We’re not shattering any illusions when we point out that the hit anime Evangelion is a work of fiction, right? Japan hasn’t built a new capital in the mountains of Kanagawa Prefecture, aliens aren’t attacking the country, and as far as we know, no one’s turned into a puddle of Tang because they couldn’t find a way to deal with their loneliness.
But there is one thing you’ll see in Evangelion that’s 100 percent true to life. The brand of sake hard-drinking character Misato regularly enjoys, Dassai, actually exists, and we recently tried a bottle. Not only that, since one of the many themes Eva deals with is confronting your fears, we decided to pair it with a snack that just might kill us.
The town of Iwakuni, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, has a couple of claims to fame. Aside from being the birthplace of legendary swordsman Sasaki Kojiro, it’s also where you’ll find the picturesque five-arched Kintai Bridge, Iwakuni Castle, and the American Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni.
The town is also home to Asahi Shuzo, the sake brewer that produces Dassai. Written with the kanji for “otter” and “festival,” Dassai was also the pen name of the 19th century haiku poet Masaoka Shiki. Just as Masaoka was always seeking new ways of conveying emotion through his poetry, so too are Dassai’s brewers constantly trying to improve their craft.
Up until a few years ago, though, Dassai had a relatively low profile in the sake scene. Apparently the Evangelion staff were early fans, though, as they started sneaking it into the anime’s backgrounds in 1995.
Recently, though, Dassai has seen its popularity skyrocket, becoming the top-seller on online regional sake store Jizake.com. In our search for the brew, we talked with the liquor sales staff of several large department stores in Tokyo, who told us their shipments regularly sell out the same day they come in, and recommended would-be buyers show up before their stores actually open if they’re keen to get their hands on some Dassai.
Thankfully, there are two lesser-known places where you have a solid chance to score a bottle. One is at the Dassai Bar 23 next to the Kyobashi subway station in central Tokyo. Dassai is sold by the glass in the dining area, which also serves light Japanese fare, as well as by the bottle in the small attached Dassai Store.
Alternatively, you can try your luck at Oidemase Yamaguchi-kan, a shop near Nihombashi Station that stocks all sorts of products from Yamaguchi Prefecture.
Aside from handicrafts such as Hagiyaki pottery and Yanai goldfish lanterns, Oidemase Yamaguchi-kan carries a lineup of sake from Yamaguchi, and on the day we stopped by they’d just received a shipment of Dassai. Asahi Shuzo makes a few different types of the sake, including carbonated and milky nigorizake versions. While their premium offerings can easily cost more than 20,000 yen for a bottle, we instead chose a reasonably priced 300-mililiter bottle of Dassai 39, which only cost us 1,080 yen (US$10.60), after tax.
Once home, it was time to sample our sake. Asahi Shuzo’s website states that the brewer makes sake not for getting dunk on, but for enjoying the flavor of. As such, it was only appropriate we use a proper sake cup, as its small size would help us slowly sip and savor our drink.
▼ Our proper sake cup, which we bought at the local 100-yen store.
▼ We suppose we could have picked up a nice Hagiyaki cup at the Yamaguchi shop, but we instead chose to blow our extra cash on one of these cute little blowfish bells.
Opening up a bottle of sake is pretty easy and doesn’t require any special tools. Simply use your fingers to peel off the foil, and then pull out or unscrew the top.
The top used for Dassai 39’s bottle is also replaceable, so if you don’t finish it in a single sitting, you can lock in the flavor for another day or two before it starts to deteriorate.
Dassai 39 is clear and non-carbonated, so once you’ve poured it, it’s visually indistinguishable from water. Your nose will tell you a different story, though, as there’s a noticeable alcoholic aroma to it, laced with grapefruit and sharp Muscat notes.
Flavor-wise, this is about as mellow of a sake as you’re likely to find. The current trend among low-volume brewers is sake that’s extremely dry, almost bordering on harsh. But while Dassai has a crisp finish, it also stimulates the tip of the tongue with a definite sweetness, followed by a moment of acidity which quickly fades. With a fairly commanding mouthfeel, this is unmistakably sake, but could also pretty easily appeal to fans of white wine.
Speaking of wine, sake, like its grape-based cousin, tastes best when paired with food. We mentioned above we picked up a ceramic blowfish at Oidemase Yamaguchi-kan, and the reason the shop sells them is because Shimonoseki, another town in Yamaguchi, is famous for its fuku, also known as fugu…also known as the infamous poisonous blowfish that can kill you.
And guess what? Oidemase Yamaguchi-kan also sells fuku, in cans no less. Figuring it’d be the perfect complement to our sake from the same prefecture, we grabbed a 540-yen tin.
▼ At that price, we figured that even if we did die from the stuff, there’d at least be plenty of cash left in our bank account for a pretty awesome funeral.
Inside the cans are chunks of blowfish, floating in a pretty large volume of oil.
▼ Our last meal?
Well, no point waiting any longer. Let’s pour ourselves one more cup, and then do this thing.
▼ Okay, deep breath…
▼ No turning back now
▼ This doesn’t taste like poison…I think.
▼ I hope!
▼ Hey, this isn’t half bad!
Our canned fuku went two for two in the critical categories of “flavor” and “not resulting in painful death.” Despite its scary image, blowfish is surprisingly mild, with a firm texture similar to swordfish and a flavor somewhere between that and tuna.
You may have noticed there’s a pretty large bone running through most of the fuku pieces. It’s actually soft and totally edible.
The canned blowfish has just a touch of saltiness to it, which made for a great combination with the Dassai we sipped between bites.
For about 15 bucks, this is honestly about as much culture, anime appeal, and thrilling danger as you can expect to put on your dining room table.
Oidemase Yamaguchi-kan / おいでませ山口館
Address: Tokyo-to, Chuo-ku, Nihombashi 2-3-4, Nihombashi Plaza Building 1st floor
Dassai Bar 23
Address: Tokyo-to, Chuo-ku, Kyobashi 3-1, Tokyo Square Garden basement level 1