Years ago, my coworker mentioned visiting a government-operated sake bar in downtown Utsunomiya, an elusive little place with odd hours. I had never heard of a bar that served only sake and I’d certainly never heard of one run by bureaucrats, only open two hours a day Monday to Friday. Finally, I checked out this bar with my husband on our wedding anniversary. My husband happened to have a day off and he loves to go out for a drink. What better way to celebrate? No matter that we had our three-year old son with us. The bar is open from 5 to 7 PM. We could easily enjoy some drinks, then go home for dinner, a bath and 9 PM bedtime.
We were the first in the door, and that was a good thing; if we had come 10 minutes later, we wouldn’t have gotten a seat. The seats are tall stools set around huge wooden tables; some people just stand and drink. There were a few guys in suits, but also a a guy and a girl who looked as though they were on a date. The bar is bright, clean and not at all smoky (no smoking allowed).
The bar’s name is Sasara, written in Chinese characters; the first character means sake. If one isn’t actively looking for it, it is easy to miss. It’s about a 7-minute walk from TOBU Utsunomiya station, or a 3-minute bus ride west of JR Utsunomiya Station. The nearest bus stop is Ken-cho Mae on the main street. At that intersection, you'll see a big hair salon called Quatro and across the street, Sunkus. The bar is on Hachimanyama Dori, a street parallel with the tree-lined street leading to the Prefecture Office, one block closer to JR Station.
...So we walk in, secure seats and go up to the counter, between two refrigerated glass cabinets filled with about 120 different kinds of sake from 40 Tochigi Prefecture sake breweries. How does one chose? I like sake but I don’t know the first thing about it. Booklets on the tables provide descriptions, but since I don’t read Japanese, that is useless. A map in the booklet showing where in Tochigi Prefecture each sake comes from, but that doesn't help me chose either.
Each bottle has a colored tags around its necks to indicate its value/grade. One pays Y1,000 to get a strip of 10 tickets. One glass of sake costs one ticket. The highest grade sake comes in the smallest glass (15 ml); conversely, the cheapest sake is served in the largest glass (75 ml). One chooses from five grades of sake. We split the 10 tickets between the two of us. I sampled from pink-labeled bottles thinking they might be sweet and formulated for ladies’ taste buds. This was a good guess. My selection included some fruit-flavored sakes (strawberry, yuzu citrus fruit). We enjoyed nuts and other salty snacks with our drinks.
If you are interested in comparing different kinds of sake, I recommend a visit to Sasara. If you don’t read Japanese, just order randomly like I did. It's all good.