Something new at Sake San Jose in Japantown


SAKE FOR A CAUSE — Drink up. photos by Erin Noriko Matsuba

SAKE FOR A CAUSE — Drink up. photo by Erin Noriko Matsuba

SAN JOSE — Have you ever wondered, “What kind of food goes with cold sake?” The answer was clear at the sixth annual Sake San Jose fundraising event for Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Community Senior Service, held May 26. The event, which supports the nonprofit’s Healthy Aging Initiative and various programs, is a regular crowd pleaser.

“This year we have a special venue where patrons pay a little more for a taste of premium sake and it comes with a chef who is preparing food to complement the sake,” explained Sophie Horiuchi-Forrester, executive director of Yu-Ai Kai.

Sake San Jose drew some 900 attendees, and also offered a special collection of premium sake at the Dr. James Akiyama Wellness Center. That venue was accessible only to premium ticket holders.

“It’s wonderful to see the tradition and to see new people coming each year,” Horiuchi-Forrester said. “This is a difficult year with the economy, but we’re on par with last year so far. One thing that is encouraging is younger folks are learning about us through Yelp and Twitter.” The use of such Websites to promote Sake San Jose has helped it to draw a younger and more diverse crowd to Japantown.

San Jose City Councilman Sam Liccardo acknowledged the event’s importance to San Jose. “Like so many great traditions in Japantown, it is sustained by the extraordinary passion and the generous spirit…of the many volunteers who care about making this a wonderful vibrant place — and they’ve succeeded.

While Liccardo attends the event each year, he is not by any means a sake connoisseur. “I come once a year and this is the extent of my sake drinking.”

FOR THE SAKE OF SAKE — Attendees wait in long lines at the participating venues in order to taste a variety of sake. photo by Erin Noriko Matsuba

There were 25 sake stations located at stores, restaurants, nonprofits and offices throughout Japantown. Although the lines were long, samples of food — usually something salty to bring out the flavors of the sake — were served.

The Premium Sake

The best sake and food, of course, were available at the Premium Sake venue, which offered top-of-the-line sake from nine different brands.

“We’ve been [to Sake San Jose] three times and we’ve found that it’s been tough waiting in the long lines,” commented 30-year-old C.S. Lai. “We have a deep appreciation of sake and it’s because of this event that we’ve learned a lot about sake. This year, we came here because we wanted to learn how to pair different sake with different food. And the premium sake is very good. This is where we learn the differences between say, daiginjo sake and junmai ginjo sake. They all have different flavor qualities, and I’m learning something new every year.”

Lai and his companion Lily Yu expressed their desire to support and get involved with the community. “For one it’s a good cause,” Yu noted. “For another there’s alcohol and good food and no lines.”

The premium venue offered a calmer space in which to sample the sake and “small plates” of Asian fusion cuisine.

“I’m here to bring Japanese fusion cuisine with the sake,” explained chef Derik Hirozawa. “We have a lot of traditionally Japanese items listed on the menu, but served in a slightly different way.” This included using a variety of sauces to provide a spin on Japanese food.

However, Hirozawa had to be creative. “The food is donated so I had to come up with a menu on all donated food. For example, the tuna was donated and the Aloha brand soy sauces too, so I had to come up with what I called the ‘yukke’ sauce. It’s a soy sauce base with sugar [and] sesame oil that’s cooked down a little bit for the Magguro Yukke on the menu. Hirozawa presented 11 different tasty choices, which ended with Yuzu Tobiko Vanilla Ice Cream.”

Hirozawa has been practicing the art of cooking for the past eight years. Having just returned from Japan, Hirozawa added that a “lot of the recipes are a spin on what I found there.” The 26-year-old chef works with his parents, who own Tengu Sushi in San Jose.


A Complete Event, Beginning to End

San Jose Taiko opened the evening. Steve Yamamoto emceed the brief ceremony that included the kagami-wari, or breaking of the sake cask by honored guests and officials: Union Bank Senior Vice President Tak Yamamoto; Liccardo; longtime Yu-Ai Kai advisor Yosh Uchida; San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin Rev. Gerald Sakamoto; major donor Ray Matsumoto; Wesley United Methodist Church Rev. Keith Inouye; Horitaka’s State of Grace’s Takahiro Kitamura; Horiuchi-Forrester and Yu-Ai Kai board president Ben Katai.

Uchida led the “kanpai.” He thanked the volunteers for making “Yu-Ai Kai a successful organization and without whom we would be able to put on an event like this.”

Yamamoto noted that Uchida, a co-signer of the building’s loan, was instrumental to its construction.

“We wouldn’t be here” without Uchida, Yamamoto said.

Aunty Sandy Kanela No‘eau Schiffbauer blessed the ground and her halau completed the opening ceremony by performing several crowd-pleasing dances.

The following groups performed throughout the evening to add to the festivities: Marimo Kai at the Akiyama Wellness Center: the Wesley Jazz Ensemble on the corner of Fifth and Jackson Streets and Wesley Ukulele Band in the Yu-Ai Kai building.

A silent auction was held at the Akiyama Wellness Center, featuring an original watercolor painting created by Kenji “Horiken” Hori along the event’s “the Year of the Rabbit” theme. Continuing the Japanese/Chinese zodiac theme he began last year, Kitamura created “Follow the Rabbit” T-shirts for the fundraising effort.

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