conversation.
Afterward we were treated to a feast at the agricultural department’s own restaurant, a rotunda where everyone stood around a central table to pick at an enormous spread of food, all locally grown and organic. The producers all brought their own shochu so we could try everyone’s products. Prof. Sakaguchi and I got into a lively discussion of how to promote shochu in the US and whether there was really an untapped market. The Shochu Project very well may become a success.
As the dinner was wrapping up and the distillers began heading for the train station for the long ride back to their home prefectures, one of the waitstaff began inspecting the bottles left on the table. A slight, bookish girl named Yurie with a ready smile from Kagoshima, she missed her home prefecture’s shochu culture terribly. Realizing she was a shochu obsessive like we were, Mai-san, a graduate of Kyushu University, invited Yurie-san (a graduate student in the ag school) out for yakitori along with Prof. Sakaguchi. This is how you make friends in Kyushu, apparently.
The yakitoriya was an small place with old men smoking and drinking bottles of shochu while watching American sports on a tiny TV over the bar. We sat on a tatami and tucked into lots of yakitori and a bottle of shochu. The strangest food was cod intestines in Korean red pepper sauce. Goes great with shochu once you ignore what you’re eating.
The conversation quickly turned to shochu and Prof. Sakaguchi proved himself to be an engaging conversationalist when it comes to the importance of shochu in Kyushu culture. He lamented the commercialization of the spirit, but understands the producers need that revenue to survive in modern society. He gave me quite a bit to chew on, an excellent leader of The Shochu Project to be sure.
Mai-san had to leave to catch a train back to Nagasaki as she was teaching in the morning, but Prof. Sakaguchi, Yurie-san, and I stayed to finish the bottle and our conversation. Yurie-san was amazed to learn that there were shochu lovers in New York. She’d lived in Australia for a year and didn’t find anyone interested in the spirit she’d grown up with as part of her daily life. I’m sure I’ll expand more on this when I visit Kagoshima next week.
Wrapping up our yakitori night, Prof. Sakaguchi and I bid good night to Yurie-san and shared a taxi back to my hotel. It turns out the professor lives 35 kilometers outside Fukuoka in a quaint village. He invited me to visit his home next time I visit Japan as the only way to really understand shochu culture is to drink it where it’s always been drunk – in the homes and villages of Kyushu. I’ll definitely be taking him up on that.
Tomorrow’s a free day for me around Fukuoka before continuing the tour.