This year’s edition of the Shochu Tram, an annual staple of the Kagoshima summer, departed on its first journey August 22nd and the shochu-filled excursions embarked every night for a week. Most journeys were hosted by a single distillery, but the night of the 22nd featured a consortium of shochu makers and most guests were from overseas.
A Special Kind of Streetcar
Kagoshima City’s fleet of trams have been circling downtown since 1912. The newest members of the fleet are hyper modern and more spacious, but several of the trams have been in service for decades and still sport traditional wooden floors. One of the older streetcars was retrofit with counters and stools, a perfect combination for food- and drink-themed events. A narrow aisle down the center of the tram allows for relatively free movement from one end to the other, and is the conduit for delivering shochu to thirsty customers.
Everyone on the guest list boarded at the tram stop directly in front of Kagoshima Chuo Station which is the terminus of the Kyushu Shinkansen bullet train line. Regular tram passengers were puzzled to see a team in traditional pink happi (festival) coats swarm off the train and gather only a small number of those waiting in line. The confusion ended quickly as it was clearly announced that this was a “Shochu Train” and that the next one would arrive in moments. The tram departed almost as quickly as it had arrived as guests busied themselves finding their seats. The old streetcar had air conditioning and mics at both ends with a decent speaker system, so everyone was perfectly comfortable and well-informed on an obscenely humid Kagoshima summer evening.
Premium Shochu Served with a Smile
The main organizer of the opening night of this year’s Shochu Train was Okuchi Distillery, makers of “Kuro Isanishiki,” the best-selling sweet potato shochu in Kagoshima Prefecture. Okuchi Distillery representatives were joined by executives from the prefecture’s largest shochu distributor to pour drinks for 24 lucky international guests hailing from nations such as Myanmar, Korea, China, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Although Okuchi Distillery was the main organizer of the evening’s festivities, shochu from more than a dozen distilleries were freely available to all in attendance. It was a veritable all-you-can-drink experience, an incredibly common occurrence in Japan. All the guests needed to do was ask a pink happi-clad staff member for a recommendation, and a fresh drink would soon arrive.
Japan’s Traditional Spirit Meets Kagoshima’s International Residents
All of the guests were Kagoshima residents, mostly from within the capital city itself or nearby Kokubu City. Several also happened to be graduate students at Kagoshima National University. The goal of the evening was to bring a shochu tasting experience directly to a group of non-Japanese folks who would likely be interested in learning more about Japan’s indigenous spirit but might not be privy to advertising for such an event. A further goal was to conduct the tasting in such a way that they would be very likely to tell others about. That’s where the tram came in. However, recruiting 24 foreign residents to fill the entire car was no mean feat. Okuchi Distillery was able to work it’s connections to find enough eager guests, none of whom were aware that the event even existed. The other “Shochu Train” nights are so popular that tickets sell out months in advance, so the guests on Tuesday evening were likely luckier than they will ever realize.
With Shochu Sipping Comes Shochu Education
Okuchi Distillery CEO Koichi Yamada led a short introductory seminar on the origins and uniqueness of Japanese shochu. Using large laminated posters created by Kyushu University’s Sakaguchi Sensei, he quizzed the guests about a series of numbers and facts related to shochu’s development in Kyushu. The guests shouted out their guesses as Mr. Yamada’s short presentation inspired a jovial atmosphere that led to laughter, conversation, more shochu, and in several cases friendship.
One of the event’s American guests, Chris Tow of San Francisco, CA, commented after the event that “I had a great time riding the tram from Kagoshima Chuo Station to the main parts of downtown and back as the sun was setting in the city. It felt like a uniquely Kagoshima experience drinking shochu on an old school cafe style tram.”
The tram made two complete circuits of the central loop lasting almost exactly two hours. The trams are too small to have an onboard restroom, so a break was scheduled for midway through the journey, and the organizers made sure to get a group photo before everyone piled back in. Toward the end of the event, the organizers conducted a lottery in which they gave away several bottles of shochu, t-shirts, and other gifts for guests to take home. A gift bag was also provided to every guest, guaranteeing that no one left empty-handed.
This event is one of the most creative ways yet to introduce people to shochu. As shochu is such a complex and varied drink, many are aware that the only real way to create more fans is to get them to try it. There are probably few more exciting ways to accomplish such a feat than with an antique streetcar that has been converted into a “Shochu Train.”