Written By Preston Backer Edited By Sarah Ervin
With approximately 900 different kinds of sake to taste, it would be hard to say which one was specifically the best, mostly because to try all of them would surely cause death. Nevertheless, many people have an amazing time in the hunt for the most delicious sake, and when I say, “amazing time,” I mean, “the most insane crazy debauchery that has ever graced this good earth.” Keeping that in mind, everyone should come ready to have a safe and happy experience that is in line with the usual guidelines of drinking in Japan. If you don’t really want to get down and boogie with all the single shots of sake you can drink, there are of course other things to do, but seriously, you should do that whole drinking thing at the sake festival. Why? Because it is a sake festival and people drink sake at said festival. Now, let me take you on a journey. This is a journey that I like to call, “journey to the sake festival.” It sounds generic and kind of like something you would name a photo album on Facebook, I know, but it really does sum up this story pretty well.
It all starts on a wonderful Saturday morning. You wake up and maybe sing a song while taking a shower. Perhaps it’s a song that you make up on the spot about how awesome the day is going to be. Whistling is also encouraged. You hit the road with your sense of wonderment and a water bottle for hydration purposes, because even though you are planning to drink a king’s ransom in alcohol, everyone’s hope is that keeping hydrated and not projectile vomiting everywhere is also on your agenda. You ride your public transportation of choice and on the way to getting your drink on, meet up with many others with similar hopes of partaking in delightful times. Upon arriving at the station, you truly feel the draw of this festival. You immediately notice that Saijo station is packed with people, and that you are all being herded along one big road that is littered with all kinds of food stands and random advertising for a samurai armor company.
Like many festivals in Japan, I highly recommend devouring as much of the festival food as you can. It is a little spendy, but oh so scrum-diddly-umptious. While I think you should eat the food at the festival, there are a couple things to keep in mind. When you are passing each food stand, it may be a little hard to actually stop because people are constantly pushing towards the festival area. So, don’t be a jerk about it, but sometimes you gotta carve your own path to get your food of choice. Also, make sure to locate the designated trash areas immediately, because if you don’t, you might end up holding your trash for an eternity. The convenience stores are tricky and know not to have trash bins out during festival days. They know that if the bins were out, they would undoubtedly be swimming in waste. Finally, if you miss your food stand of choice because you are caught up in the current of people, no worries. There will be an equally delectable food stand of the same variety about one block further.
After making your way past all the fried food and advertisement, you come upon the festival. When you first lay your eyes on the festival area, you think to yourself, “Where are all of the crazy drunks with their pants down pouring sake all over themselves?” Well, it is pretty genius. Saijo, after much careful planning, decided to make sure to cage off all of the people “hopped up on the juice” so that they don’t destroy the town and ruin some childhoods. It sounds horrible, but it makes for some camaraderie the likes of which you have never seen. There might also be the possibility that the people running the sake fest probably want to keep track of who has paid for the ability to drink the sake, or some kind of actual logic that I choose not to use.
For those with families and/or people going to the sake festival with intentions of showing their world class karaoke skills, there is also a space reserved right across the street from the caged loonies. There are small stands with face painting, food carts, super magical karaoke competitions, live bands, and an array of cool people kind of milling around just seeing what a sake festival has to offer, besides sake.
You will be reminded many times by random people and signs around you that, once you go into the drinking grounds, you cannot reenter without paying again. Make sure you have sufficiently sampled the rest of the festival. If you do not, you will one day be like 100 years old and say to yourself, “WHY! Why didn’t I enter that karaoke competition! I coulda been a contender!” or something to that degree. As for me, just the sights on the way to the sake were enough for me to be content. Upon entering, you receive your specialty sake cup, which, if broken, will not be replaced. So don’t pretend to be a Viking and smash your cup on the ground after every drink. At least, I assume that’s what Vikings do since Thor did it in the movie, “Thor,”and that’s where I get all of my information concerning everything, including physics.
Finally, you have arrived at the sake! YAY! You take your teeny tiny commemorative sake cup and run towards the sake, only to realize that you have absolutely no idea which sake you should try. The sake is divided into the area of Japan it came from, and then assigned a number. If you are like me and not particularly a connoisseur, you might get a little lost, but again, no worries. There are a few techniques that I picked up that can be fun and/or devastatingly bad. Steal them at your own risk.
Find the man or woman at the festival wearing the best suit, and just follow them around drinking whatever they have to drink. This technique worked insanely well for us. However after a while, it can become hard to follow your person since the drinking area is jam packed with people. Another idea is to go up to the sake stand and ask for a drink from a city that you have visited or think is pretty dang swell. This was hit or miss, but interesting to see what my favorite places had to offer. The last technique, besides randomly wandering around and drinking whatever, is to find someone that actually knows what they are doing. This requires you to be able to communicate with the other person, so either find someone who can speak your native language, or if you speak Japanese, the person who looks the most pensive after they take a sip. The people at this festival are very jovial and open, so asking a random stranger for advice will most likely turn into a drinking buddy for the night, or at least a small conversation.
Deciding to get an interview with someone native to Japan, I went up to a happy young man at this most recent sake festival and asked him if he would be kind enough to answer a few questions for this article. This man, named Yosuke, happily accepted my request. When I asked the first question, which was “What do you think of the sake festival?” his response pretty much encompassed the energy of most of the people I ran into that day. His quote, which works on so many levels, was repeated many times throughout the night, but I thought it was a perfect answer to my question. He sang, “Shots shots shots shots shots, shots shots shots shots shots, shots shots shots shots shots, shots EVERYBODY!” His imitation of Lil Jon was kind of impressive. After the most amazing quote of the night, I abandoned the interview. Every person at the sake festival was a little different and would probably have given excellent answers, but I urge you to make that leap on your own, and enjoy drinking with a lot of nice, cool people.
If you get the chance, I would say that going to the Saijo Sake Festival is time well spent. It seems that no matter what your plans are, there is plenty to do and a vast amount of people to do it with. As you go home from the festival, you will have many happy memories, and possibly many new contacts. People will help you along the way whether they are friends or strangers, but make sure to stay safe and have a plan for your return to regular old life. One more piece of advice. Make sure when you return home that you have your pants on, or at least some kind of similar cover,otherwise you might get awkward looks from your neighbors. Just sayin.