Beauty is in the mouth of the beholder.

Visit just about any convenience store in Japan, and you’re sure to come across a pair of red and blue drinking boxes in the alcohol section. They aren’t the only sake drinking boxes in Japan, but they’re definitely the most prevalent. I’m talking about Oni Koroshi, the most famous drink of its kind that most Japanese people probably never touch.

There are actually several different sake brands that use the name “Oni Koroshi,” which means “demon killer.” The name is tied into the legendary “king of oni” Shuten-doji who was slain by Minamoto no Yorimitsu. There are several variations to the story but many involve Minamoto poisoning Shuten-doji’s booze and then decapitating him.

Sake breweries seemed to have spun the story so that Shuten-doji was simply served sake with a really high alcohol content, thus a very potent sake could be called an “Oni Koroshi” even though these drinks tend to have about 13 to 14 percent alcohol content, which is normal for sake.

And among all Oni Koroshi it’s the small boxes produced by Nihonsakari which are the most prevalent. They usually sell for around 100 yen (US$0.70) and always in a 180-milliliter (6-ounce) drinking box. For a lot of people who moved to Japan from abroad, that makes them a pretty good deal and not without their fan-base of foreign residents.

However, they tend to have a stigma among Japanese people for the same reasons. A lot of alcohol served from paper tends to get a bad rap, but perhaps Oni Koroshi is especially maligned because many have had or heard of an experience like our Japanese-language writer Tasuku Egawa did in his more formative years.

About 20 years ago he was fishing late at night and went to a convenience store frequented by anglers in this seaside area because it sold bait and had an available toilet. When he went there at 10 p.m. there was an elderly man in front of him in line. An acrid stench of B.O. and decay wafted from him as if he had formaldehyde running through his veins and in one trembling hand was a bunch of jingling coins. In the other was a red box of Oni Koroshi.

He didn’t pay the guy much mind at that time, but when he returned to the store at around 2 a.m., that old man was still there. This time he was sitting in the parking lot, drinking another Oni Koroshi with several other flattened boxes scattered around him on the ground. Tasuku asked the clerk who told him the guy was a regular and bought a box every 10 minutes or so.

Tasuku then went back to his fishing but returned to the store one last time at sunrise on his way home. When he arrived, the old man was nowhere to be seen, but in his place was a larger pile of Oni Koroshi boxes, puddles of vomit, pieces of human feces, and other wet spots that Tasuku could only assume were formed by urine.

From that day forward, Tasuku had always associated Oni Koroshi with that man and that drinking it was a surefire sign that you had hit rock bottom…

But recently he started to wonder if that was fair to associate the sake brand with that incident. Seeing someone clearly so desperate to drown his sorrows go to town on it would suggest its quality was one step up from mouthwash. Still, a sake shouldn’t really be judged by its drunkard.

So, he went to a convenience store and picked up a box of both red and blue Oni Koroshi to confront his bias head on. The blue box has a “fresh-tasting” sake and the red one is a more dry-tasting affair, but sake in general is a tangy drink so even a dry one is fairly sweet and the difference is more of a relative nuance.

It’s a nuance that Tasuku doubted this Oni Koroshi was capable of, but he decided to start with the blue one to see anyway. He popped the straw through the foil entryway and pensively wrapped his lips around it, expecting to be hit with a blast of ethanol-flavored swill.

But much to his surprise, it was fine. It wasn’t amazingly great by any means, but it was perfectly serviceable and even that was way beyond his expectations. It had a nice fruity sourness to it that really could be described as “fresh.”

The next challenge, however, was to see if the so-called “dry” red box was really different or just a marketing gimmick. Much like they did with that old man on that fateful day, it took our writer about 10 minutes to get through one box, so he was soon prepping the next one to taste test.

Once again, he was delightfully surprised! It actually did have a noticeably drier edge to it, noticeable enough that even his novice palette could easily taste it. It was still a far cry from the best sake he’d ever drunk, but for its price it was certainly punching above its weight. Tasuku would even rate it higher than the nation’s favorite cheap drink Strong Zero in terms of taste.

So in the end, it was the demon of prejudice that was killed on this day, and our writer learned that Nihonsakari’s Oni Koroshi wasn’t just for degenerates who defecate in parking lots, but a drink that anyone can enjoy.

Photos © SoraNews24
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[ Read in Japanese ]