“Dignity!” (Mr. Stevens)

One of the highlights of my trip to Fukushima Prefecture earlier this month was the visit of the Daishichi sake brewery, together my daughter. Mr. Ohta 10th generation kuramoto (owner) kindly devoted some time to receive us. His aide Mr. Saito assisted him, carrying our belongings, opening and closing doors, supporting our movements throughout the large kura rebuilt between 2001 and 2010. His impeccable service and posture, in the reception rooms of the high-ceiling building faced with red bricks, and furnished with classic Western style elements, reminded me of Mr. Stevens, the hero and narrator of The Remains of the Day(*), played by Anthony Hopkins in the 1993 screen adaptation of the eponymous novel.

Located less than 100 km away from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Daishichi and its people went through very difficult times in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake: on the news of radioactive pollution, the staff stopped ventilators and air-conditioning, sealed windows and doors, until expensive protective equipment was installed (air curtains, creating positive pressure inside, special filters, etc.). Then of course the company has had to put in place a series of detection tests of radioactive elements at all stages of production (water, rice, sake). Fortunately the buildings have very thick walls, and all water comes from a well located within the brewery, fed from rain and snow slowly filtering through the slopes of the Adatara volcano, further West. In short, I can say I feel safe with their products.

Ohta san has brought a number of innovations to his sake brewing process over the last few years. It finishes with a new bottling line where sake has minimum contact with air oxygen before the bottle is sealed (the bottle is filled with nitrogen first), and it starts with “superflat” rice polishing, aiming at optimizing the peeling of fats, minerals, vitamins and proteins of the outer layers of the sake rice endosperm. The challenge is to fine-tune the rotation speed of the polishing roller, and the debit of the rice flow falling down by gravity on such roller, so that the shape of the rice grains (which has a long and a short axis), is respected. Interestingly enough, I understood that Daishichi actually re-sold computer controlled polishing machines to get back to an earlier, much more “manual” version from a previous generation (see picture, source Daishichi). After the polishing itself though, a modern machine using imagery technology checks every bit of raw material that will be used in the brewing process, rejecting unsuitable grains (not ripe, or broken), small stones or dust, etc.

What Daishichi is mostly known for though, is their attachment to the very traditional “Kimoto” method of producing the yeast starter. Taking twice as long a time as the more recent “Sokujo” method (publicized in 1909), and much more labor intensive (see picture, source Daishichi), a kimoto style yeast starter generally leads to a sake with a broader and richer flavor profile, all other things being equal. In particular one may find a few more lactic aromas (as lactic fermentation is left naturally developing prior to alcoholic fermentation in the tank), a great asset for the pairing with cheese and other fermented foods. It works, really….and I am looking forward to the result of the recent introduction of tanks made of wood in the process.

As my readers will know, I like ancient stories about sake. I enjoyed hearing the story of a very special “cuvee” brewed and bottled for the 1200th anniversary of the founding of Mount Koya (“Koyasan”) and its 100 temples (in 816 in Wakayama Prefecture) by the Grand Master Kukai, whose posthumous name is Kobo-daishi. According to tradition, Kukai’s mother, who was not allowed to enter the site (a woman…), used to prepare sort of a medicine to protect her son’s health, which was related to unfiltered amazake (sweet sake, with no or little alcohol, and lees in suspension). Sanbo-in, a Koyasan temple, is partly dedicated to the soul of this loving mother. Adjacent to the temple is the dense forest of giant cryptomeria sheltering Koyasan’s beautiful necropolis. There rest the lords Niwa in peace, rulers of Nihonmatsu, the city of Daishichi. Hence the “homage”. Nihonmatsu’s castle is represented on the label of this nice bottle of Honjozo Kimoto sake for daily consumption.

(*) the novel was written by British author Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born in Nagasaki!

When Yellow meets Gold

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Located in a basin surrounded by relatively high mountains, the town of Saijo in Hiroshima Prefecture enjoys cold temperatures highly suitable for fermentation control during winter, and abundant clean spring water. With its eight breweries nested within a few hundred meters from each other, it is not a surprise that it remains one of Japan’s most important brewing centers …. and a great sake tourism destination. Its emergence on the national sake scene is “only” about a century old though, and occurred after local brewers had developed the necessary skills to brew superior sake from very soft water, which limits yeast’s activity and reproduction in particular. A key contributor was the Satake company, which developed the first power driven “four mortar rice milling machine” in 1898, and is based …. in Saijo of course. I was lucky enough to be able to visit them a couple of years ago. Kamotsuru was the first sake brewer to test such machines and claims it became the first company to sell ginjo and daiginjo sake (polishing ratios of 60% or less and 50% or less respectively, expressed as “seimaibuai”, ie. residual mass of the grain after milling, compared to its initial mass). “Kinpaku” or “Gold leaf”, a daiginjo, is one of their leading products, with an original bottle, and the presence in the sake of two small gold flakes. Asian consumers in particular seem to like this auspicious sake, but I have not had confirmation of how much President Obama liked it, when he was served some by PM Abe during his 2014 visit to Japan. What prompted me to write this article though is not sake today, but the nice “dorayaki“ confection kindly brought to me by Hiroshima Prefecture representatives. The buttery lemon filling between the soft pancakes is highly enjoyable, and makes a nice pairing with the delicate, crisp Gold sake offering rich fruity aromas. The connection lies at another level as well. Called Sakuraya, the shop was founded about a century ago in Saijo, and uses “sake kasu” (sake lees) from local breweries for some of its products. Escalator wit?

The crane flew away

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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.

Tokyo’s darker side

Of course Tokyo is not just about Ginza, Shibuya or the manicured gardens of the Imperial Palace. It has its darker side and poorer areas. I am trying to give support from time to time to the Missionaries of Charity Brothers, serving bento lunches to homeless people or day laborers, offering human contact and a temporary shelter. They are installed very near Namidabashi crossing (the bridge of Tears, which was crossing a river now buried underground), the place where families would part with convicts heading to infamous Kozukappara execution ground. The ground itself is now covered by train tracks of the Minami Senju station. A few temples associated by the area remain though, in particular Enmeiji (whose characters mean Long Life Temple!), and its large Jizo statue, probably standing out like a beacon very near the execution ground, in old times. Close to this impure place of death were living the Eta, the Japanese  equivalent to India’s untouchables, dealing with jobs considered impure (leather, slaughtering etc.). The area, called San’ya, is now inhabited by a large community of day laborers (you see many of them waving flags and helping traffic in the streets of the city around a worksite), as well as the poorest fringe of the Japanese society, but not only. While this remains Tokyo, still is incredibly clean, run down buildings and shutters remind one that future (illustrated by the nearby Skytree tower) may look very far there. Nearby were Yoshiwara and Shinyoshiwara as well, the fenced red-light districts of “tea houses”, brothels and entertainment houses often depicted in woodblock prints. Jokanji temple is a witness of the fate of these young girls enslaved from the age of 17, most often dying from illness or sometimes murdered by clients within a few years. Those who survived could eventually leave the place after 10 years, I read. It is estimated that more than 25,000 women were buried at the temple. In particular still stands that monument holding the remains of 500 of them burnt to death in the aftermath of a large earthquake in 1855. Their bodies were thrown into the temple roughly and buried. Jokanji has been since nicknamed Nagekomidera (Nageku means throw). Crowded tombs there tell you about a number of stories which sometimes ended as popular tales and kabuki theatre plays. Everything is not dark though. See the lady with her water bucket, bowing in front of that Shinyoshiwara Soureito, the stone monument erected to comfort the souls of deceased prostitutes? A local resident visiting her father’s grave, she came to me to for an exchange, ended up walking me through the cemetery, telling me some of these stories, and lamenting a bit how the shrine surroundings (ugly mansions aiming at bringing more residents into the area) have broken down the charm of the place. After another surprising exchange with another man outside temple grounds, my heart felt warm again.

Japanthis.com by Marky Star is a great site that will teach you about the history of many places in Tokyo.

A phoenix in Nada

Fukuju (Kobe Shushinkan) is an old sake company (1751), but has a brand new brewery. Recent history has not spared the Yasufuku family business, now in its 13th generation. It seems it was the only Nada family whose entire properties (home and brewery) were destroyed by air bombing raids during WWII. Seen from the sky, the roofs of large Nada breweries looked too much like the Kawanishi Aviation plants assembling war planes. Then more recently, the great Hanshin earthquake struck in January 1995. Like a phoenix, the brewery was reborn again. Squeezed between the Hanshin highway rising above buildings on a forest of concrete pillars, and a huge Kobe Steel complex, its premises with their small garden flowering in all seasons, offer in this not so friendly part of town a pleasant oasis, especially when one is welcomed by Masakazu Minatomoto, in French, in English, in smiles. A wine and sake sommelier who loves traveling, our guide kindly led us through the state of the art brewing facility. Much smaller than its neighbors in the area, looking for cooperation with other brewers and academic researchers, it has been experimenting with new materials and new techniques, such as Tarai Koji (2005), which makes use of relatively small plastic tubs (10kg?). I enjoyed the tasting session very much, the diversity of fresh and balanced premium sake brewed with Miyamizu water, descending from Mount Rokko and drawn in Nishinomiya, as well as sake rice cultivated on Mount Rokko’s lucent green Northern foot. I will remember the very aromatic (an expression of pear!) Dolce Vita kijoshu as well. No surprise that with the help of Sweden based sake samourai Ake Nordgren, often prized Fukuju sake found the way to the tables dressed for the Nobel Committee’s grand diner parties, each time Japanese scientists are rewarded for their research. Enjoy your visit!

Some Noh for Vincent


For once I am dedicating this post: to Vincent R., a close friend who loved Japan, but was not able to come again, before ALS (Charcot’s disease) took his life about a month ago.

Yoko Layer started her acting career in Western theater, was trained in the Russian school, and was soon living abroad, in Washington State … until she decided to come back to Japan and embrace Noh, the traditional theater form associated with Japanese spirituality, enjoyed by the aristocratic and military elites. “I was playing Russian characters until I met a Russian actress, and it struck me that I would only ever be an imitator; I needed roles that I could connect with my own soul, undoubtedly Japanese”. She therefore joined the Kanze Nohgaku school. She is the first Noh actress lady I have ever met, and plays the role of a bridge between Noh and the world. She was welcoming us for a day of discovery at the National Noh theater.

Visitors to Japan will notice an often-beautiful Noh scene in major shrines across the country. As a matter of fact, like Gagaku the sacred music and dance, Noh plays are an invitation to Kami (deities), to spend time amongst us human beings, and enjoy the spectacle. The form of Noh was more or less fixed in the 14th century, and a number of plays written at that time are still staged today.

In a large number of Noh plays, a deceased comes back to earth to tell a story, or avenge himself/herself. In that sense, we can relate it to the ancient Greek theatre, often telling the stories of the Greek Pantheon and their interference with the life of human beings. Before entering the stage, behind the curtain, the masked actor playing the Shite (main character), descending from Heaven or Hell, must put himself in this particular state of mind. Yoko Layer invited us to feel that state of mind for ourselves, before passing under the curtain, and I could just guess the work required on one’s emotions, voice and gestures.

After a fun workshop, we watched a play called Suma Genji. It tells the story of Hikaru Genji (from the famous Tale of Genji), coming back from Heaven to the place he lived in, while in exile as a young adult. He performs a slow dance (Kami’s rhythm) in front of pilgrims, led by a priest of the Fujiwara family, heading to Ise. They had stopped for the night, to see for themselves the famous cherry tree Genji was said to have loved. An easy-to-understand, powerful play.

I could not help but think about you Vincent. I am waiting for your visit, in a gust of wind, or under the form you choose, in places that were special to you here. (written on the day of Easter, 2017)


For the love of sake, I put together a small private party for Mariko Leveille before she heads back to Europe to start her sake brewing project. The point was to present and be able to exchange about “Nature Nature”, a kijoshu like sake (sake brewed from sake) that I had tasted under its moromi form (fermenting mash) when I visited Hanatomoe (Miyoshino jouzou) near Yoshino (Nara) in March. That is where Mariko has spent the brewing season, and Nature Nature is her special brew. It became a great opportunity to hear first-hand about the Chevalier craft beer&sake project from Christophe and Stephane Fernandez the owners as well. They are not only launching a brewery for beer and sake in Mazamet (Tarn, France), they will become the first Europeans to try to grow sakamai (sake rice) of current Japanese origin in Europe (Miyamanishiki and Gohyakumangoku), in Camargue more precisely. They receive the help of a farmer named Bernard Poujol, who has adopted the organic Aigamo method quite a few years ago already (he releases and raises ducks in the field, which control the development of weed and parasites), and grows a rice variety possibly suitable for sake brewing (still needs to be tested; variety name is larolat?) already. When Christophe and Stephane obtain their sake brewing yeast from local flowers, and the local rice polishing plant can accommodate their rice production for fine polishing, this may become a true premium Southern France terroir sake. I am impressed!

Exchanges between sake fans, journalists, Alexandre the flying sommelier or Fabien the cheese maker, confirmed the skills of the lady who will be the toji at Chevalier (in charge of sake brewing). Thank you Soma san for welcoming us at The Hangar.