If you’re looking to visit Japan in the spring but want to avoid the crowds in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, definitely take a serious look at Naha, Okinawa. Aside from being pretty much as close to a tropical island paradise as the country has to offer, Okinawa boasts activities and excursions for all generations. There are beaches galore, art and music destinations, lots of interesting places to eat, and a pretty large aquarium about an hour north of Naha.
If you count yourself as part of the drinking class, then make sure to time your visit around the first half of April when the “Shimazake Festa” takes place. The second annual version of this event was held on April 13th and 14th, and preliminary ticket sales showed a handsome uptick over 2018. For the uninitiated, shimazake is a word used around Japan meaning island alcohol. In Izu Shoto, the string of islands stretching south of Tokyo, shimazake is generally barley or sweet potato shochu. In the Amami Islands, it would usually be kokuto shochu.
In Okinawa, however, the shimazake catchall is affectionately ascribed to awamori, the rice spirit produced on the islands for the past six centuries. 99.9% of awamori is made with long-grained Thai rice, a clear link to the former kingdom’s historic ties to Thailand and the vigorous trade with other parts of Southeast Asia. And this year’s Shimazake Festa brought together all 47 distilleries in the prefecture currently making Japan’s original indigenous spirit. The celebration took place in the domed gymnasium adjacent to Okinawa Cellular Park Naha about 5 minutes by car from Naha International Airport.
In addition to live music, radio recordings, blind tastings, and even multilingual seminars provided by awamori and shochu evangelist, Christopher Pellegrini, the venue was filled with energy from start to finish on both days. This year’s festival saw an improved selection of food trucks parked outside the stadium, and there were even awamori-enabled bagels and ice cream available inside. The distilleries were arranged, more or less, into long islands according to geographical location, and all of them were pouring samples of their products.
Several distilleries brought new or specialty brands to Shimazake Festa, and those were some of the most interesting awamori that we tried during our two days of tastings.
Harusame added a new arrow to it’s quiver in the form of “Wa no Harusame” which is bottled at a surprisingly low 15%. Some people wrongly assume that this is simply a diluted version of their popular 30% bottling, but Mr. Miyazato, head of Miyazato Shuzo in Naha, was quick to point out that the new gold and off-white label is the product of a new cut of the Harusame distillate run. He served it chilled to anyone who wanted to try it, and several guests remarked that it reminded them of drinking white wine.
Food pairability is definitely on the minds of the good people at Kamimura Shuzo. They have created a lineup of four relatively low ABV awamori that pair well with seasonal cuisine. The spring, summer, and fall versions are all bottled at 20% ABV, a far cry from the awamori industry standard 30%. Only the winter bottle is bottled higher at 25%, a hint that it has more character and may be a better candidate for serving oyuwari.
One of the highlights was sipping “Shirayuri” as poured by the people that make it. Shirayuri, for the uninitiated, is one of the funkiest awamori you will ever try. There is a palpable pungency of olives, hay, and rice vinegar on the nose, an absolute flavor bomb for the senses.
A walk around to the far end of the arena brought you straight into cocktail territory. There was a stand mixing awamori-based highballs, and another long table, staffed by some of the better known Awamori Meisters, assembling other simple awamori cocktails. Awamori Meister is the official title bestowed up those who successfully pass the Awamori Meister examination, the pinnacle of nerdiness in the industry.
One of the main attractions was right in front of the main gate. Highly sought after brand “Awanami” from far-flung Haterumajima, was selling bottles of several sizes at their tables. They even had one 4,500 ml bottle that was quickly snapped up on both days. They were busy selling of small airline sized bottles as soon as the event started, and they sold out within an hour.
The key question moving forward is how successful the industry can be in replicating the excitement of this event in other parts of the country and world. Finding ways to connect with 20-somethings will likely be a key underpinning to sustainable success, but said cohort was not represented during the weekend festivities at nearly the same numbers as the 40 to 70-something generations.
But that takes nothing away from the overall success of this year’s Shimazake Festa, a party that deserves to be taken on the road to other parts of Japan. If that happens, then rest assured that we’ll be there to experience it all once again.