Sake Supports Senior Services at San Jose’s Yu-Ai Kai

SAN JOSE — What is the “make merriest” time of year in San Jose’s Japantown? Is it Christmas? Is it Obon? Is it Nikkei Matsuri? No…it’s Sake San Jose, hands down!

Despite the bouts of showers, on May 27, the crowds thickened and the lines grew long as the throng waited for tickets in the Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Community Senior Service’s courtyard prior to beginning their tasting in Japantown.

The fifth annual major fundraising event attracted more than a thousand attendees to support the senior center.

People continue to attend not only to partake in the sake tasting but also to learn about the neighborhood.

Steeped in Japanese and Japanese American history and culture, sake has served as a way to introduce Japantown to San Jose’s larger community.

“It’s a win-win situation for everyone,” remarked Tamon Norimoto, president of the Japantown Community Congress of San Jose, who has attended the event for five years in a row. “I think this is a fantastic fundraiser for Yu-Ai Kai and a great way to showcase Japantown. It’s a great way to promote sake and it’s a great way to promote Yu-Ai Kai and it’s a way for businesses to showcase themselves. And everyone has a good time.”

Stores, restaurants, and nonprofits were all open for sake-tasting business, offering tasty Japanese snacks, noodles, and even sushi to enhance the smooth, cold premium taste of the rice-brewed drink. There were 28 different stops with at least 40 different varieties.

With so much varietal sake to choose from, the patrons are beginning to have more discriminating palates. Norimoto, for example, after all these years said he has a preference for “the traditional sake. Not the fruity or flavored ones.”

This year he was selected as one of the representatives to participate in the kagami-wari or cask breaking ceremony for the very first time.

Along with Norimoto, the other dignitaries present for the ceremony to bring a blessing of health, happiness and prosperity to all included: Yosh Uchida, Yu-Ai Kai advisor and mentor; Shuji Hojo, vice president of Union Bank; Sophie Horiuchi-Forrester, Yu-Ai Kai executive director; Rinban Kenshin Fujimoto, San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin; the Rev. Keith Inouye, Wesley United Methodist Church; Irv Kato, Yu-Ai Kai donor; San Jose Councilmember Sam Liccardo (District 3), Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio (District 6), and Councilmember Ash Kalra (District 2); and Takahiro Kitamura, owner and tattoo artist from Horitaka’s State of Grace. Kitamura created the Sake San Jose souvenir T-shirt.

“One-two-three,” Yu-Ai Kai Board President Steve Yamamoto called out, and the mallet-wielding dignitaries cracked open the sake barrels with a thunderous crash.

Then, with masu (wooden box sake cups) hoisted, Uchida led the toast and after a hearty “kampai!” all drank heartily of the cask-fresh sake.

The sake sampling began as the crowds dispersed moving quickly to the various stations, and queues became long once again for the sampling of food and spirits. San Jose Taiko helped to kick off the event with their stirring and boisterous drumming to excite the crowd.

Following the ceremony, the Hula Halau O Kanela No ‘Eau performed a blessing and presented a number of hula dances and chants.

Moazambitambo, an African-Cuban group, performed for the second year in a row at George’s Service Center on Fourth and Jackson streets.

The Wesley Ukulele Band played in the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, where construction is almost complete. The band’s two- and-a-half-hour gig included soloists and hula dancers. The Marimo Kai koto group performed inside the Yu-Ai Kai building.

The Wesley Jazz Ensemble, which has traditionally performed at Sake San Jose, was forced to cancel because of the rain.

Nonetheless, spirits were high as the crowds of people roamed in and out of the businesses and restaurants. Ben Ramos and Valerie Pagtakhan were among the event’s attendees.

“I’ve come the last three years,” Pagtakhan said. “It’s always exciting to be a part of Sake San Jose. “This is fun and we walk around Japantown, support the businesses, and the best part is that it supports the senior center.”

Liccardo added that he wouldn’t miss coming to Japantown for the event.

“We believe that Japantown is a real jewel and the more events we can have like this, like Obon, like Nikkei Matsuri, the better.”

Horiuchi-Forrester, who has been with the nonprofit for more than a year, described Sake San Jose as a “tradition — folks see this as an icon signature event for Yu-Ai Kai.

“Our committee has worked very hard to reach a larger group through Facebook and Twitter. We’ve reached a younger and more Internet and Web savvy crowd. The outreach has been very good.”

While this event is one of the nonprofit’s most profitable and successful fundraisers, finding other funding streams is necessary.

“We face challenges,” Horiuchi-Forrester said, “but with technology, we are going to aggressively go after new funding sources.” Horiuchi-Forrester said that the nonprofit’s strategic plan includes a whole new Website.

She also mentioned that the Akiyama Wellness Center is nearing completion and once opened will include a host of programs supporting the concept of healthy aging.

For more information about Yu-Ai Kai, located at 588 North Fourth St. in San Jose’s Japantown, call (408) 294-2505 or visit www.yuaikai.org.

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