Subway Sakes - One Cup Delights
The image is still incredibly fresh in my mind. Although the event that I am about to describe took place over five years ago in Osaka, it seems like yesterday. So what is this searing image? In the big picture amongst all of the beautiful, breath taking and charming elements that make up a foreign land like Japan - all of the shrines, temples, little back alleys with their unique peculiar nuances, shops, markets - one would imagine that these images would be the ones that would last. They did not. I cannot remember one little back alley, one shrine, or one temple. I am certain that they are in my mind somewhere, but for recalling purposes they are simply gone.
So what do I remember? Two things. If you have never seen it - or them to be more precise - the day that you do will never be lost in your memory bank. I am referring to coin operated vending machines. No not the one or two machines that we as Americans are used to seeing standing side by side. I am speaking about the lines and lines of vending machines found almost everywhere in Japan. With so many machines what in the world could they sell? EVERYTHING! From food and medical necessities to clothing and underpants. From umbrellas and hats to sunglasses and earmuffs. You name it and the Japanese will "vend it" And yes, they vend sake and beer and all sorts of unique beverages.
Standing in front of one such bank of vending machines I thought to myself, "Man, if I were a kid growing up in Japan I would have bought a ton of beer and booze!" A reasonable thought for sure. One that is not lost upon a new changing demographic in Japan that is indeed falling prey to little ogres such as myself. The new generation has less control than past generations of vending folks, and as such the booze vending machines are starting to vanish. But they're still there! Shining and cooing, "Come have a cool beer" or whispering "Hey, it's been one hell of a day, come grab a cold sake and relax!"
Of course I had to buy sake from a machine! And I did several times. The choices were not vast. Not as large of a selection as the beer offerings. But you could take your pick of the major sake breweries. Ozeki invented the now ingrained vending icon called the "One Cup," which is precisely that - one cup of sake in a glass juice-can looking container with a pull top under a plastic protective lid. (I have never known anybody - perhaps in the history of drinking vended sake - that has consumed only a portion of the One Cup and put the lid back on for later!) The "point" of One Cup sake is a brew that is easy to drink, as in so easy that you basically chug it! And that is what a majority of vendees do, especially the older guys.
And this is where the image - or my summary of Osaka 5 years ago - comes into play. I was standing quite near a bank of vending machines when a gentleman who was probably 55 came riding by on his bike. He was well dressed, suit, tie and a hat. He also had an umbrella in his hand that was unopened. The guy pulled his bike right up to the sake vending machine and put in his coins. Out popped an Ozeki One Cup. But wait he wasn't done. More coins and another One Cup. I guess you could say Two Cups. Keep in mind he never got off of his bike. I quickly glanced at my watch and saw that is was 6:08PM and this gentleman looked quite like somebody who was done with work for the day.
As the old man sat back in his seat and began to peddle, he placed the umbrella on one arm - hanging - and held a sake in each hand. He was not using his handlebars. In fact, it looked like he had never used handlebars ever before. He sat quite erect peddling away through a sea of people, who were also getting off of work, and he ripped the cap off of one of the sakes and chugged it in one swift motion. I gave him a 9.5 for the technical aspect and a 10 for the artistry. He then steered his bike towards a garbage can and tossed that One Cup in the trash in a motion that said that he had done this 1,000,000 times before. Without wasting anymore time or motion he ripped off the other cap and started chugging the second One Cup in a similar fashion. Gulp, it was gone! And he bent his direction towards yet another garbage can and tossed the empty in the middle of the target. A professional indeed. In a mater of 30 yards he had consumed and properly disposed of 360mls of sake without bumping into one of a thousand walking people.
Obviously this is not one of those memories that one shares when asked "How was your trip and what did you see?" But it did make an impression, and it does spell out a little about the whole "Subway sake" culture in Japan. I call them "Subway Sakes" because typically the vending islands are found near mass transit stations. And of course they do have a stigma of not being very good sakes attached to them. (This is changing for the better.) Essentially they are constructed to drink without thinking. And yes, they have "decompression" written all over them. Tired guy gets off work. No time for a bar visit. Puts coins in and gets sake out. Drinks the sake and boards his train for the 30-minute ride home with a little buzz. It is indeed a "culture." Although I have never seen them (I will find a couple one day) I was told that some One Cups had naked women on them. Others had scenes of nature. And yes the obligatory advertisements also blessed these little beasts.
The last time that I was in Japan, I noticed that they "Super Sized" the One Cup and called it the 1.5 Cup. That however is not available in the US. But we do carry several "Subway Sakes" at the store. We carry the infamous Ozeki One Cup. We also carry a smaller can of Nama Genshu Honjozo from Kikusui, which is by far our best seller. And we are currently trying to get our brewers to export one of their better offerings that come in the "one cup" format. There is a brilliant sake liquor shop in Tokyo that specializes in high-end One Cup sakes for those who would just like a taste of a special or expensive brew.
Next time that you are in True Sake then by all means slum it and ask for a Subway Sake and see what sort of buzz $5 will buy you!