Sake may be the focal point of the Honolulu Sake Festival, but artistry in food presentation is also important. Kyo-Ya Restaurant chefs are working on bringing Shabu Shabu to the Kikizake event Monday

Seek sake epiphany
at 4-day isle festival

By Betty Shimabukuro

When it comes to fine sake, the world is divided into those who have seen the light and those who remain in darkness.

The unenlightened view sake as a tiny hot cup of brew, at its worst caustic, at its best just OK. That's if they've ever bothered to try the stuff at all.

The enlightened tend to view their first experience with truly fine sake as an epiphany.

Witness, for example, the words of Philip Harper, author of "The Insider's Guide to Sake," as he describes his first encounter with "real sake." (Until then his sake experiences were memorable only because of the subsequent hangovers -- "about as delicate as a pneumatic drill.")

"We were served chilled sake and it was hard to believe it was the same thing," Harper wrote in the introduction to his guide. "Some of it tasted quite clearly of rice ... still more startling, though, were those whose aroma was sublimely and unmistakably fruity. How on earth do you make a drink with the fragrance of fruit from rice?"

Kyo-Ya chefs also intend to bring Misoyaki Butterfish.

The transformation in Harper's case was total. He went from teaching English in Osaka to becoming a sake brewer, and is believed to be the first foreigner to be taught this exacting trade.

Harper brings his expertise to town this weekend when he serves as a judge in the 2002 National Sake Competition, part of the Honolulu Sake Festival, which consists of four events spread over four days. On Sunday, more than 160 sakes will be tasted by the 10 judges and scored on aroma, taste, balance, finish and overall impression. Gold and silver awards will go to the best brews.

You've got to have a meticulously trained palate to be part of that adventure, but the other events of the festival are open to anyone seeking a personal sake epiphany.

Moon-Viewing Party: "Tsukimi no En" follows the Japanese tradition of sipping sake under the eighth lunar moon of the year, 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday at Queen Emma Summer Palace. Thirty Japanese sakes will be available for tasting, complemented by dishes prepared by chef Shuji Abe of Furusato Japanese Restaurant. Cost is $60, to benefit the International Sake Association. Call Tom Haar at 735-5095.

Kikizake -- A Sake Tasting Celebration: Sample the sakes submitted for judging, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. Several restaurants will prepare appetizers to help absorb all that alcohol. Cost is $60 presale; $70 at the door. Call 945-7633.

Brewmasters Ball: The award-winning sakes from Monday's judging will be showcased in a dinner at the Halekulani, 6 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, at the Halekulani's Hau Terrace. Sashimi and sushi will be prepared by Kacho Restaurant, appetizers by La Mer and Hawaii Regional Cuisine dishes by Orchids. All three food stations will be paired with a sake station. Cost is $100. Call 739-1000.

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