Japan: Day 4 – Blending In
Tokyo is gigantic sea of people moving through a highly-intricate web of streets, alleys, and pathways. It's the only city where I've ever truly felt lost, overwhelmed, out-of-place, and intensly-excited all at the same time. After dropping our bags at the hotel, we had a few hours to go out on our own. While our lodging is in Ginza, we had a bus drop us off in the Shinjuku district. It's there you'll experience the Tokyo of your dreams and expectations. I struck out on my own for most of the late afternoon and just let the flow of traffic take me where it may.
Life in Tokyo is about finding balance; it has to be for anyone to avoid going completely insane. You've got more than thirteen million people living on top of one another, all up in each other's business twenty-four hours a day. What fascinates me about Tokyo (and much of Japan in general) is the ingenuity in small spaces. The Japanese have found a way to create peace and harmony in the most compact of areas through creative design. This hidden side street near Shin-Obuko Station had patio tables, trees, and an atmosphere of tranquility in the most unlikely of locations.
Not far from Shibuya Station is Nikka's headquarters and the incredible Blender's Bar: a clandestine watering hole loaded with old and rare Nikka whisky expressions, as well as sixteen different blends created by Nikka's blending team exclusively for this location. We couldn't wait to get inside.
What to drink first? The Taketsuru 17 year unchillfiltered at 48%? The Pure Malt 35 year? The 30 year old "Rita" apple brandy? Or one of the sixteen exclusive blends? I felt like my head was going to explode under the pressure.
When in doubt, just ask Tadashi Sakuma—Nikka's head blender—who was sitting directly across from me for most of the evening. We had drinks and small bites with the entire Nikka blending team, while sipping dozens of different whiskies at the Nikka Blender's Bar.
"I'll try #16; the Tropical Sunset Blend," I told the server.
"Oh, you chose my blend," said Tadashi humbly. It's an incredible thing, ordering literally any whisky off the menu, and knowing that the person who formulated that flavor is somewhere in the room with you. We were able to ask the most specific of questions and instantly get a direct and detailed answer. It was one of the more satisfying industry dinners I've ever sat through. The blenders were all very relaxed, polite, and interested in learning more about the American market; never once tiring of our incessant questioning. Later in the evening, I sat next to one of the newer blenders who, after two months on the job, told me how even one drop of the wrong whisky in a blend can destroy the harmony of the marriage. I left not only with an increased awareness of the entire Nikka portfolio, but also with utter respect for the care put into each expression. These guys have spent decades experimenting, researching, and grinding away in the hope of whisky perfection. There's a level of respect and commitment to whisky making in Japan that I've never witnessed anywhere else.
Even though we had eaten dinner with the blending team, there was no way I was going to bed without a bowl of ramen; especially with the renowned Ippudo literally across the street from our hotel.
I'm normally a miso guy, but Ippudo is famous for their tonkotsu pork broth. Harmony, balance, peace, and simple design: it's all right there in that bowl.