Tradition & Innovation

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I owe a lot to Sakurai san at Dassai, since my participation to a Dassai tasting event when there were so few for foreigners in Japan, was a defining moment in the development of my passion for sake… and therefore my life. For the first time, I actually tasted a series of high quality nihonshu from the same brewer, easy to understand, and heard the story behind, the heritage, visualizing the small kura in Yamaguchi embarking on a great challenge: conquer the world.

I certainly see Asahi Shuzou (Dassai) as an innovative kura in the Japanese landscape. It created sort of a disruption, under the inspiration of its leader. In 1999 Sakurai san found out that his toji (master brewer) would not come back the next season. This had started to be an issue in other places as well, as a whole generation of toji (master brewers) was getting past the retirement age, and the economic crisis in sake was not encouraging younger people to join the sector. The job is really hard physically and mentally, Sakurai san decided to take responsibility for production. I understand he was one of the first kuramoto to become kuramoto-toji. Not only did he take over production, but he decided to brew Junmai Daiginjo only, the highest sake grade, mostly from Yamadanishiki sake rice, and he developed what I see as a new production and marketing approach for that premium sake. The production method is quite “systematic”, employees at Asahi Shuzou are precisely repeating all the steps of a very detailed, fully documented production process that includes all the “what if?”. The aim is to get the same sake quality and features in every bottle obviously. That is where all the data accumulated by science about sake brewing, all the charts, can be useful. While most medium size kura (breweries) tend to release a large number of references every year, Sakurai san simplified the line-up to a handful of references only, easily understandable: the rice polishing ratio (seimaibuai) makes the name of the product: 50, 39 … and 23 a few years later, which looked like an amazingly low number when it was announced, back 7 years ago. By the way Dassai reports that it takes about 7 days to polish the rice to 23% seimaibuai. Sakurai san changed the way his sake was marketed in Japan, but the big challenge he decided to take on, is the export market. He created an internship program for international trainees, whom he asked to translate his website and brochures to (I was invited to that tasting by a French student working at Dassai for a few months), and targeted a number of countries including France, which remains a difficult market for nihonshu despite the buzz in Paris. He pushed his sake on the wine lists of a number of high end restaurants, and it was recently announced he would partner with Joel Robuchon for a new restaurant in Paris. I do not know the numbers at all therefore I cannot judge the economics, however I can say that if a Parisian knows a few brands of sake, it is likely that Dassai is one of them, and I am quite sure that it has a positive impact on brand recognition here in Japan. Dassai has introduced a number of other interesting innovations, such as the use of centrifuge machines at the time of pressing the mash (moromi), this internship program for foreign students, or the Kosher certification of the sake, as early as 2011.
Thank you and Kanpai Mr. Sakurai.

Wa – Harmony

“Wa” is one of the key values in the Japanese psyche. One tries to understand and accommodates other stakeholders’ viewpoints, opinions and constraints, so that the group can take action smoothly in an effective way.

This value has clearly been applied in the rural communities since rice cultivation was introduced in Japan. As a matter or fact, not only is teamwork required to transform plains or valleys, forests into paddies, but also rice cultivation itself is a collective effort. All farmers in a valley are sharing the same water irrigating the fields. Such water often comes from higher up in the mountains, and is distributed through an elaborate network of channels.

May was the season of rice planting in Kanto. There is only one rice crop in a year in Japan, with the exception of Okinawa. Around late April, rice seeds (grains) are soaked in water and planted on large trays covered with a thin layer of soil, and left germinating in a nursery (a greenhouse) under the spring sun near the field, until the seedlings reach a height of about 15 cm.

Meanwhile paddies are flooded and plowed. Such seedlings (called “Nae” in Japanese) are then transplanted into the rice paddies, by 2 or 3, in rows and columns forming a grid pattern. The distance between seedlings depends on a number of factors (rice varietal, sunshine, etc.). Most farmers (an aging population) now use tractors for obvious reasons, however there are a number of events organized across the country where teams gather to plant the rice “the old way”.

In all events I have seen in Japan by the way, rows of participants plant in front of them, walking across to the other side of the “virgin” paddy. As a consequence though, one has less visual control about the “quality” of the row he/she creates behind him/her (a possible issue when harvesting with a tractor), and puts his or her feet deep in the mud to ankle or knee, right next to the seedlings he/she just planted.

I understand that in other countries (Vietnam for example), planters mostly walk backwards, planting in front of them, with a better control of the rows, and without stepping on their recent work. At the same time, they place the seedlings in their footsteps, a surface that has become very “uneven”. Old photographs of Japan suggest that the method was used here as well!

By law, sake breweries, like all other companies, were prohibited from cultivating rice after the war, and have therefore naturally been kept at a distance from rice farming for decades, buying from individual farmers’ cooperatives. This created a major difference with the wine culture, where the winemaker often grows his own grapes. The legal system evolved though, breweries are now able to contract with farmers directly, or even cultivate their own rice. Naturally, they got active in producing rice planting events, a great way to connect with clients and fans in harmony, and connect clients and employees alike with the precious raw material: sake rice.

Kidoizumi shuzou (Chiba Prefecture) and their lovely team, one of my very regular destinations close to Tokyo, are renting paddies and planting rice in a beautiful small valley, close to the brewery, for the second year in a row. The day was humid to say the least, and pictures illustrate some steps in the process: washing the soil away from the seedlings’ trays and transplanting. If planting is a hard work, cultivation from there is no less hard … unless one uses chemical fertilizers and other products to control pests and weed. Bad habits are difficult to let go, and that hard work definitely is one of reasons why the development of organic rice in Japan is limited (the farming population gets older …). Another one though gets us back to the collective nature of the sector. Because everyone shares the same water, and paddies are located next to each other, it is quite difficult to convince inspectors that no trace of chemicals can be found in one’s own plot of land unless no-one uses any chemical in the area. We actually worked in a paddy that was the first one receiving water from the water retention pond located just above. It helps but is unlikely to be sufficient. Kidoizumi’s sake rice will therefore not be labeled “organic”, but will in effect be “quasi-organic”. A lot of that “quasi-organic” is called “Shizenmai” (natural rice). I see the use of quasi-organic rice as a big trend in sake brewing, and am looking forward to enjoying Kidoizumi sake from that particular rice next year, brewed in harmony with nature.


“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. 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!