Tradition and Innovation in Fushimi

At last I made it to Mr. Masuda’s Sakagura in Fushimi (Southern part of Kyoto city), and re-united with Guillaume Ozanne, the French Kurabito who came from my homeland in Normandy.

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(picture taken at the Gion Matsuri in July 2017, Mr. Masuda is on the left)

The two large buildings containing the sake production and storage rooms, the offices and the owner’s living quarters, sit on both sides of the narrow road running alongside the Katsura river.

Nature generated quite a bit of stress in recent months: the Osaka earthquake damaged the roof’s structure (perceived intensity of 6 on Richter’s scale in Kyoto), and a few weeks ago heavy rains swelled the Katsura river to threatening levels.

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That road (Toba Tsukurimichi) has a very long history. In Heian times (starting 794 AD), it connected the new Imperial Capital, Kyoto, to the Kii Peninsula and the former capital of Nara already. On the economic front, it then became a vital artery between Kyoto and strategically located Osaka, a city of merchants, the rice storage and trading centre of feudal Japan.

Masuda san’s ancestors used to run an inn for noblemen on the road. In Edo times, it became easier to start new businesses, and a sake brewery was opened next to the inn, in 1675. While sake production in Kyoto became a started and bloomed soon after the city became Imperial, Masuda Tokubee Shoten actually is one of the oldest if not the oldest surviving sake brewery in Fushimi.

One night, a noble man resting at the inn enjoyed the sake brewed from the waters of nearby Kastura River and gave it its poetic name, “Tsuki to Katsura” (Tsuki designates the moon, and Katsura the Japanese Judas tree).

Unlike some of its Fushimi peers, Masuda Tokubee Shoten remained quite small and still very much illustrates what traditional craft sake is about. They mean it!

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Fast-forward to our times, the Kura proved to be a major innovator in the sixties. Keiichi Masuda (Tokubee Masuda’s father) pushed the tax administration hard to be allowed to re-introduce nigori sake (or nigorizake, ie cloudy sake) in the marketplace. He was successful in 1964 and his efforts eventually resulted in an amendment of sake brewing regulations. Today, a metal mesh formed into a long parallelepipedic structure is introduced into the fermentation tank and sake is pumped directly from the space in the middle. In other words while coarse filtering of the Moromi (fermenting mash) is definitely taking place, such Moromi does not go through the standard “filtration” process that involves pressing the mash through a filter.

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Another trademark product of Masuda san is aged sake. Each of the last 52 years, the kura set aside a selection of sake in sealed ceramic jars. I understand that Mr. Masuda, 14thgeneration owner, is currently pondering about the best way to put such a treasure on the market, allowing sake fans to experience more of his old vintages. We are looking forward to it (if we can afford them !).

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After my visit to the Kura, I ran to an event I was hosting that day in a nearby Ryotei (traditional restaurant). For the sake tasting part, I introduced both the nigorizake (Junmai grade, sparkling, delicate nose of yoghurt and fruity aromas (banana)) and “Yanagi” (Willow Tree), a soft, subtle and flavorful Junmai Ginjo (pear, vegetable aromas) brewed from a blend of Yamada Nishiki and Yume Nishiki Sakamai.

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