In May this year, during a trip to the small but stunning town of Hakone, near Tokyo (40 minutes by bullet train) I chanced upon my soul food. Sitting Japanese-style on low tables in the quaint Amazake Jaya Teahouse I sipped amazake (warm sweet rice sake), and felt it fill my body and soul.
It’s sweet and grainy, sans any alcohol, yet absolutely addictive. The café located in the Oinodaira area, in the foothills of Mount Fuji has an old world look; it is beautifully and traditionally decorated, sells some old antiques and souvenirs in a corner, and even has a framed picture of what it looked like 200 years ago. Besides sake they serve only simple meals like rice cakes and boiled sausages, and at 400 yen a glass the drink is a sell-out.
Kotoye Okugawa, the 48-year-old, 13th generation owner of this family-run 360- year-old café, is a communications and arts graduate from US. By the looks of it she is hands-on and totally dedicated to keeping the family business and this traditional Japanese drink alive and running. She filled me in on the chemistry — cooled boiled rice and koji acid (a type of yeast) are mixed and then left to ferment overnight at high temperature (about 55°C) in a steamed room. When concentrated amazake is ready, it is poured in glasses with some hot water, stirred and served, sometimes with grated ginger on top. Interestingly, no sugar is added. The saccharides formed during fermentation sweeten the drink. I was a convert from the first sip.