They were the last sakagura (sake producer) in Shimosuwa onsen (Nagano Prefecture). On April 22nd, 2017, Hishitomo Jouzou started bankruptcy proceedings. For all sake lovers, and for those who like to visit Shimosuwa, this is bad news. For me, sincerely, it is a shock.
I visited the company a number of times, bringing visitors with me, and really enjoyed not only the atmosphere of the kura, but their sake as well, branded “Mikotsuru”, as per the founder’s dream of a splendid supernatural red-crowned crane flying over Suwa Lake to bring peace. My taste buds have fond memories of their Junmai Ginjo brewed from Kinmonnishiki, a rare sakamai (sake rice, actually a cross between Yamadanishiki and Takanenishiki) grown at a relatively high altitude in Nagano, or the original “Alliet Pafum 2012”, which had spent a few months in a wooden cask that had contained pinot noir. The young team in charge of production and sales has always made us felt welcome into their world. It must be hard for each of them.
Their world was the commercial street of Shimozuwa onsen as well, which already has too many shutters rolled down. A brewery always is a lively attraction in a town or village: fresh steam rising above the roofs every morning from late October to March, a freshly green sakabayashi (cedar ball) hung at the turn of the year when the first sake of the season is put on the market, as well as the kura festival when production stops with spring coming.
The Japanese crane, a symbol of longevity, made no miracle in what remains a difficult market despite the positive signs of a revival of premium sake.
Often a symbol of pride for local residents, a sakagura is at the heart of an economic system as well, providing jobs locally, and an outlet for farmers growing rice, laboratories cultivating yeast and fungus, machine and bottle manufacturers, logistics services, distributors. Founded in 1912, the company had gone through financial distress in 2004 already. While nothing is eternal, let us hope that the crane can be a phoenix, and that we will see a resurrection of Mikotsuru, the Shimosuwa onsen brand.