From Kawaba to the world and vice-versa

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Today you can find Mizubasho sake in 40 different countries. Top restaurants such as French Laundry, El Bulli (before closing), Maison Pic have put the brand on their wine list.

It sounds like a long way away from Kawaba, a rural village in Gunma Prefecture, near the source of the Tone-gawa(*), a place blessed with pure water ideal for brewing sake. That is where Shoji Nagai established Nagai Shuzou in 1886. Five generations later, his heir (and current company CEO) Noriyoshi Nagai studied architecture before re-modeling the kura completely in 1994, to support the Mizubasho new nihonshu brand launched two years earlier. English speaker, Nagai san actually traveled the world and explains he was deeply moved by a 1988 Montrachet Domaine de la Romanee Conti. He subsequently decided to learn about wine and wine-making, visiting France and Champagne in particular. Back to Japan he worked with his Toji (Master brewer) Kenji Goto to produce modern sake that would appeal to wine lovers.

Craftmanship is not an empty word at Mizubasho. It took 700 experimental trials before the company was able to perfect the recipe for their sparkling sake, in 2008, very early for the Japanese sparkling scene. Crisp and clean, revealing fine bubbles, served in a bottle inspired from premium champagne, this sake is definitely elegant and very refined. It is quite easy to pair with food, with its limited acidity (1.3 g/L) and marked umami (rich in amino acids). I understand a patent was actually granted to that local adaptation of a “methode champenoise”. Mizubasho Pure is not the only product in the line-up though, and the company continues to release fine premium ginjo class products, complemented by Kijoshu (sake brewed from rice, koji, water and sake, resulting in a rich sweet taste) and an old vintage Junmai Daiginjo (year changes with time, 2006 was recently released), matured at negative temperatures.

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Nagai san was the guest of the October 2017 Sake Salon organized by Sake2020. He came to Tokyo to meet and international audience, and I am looking forward to bring foreign visitors to Kawaba in return, to experience the environment that made the whole adventure possible.

(*) a major river of the Kanto plain, Tone-gawa River empties into the Pacific Ocean in Choshi, Chiba Prefecture, not far from well known Narita Airport. Its waters have been providing clean water to Tokyo inhabitants since 1965, a reversal of fate since the Shogun had diverted the lower course of the river away from Edo Bay (Tokyo Bay) in 1654.

NB: pictures extracted from the company website

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A man on a mission

Name:    Yasuhiko Niida
Philosophy: “We keep our promise”
Mission:    “We will keep Japanese authentic rice fields in good condition”

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Yasuhiko Niida is the young kuramoto (sake brewery owner) and toji (master brewer) of Niida Honke, located in Tamura city, Fukushima Prefecture. He is more than that: he is a farmer as well, and an inspiring community leader.

Niida Honke was a pioneer in slowly changing the sake brewing world and culture, re-defined after WWII. Following a broad land reform inspired by the US Administration soon after the war, breweries (amongst other businesses) lost their rice fields (and the right to own any), and subsequently have had to purchase rice from a state controlled cooperative. This laid the foundations for a major modern divergence with the world of premium wine making. A premium wine maker most often is producing his own grape. When the rule started to be relaxed, the likes of Niida Honke started to contract with farmers directly (assuming the risks), then to rent rice paddies, and today to even buy and cultivate rice paddies. In 1967, the company started to brew sake using “Shizenmai” (“Shizen” means nature, “Mai” means rice), i.e. naturally grown rice, rice without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The “Shizenshu” brand (“Shu” means sake) turned 50 this year, and receives a new label for the occasion. Since 2010, the company has only been brewing Junmai sake (Pure rice sake), made 100% from Shizenmai (80% of which actually labeled “Organic”).

The company currently owns and cultivates 6 Ha of rice fields in Tamura city (Kameno-o and Ipponjime rice), whose produce is labeled “Tamura”. This represents 10% of the cultivated surface in Tamura, and Niida san has embarked on the mission to convince all local farmers to embrace “Shizenmai” fully, turn their backs to chemicals. The goal goes far beyond the needs of the brewery, it is about the future of the community and rice farming culture. The fauna and insect population living in or near the fields gets larger and richer, and so does the taste of rice. Of course, no everyone agrees for the time being. Cultivating Shizenmai is harder work, regular weeding is required, yields are suffering. Niida Honke Agri Corporation (founded in 2009) has developed a special fertilizer from rice straw, rice bran, bamboo and grass, and teams up with an ally: “notostraca” or tadpole shrimp, a living fossil. Released after egg hatching (and rice transplantation) in spring, it feeds on weeds and works through the soil in the paddy, slowing the development of new, unwanted, vegetals.

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(source Niida Honke)

Fermented in pure water coming from two natural springs (producing hard and soft water), such rice turns into beautiful nihonshu, with a defined acidity. It has become a reference sake for me, and it was great pleasure to meet Niida san at the recent Sake2020 event in Tokyo after I visited the brewery shop and fields last spring.

Spiritual Brew

IMG_5800Aged 90, Seiji Kosaka still has a remarkable strength. He shows it when he blows the conch shell before entering into the fermentation room, or beats the Taiko drum after the Moromi (fermenting mash) is pressed. Because each of his fermentation tanks bears the name of a sumo yokozuna (grand champion), he uses the same rhythm for the taiko, as the drumming performance closing a sumo tournament day.

Osu (rice vinegar) is sake’s cousin. Their respective production processes have a lot in common. Both start from excellent rice and beautiful water. The water used by the Kosaka family since the 19th century is pure, contains a number of minerals, but remains soft overall. More importantly, it is highly sacred. It comes from the foot of the Nachi waterfall, located 8 km away. Such waterfall faces Nachi Taisha (Nachi Grand Shinto Shrine) and Seigantoji (Buddhist Temple), both places of healing and salvation, which traditionally make the last destination of pilgrims who have been walking the Kumano pilgrimage routes for more than 1300 years. The waterfall itself has a drop of 133 meters, the highest in Japan and is considered a deity.

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Kumanokodo, Mount Yoshino and Mount Koya a little North, are places where Shugendo is still very present, as a syncretic cult between Shintoism, Taoism and Buddhism. Kosaka san used to don the clothes and wear the equipment of a Shugendo monk, to participate to local religious festivals, including that trademark conch shell.

Like sake, Osu could not exist without the work of invisible beings, the Koji fungus transforming the starch in steamed rice into fermentable sugar, and the yeast and other micro-organisms producing from such sugar and proteins the alcool and acids that make the vinegar’s taste and aromas. Respecting, religiously celebrating the mysteries of nature in his kura’s environment is the secret to the heaven-like taste and aromas of the best vinegars brewed by Marushosujozo, according to CEO Seiji Kosaka.

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The twelve, 2 meters high, 150 years old Kumano cedar fermentation casks are another wonder, and make the visit of the kura such an incredible experience. The mash will ferment in there between 90 and 500 days.

I am glad to see that their exclusive Nachi black rice vinegar has such an appeal that it found its way to the best restaurants in a number of European countries. It is only one of their products though, and my backpack felt much heavier on the roads of Kumano after I decided to bring a number of different samples home.

 

Climate and currents combined against self-indulgence

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This picture features two of the delicacies that are symbols of Shizuoka city’s gastronomy: Sakura Ebi (cherry blossom shrimps) and Shirasu (whitebait).

I had a hard time finding truly fresh ones during my recent short stay in Shizuoka City. As a matter of fact, for both species, autumn 2017 catches have been very low, creating an issue for professionals and consumers alike.

Unusual phenomena have been affecting the area, starting with dreadful weather in October.

The field is Suruga Bay, on the Pacific coast of Honshu, the area located North of the imaginary line joining the tip of the Izu Peninsula and Omaezaki Point, a cape that marks the most Southern point on the coastline of Shizuoka Prefecture.

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I read that the reason why there is such a concentration of Sakura Ebi in Suruga Bay is still a bit of a mystery. While the specie can be found in other places in Japan (and overseas), Shizuoka is the only Prefecture where it is exploited, because of the exceptional size of the shrimp’s population. This very small shrimp (no more than 4-5 cm) lives for about a year only, in dense aggregations floating between layers of deep waters, rather than crawling on the bottom of the sea. Its name comes from its pink color comparable to cherry blossom. Its exploitation only started about 130 years ago, after the net of a fishing boat sank deep into the bay after a handling error by the boat master, but subsequently lifted an exceptional catch, revealing an unsuspected natural resource.

Suruga Bay is a unique underwater structure on the map of Japan, the deepest and the steepest. Mount Fuji actually rises in close to a straight line from its bottom (-2,500 meters) to the volcano’s summit (at almost 3,800 meters of altitude). Major rivers flowing from Mount Fuji and Southern Alps (Oi, Abe, Okitsu, Fuji…) contribute huge volumes of pure, fresh water, and their submarine beds shape a maze of underwater valleys in the bay. More than the geology of the place (the point where two tectonic plates are colliding, and not far from the border with the Pacific one), it may actually be a very specific population of plankton living in that environment that explains why the shrimp population is thriving. Shrimps are changing depth in tandem with underwater light during the day, and clearly the dreadful October weather may have affected their behavior…and the fishermen’s activity. While it was ruining our week-ends, it prevented them form taking the sea and typhoons 21 and 22 are responsible for damages to their equipment.

IMG_6389(home made Kaki-age)

As a result, the autumn catch (fishing is only allowed a few months per year) started significantly below the usual levels. Kaki-age, a tempura of Sakura Ebi and herbs is my no less than my favorite dish in Japanese cuisine, it was time I gave a bit of background about its main ingredient.

Shirasu (whitebait) is a collective term for young, immature fish (anchovies, herrings, sardines…) traveling in large schools. Kuroshio is an ocean current flowing toward the Northeast near the Eastern shores of Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu islands of Japan. It plays a very important role for the Japanese marine life (and therefore the fishing fleet), as it transports a variety of marine species migrating between climate zones. It happens that for the first time in 12 years, a great meander formed in Kuroshio. Water started to flow toward the East, covering a distance of more than 300 kilometers, away from the tip of the Kii Peninsula (the large peninsula South East of Osaka, known as Wakayama, Nara and Mie Prefectures), “avoiding” the coasts of Mie, Aichi and Shizuoka Prefectures. An eddy has formed near the shoreline in that region, with water flowing counterclockwise near Suruga Bay (toward the Southwest). The cause for such meander remains unknown, but historical records reveal that past great meanders resulted in record-low fish-catches, affecting Shirasu in particular.

The third delicacy on the top photo is Ikura (salmon eggs). At this time of the year wild one often comes from Hokkaido. There as well, catches have been very low. October weather has played a role, however some specialists already point at the rise in sea water temperatures, which trigger changes in behavioral patterns.

No shortage of sake (yet) thankfully. Shizuoka sake was not particularly known until about 30 years ago. The Research center of the Prefecture developed a new type of sake yeast around that time, to produce aromatic ginjos that soon attracted attention at the annual national New Sake Competition. To be enjoyed with Sakura Ebi, Shirasu and Ikura in season.

 

Why it’s sometimes good to slow down…

From the “Sakana” series
Between Obama, stronghold of the lords of the Wakasa domain(*), and the Demachi market stalls in Kyoto, there are two main mountain passes and a little less than a hundred kilometers, mostly in Oumi (*), the shores of Lake Biwa.
The Wakasa-kaido (Wakasa Road), one of the many trade routes that converged on Kyoto, is also known as Saba-kaido, the “Road of the Mackerel”. The grey fish was an important part of the seafood transported, day after day, from the shores of the Sea of ​​Japan to the imperial capital.
Walking the trail takes 2 to 3 days (**), the perfect length of marinating time for mackerel, which starts decaying as soon as its leaves water. This marinade is often a mixture of salt and Nuka, i.e. rice bran.
On arrival, a delicious “Saba Heishiko” (鯖 へ し こ) is the joy of sake lovers.
Yes, the fantastic Japanese modern logistics, which have reduced the trip to two hours for refrigerated trucks, also has its dark face, the one that threatens so many traditional know-hows …
(*) today the Fukui and Shiga Prefectures respectively
(**) the fastest runners needed a day only

3-year old death threat

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From the “Sakana” series

It is said that Fugu (pufferish) is sometimes consumed by those willing to take their own life. Because strict regulations require fugu chefs to receive proper training and pass exams, and the serving of Fugu’s liver is now prohibited in restaurants, the number of accidents at licensed places is close to none nowadays. A potent poisonous neurotoxin, Tetrodotoxin, is produced by certain bacteria that live in red algae consumed by the Fugu. They infect the fish immune to it. Amongst the various organs, the liver and ovaries (Ransou) are said to contain large amounts of poison. There we were yesterday, eating that special “treat” kindly offered by the restaurant’s owner, and specially recommended for a pairing with nihonshu : Fugu Ransou … The “sakana” (nibbling paired with sake) had been marinated in salt for 3 years though, enough to remove all the risks of poisoning (destruction of the poison and bacteries?). The verdict: very salty, it calls for more sake indeed, its nature becomes a good conversation topic as well, however I fail to appreciate its delicacy compared to so many other Sakana.

Diamond of Katano

I keep fond memories of my first visit to Daimon Shuzo in February 2013 together with other sake students of John Gauntner.

Before receiving a phone call from his father advising him to return to Kansai so that he would have time to learn the skills required to become the 6th generation heir of the business, Yasutaka Daimon spent 7 years abroad, including some time in France. His English is excellent and his experience allows him to understand the foreigner’s viewpoint when sharing his culture, sake culture.

The brewery was founded in 1826 and is located in Katano City, between Osaka and Nara. The brewery’s environment is a bit of an oasis near what very much looks like a bedtown of Osaka, despite the presence of a few rice paddies between the buildings, on the way from the local train station. As a matter of fact, when approaching the brewery, and to his surprise, the visitor suddenly finds himself in a small village with narrow winding roads. The brewery’s old gate faces a high hill covered with dense vegetation, a promise of fresh water.

I was back there last week. What a change inside! The old buildings were still there, however a number of volumes have been beautifully renovated, showing the quality and the simple beauty of the old construction, and some of the spaces located inside the main structure were converted into reception rooms for guests. A few weeks ago I wrote about how impressed I was by the way wine & cava producers in the Penedes region (in the hills behind Barcelona) are receiving tourists, and hinted that Japanese sake producers should take lessons from good practices there. Daimon san and his partners have designed the right environment, and I hope I will be in a position to host one or several events there.

Daimon san is one of the very few kuramoto (brewery owners) that have opened their capital to overseas partners (the only one I have heard about at least…), so that the business could invest fresh capital and leverage a network overseas. Sake brewing is a capital intensive activity.

Beyond equipment for the brewing process, and the building itself, the company changed its product line up and design, aiming at selling clearly identifiable products, by foreigners in particular. On the palate as well, the sake’s acidity is quite distinctive, with rich flavours.

It was nice tasting Daimon san’s sake again after a long break, I have to be back when the Mukunetei restaurant, located on the second floor of one of the brewery’s buildings, re-opens. The nabe specialty warmed our heart up 4.5 years ago before we faced the cold winter wind on our way back to Osaka.