The smallest Kura in Japan?



Why did Yamauchi Shuzou settle there in the first place, at an altitude of 540 meters, in a narrow valley, quite a distance away from Nakasendo (the old commercial route between Edo and Kyoto through the mountains) or the towns developing at the bottom of feudal castles?

Water is the answer, abundant clean clear water springing behind the Kura.

While the Kura survived over 21 generations, it is now producing a tiny fraction of its capacity: about 20 Koku, i.e. 3,600 liters of sake only, during the coldest months of the year (temperature was 2 degrees Celsius inside the Kura while we were there, on a sunny day outside). It makes them one of the smallest commercial producers in the country, if not the smallest.

The current heir and owner has been operating it with barely any mechanical or electrical equipment, with fellow farmers, for a number of years, when the fields do not require them to work there. As we found out when we arrived, they still use a beautiful Fune press (Fune means vessel (boat)), made of seasoned massive wooden planks. A Fune press is a sort of tub with a hole at the bottom and a lid that can be screwed with a crank over bags filled with Moromi (fermenting mash). It seems the team at Yamauchi Shuzou fills such bags entirely manually.


A few years ago the Kura received the help of Oga san, sake retailer (no website) in the town of Nakatsugawa (Gifu Prefecture), who heartedly took on the challenge of learning sake brewing, spending time at the sake brewing research center in Hiroshima Prefecture. Because of the fragile health of Mr. Yamauchi, he is now the man in charge. This year he brewed the fist sake tank he was fully responsible for and wanted to hear our judgment, since almost no one had had the privilege of tasting it. While Mr. Yamauchi brews sake from local Hidahomare (a sake rice from Gifu Prefecture), Oga san chose Gohyakumangoku (another sake rice variety, highly popular, where rice grains had been polished to 55% of their initial mass), and produced a clean, very dry Junmai. Faithful to the water used to brew such sake, I would qualify it as easy-to drink, quite masculine, designed to support local flavourful food during a whole meal. The rest of the production is brewed from rice cultivated by the Kuramoto and his aides.



Oga san suggested we climb the steep ladder to the attic. It was full of ancient tools used at the brewery, a sort of sake history museum without a curator.

I enjoyed the visit very much. Yamuchi shuzou (no website!) is a place where one feels the craftsmanship that sake brewing requires, in the many operations and decisions that the Toji or Kuramoto need to make. As Oga san puts it, there is no cheating. “We produce a single tank of each of our sake each year, we cannot adjust the taste by blending one with another, it is what it is”. And it means sake is different every year as well!

In the short selection of sake from the Higashi Mino region (Nakatsugawa and Ena cities) I had received from my host before making my way to Nakatsugawa, the Tokubetsujunmai from Yamauchi Shuzou had the strongest acidity and fullest body. All were Junmai sake brewed from Hidahomare in Gifu. It had sort of mature flavors as well, which had prompted me to try a pairing with a French blue cheese … then raclette cheese (the bottle standing in the middle). It was a success, and it turned out to be a very good companion for the roast deer fillet we paired it with in Ena (Gifu Prefecture) as well.



“Chiyo no Matsu”, inspired by the written records of Kofuku-ji monks


How do you brew sake if rice is not polished, and how does such sake look and taste like?

In the quest for delicate, highly fragrant, almost ethereal Nihonshu, machines and technology are playing an important role, starting with the very first step in sake brewing: rice polishing. Over the last 40 years we have seen a rapid development of the Daiginjo class of sake, a grade requiring rice to be polished 50% or more (Seimaibuai – the residual mass after polishing – needs to be measured at 50% or less).

There even seems to be sort of a competition amongst a few brewers to release products on the market with extremely low Seimaibuai, a statement about their mastery of the polishing and fermentation process, their search for the most refined aromatic sake. When released 10 years ago, Dassai 23 (23 for 23% Seimaibuai, i.e. 77% polished off) was a record for a widely distributed sake, and Asahi Shuzou the company communicated on the delicate process of polishing rice down to that level, without breaking, heating or drying the kernels. Such polishing lasts about 7 days. We have seen sake with lower Seimaibuai numbers since, in particular for the rice used to produce Koji, however such sake are not marketed or sold as broadly as Dassai 23.

At the same time, the pendulum of rice polishing has started to shift back, in my opinion. Economics are in favour of a lower polishing of course (less waste), but I believe the driving force goes beyond economics, and is a new trend: the development of sake expressing a “terroir”, the taste of the local rice. Such Sakamai (sake rice) is more and more often cultivated with environmental friendly processes (Zero or low additions of pesticides and fertilizers). One does not want to polish it too far, and “waste” this valuable raw material.

Some brewers are experiencing with brewing sake from such rice almost whole (unpolished). This leads them to deal with new challenges, although I should write “old” challenges, because in effect, higher Seimaibuai takes us back to the old times: pre-Hiroshima sake (made possible by electrical rice polishing machines, developed by Mr. Satake, in Saijo, Hiroshima Prefecture, from 1896) or even pre-Edo sake (produced with the help of large scale mortars powered by foot or waterwheels, in Nada in particular, the largest sake production in Japan).

Sometimes the sponsors for such “experiences” are not the brewers themselves. Sugimoto san is a well-established sake retailer in Nara city. At Momotaro, he only sells Nara sake and related products.

Leveraging his huge local experience, he worked with Yoshimura Shuzou (Uda, Nara Prefecture) to produce a Nihonshu from rice with a Seimaibuai of 95%, i.e. polished less than the white rice we ordinarily consume as food.

To brew sake from almost whole rice, they found their inspiration in the old records of Kofuku-ji, a major Buddhist temple in Nara city, and more specifically the written recipes for sake brewed at the temple more than 500 years ago.

While the official brand for the product is “Chiyo no Matsu”, the sake is referred to by Sugimoto san as “Sobo no sake”, sake produced by monks (as written on the label).

One difference between sake produced in Nara at Kofuku-ji Temple and the sake that would be produced around Itami and Nishinomiya (the Nada region) in Edo times later, is the number of steps where rice, Koji and water are added to the yeast starter in the tank containing the Moromi (fermenting mash). Most sake brewing has been based on Sandan Jikomi (3 additions over 4 days) since Edo times.

For sake brewed from very roughly polished rice though, three additions are not sufficient to ensure the mash will not yield a sake tasting like “Nuka”, in effect the outside layers of rice kernels, containing fats, minerals and proteins, removed by polishing. Nuka is sort of reddish slightly oily flour, and is used for vegetable pickling (or as animal food). It seems that Kofuku-ji monks had recorded a brewing method with 5 additions of Koji and rice, however Yoshimura Shuzo actually developed a new recipe using 8 successive additions (Hachidan Jikomi). Arguably, monks were probably using relatively small ceramic containers (more control). After the pressing of the Moromi, sake is not filtered with charcoal (Muroka), and not diluted (Genshu).

How does it look and taste like?

As illustrated by the picture, Chiyo no Matsu has a sort of a light amber color, and looks thicker than most sake.

Despite the small size of the tasting glass I was using, appetizing, strong aromas of prune (dried plums) filled my nostrils immediately.

Then as the tongue confirms instantly, Chiyo no Matsu has a relatively high residual sugar content. Its Nihonshudo (sake meter value) actually is minus 29. Nihonshudo measures the density of sake compared to the density of pure water at 4 degrees Celsius; while pure alcohol is lighter than water (and its Nihonshudo is positive), a negative value indicates that sake is heavier than water, indicating the presence of other components, sugar in particular.

While full-body, Chiyo no Matsu does not taste syrupy in the mouth. As a matter of fact a strong acidity kicks in rapidly and plays a balancing role. The acidity (measured as the quantity in g/L of acids, expressed after rebasing masses to succinic acid’s mass) is about 3.1 g/L. It should be compared with an average value for traditional sake well below 2.0, and a value close to 4.0 traditionally for white wines.

Alcohol content is 16%, a number on the lower side for undiluted sake, consistent with the Nihonshudo. The yeast was not able to transform all the sugar before the mash was pressed, before unwanted flavours develop.

This 2017-2018 brewing year (brewing year starts in July), the brewery has been working with Tsuyuhakaze 露葉風, a local Nara sake rice, and Yama no Kami sake yeast (literally “The God of the Mountain”), “resuscitated” from old sake pottery vessels found in archeological excavations at Omiwa Shrine. Located in Sakurai, (Nara Prefecture), Omiwa is said to be the very first Shinto shrine in Japan, and the birthplace of sake. Omiwa is not a building, but a mountain. Every year sake brewers gather there to pray for a good brewing season.

When Chiyo no Matsu is warmed up, it tastes less sweet (the tongue does not as acutely perceive the sweetness at higher temperatures), all the more as the acidity stings even more.

Such sake should be paired with flavorful, savory food.

Overall, Chiyo no Matsu has a good ricy umami, offers a pleasant drinking experience, creates a real surprise … and tells a great story.

For the love of whisky and Rita

In 2001, the “best of the best” whisky winning a blind tasting competition organized by a prestigious European whisky magazine was a 10-year single cask spirit … produced in Japan, by a company called Nikka: a mini-revolution in the world of whisky, and an important moment for Japanese brands business wise. As my readers will know, they have since conquered the world. Emotion-wise, this was the incredible “happy end” of an utopia, the dream of Masataka Taketsuru (born in 1894, nicknamed Mas’san) and his beloved supporting wife Jessie Roberta Cowan (nicknamed Rita). Their story, their romance, was the subject of the daily NHK morning drama a few years ago, and I followed it with great interest. The son of a sake brewer from the Hiroshima region, Mas’san got keenly interested in the production of Western spirits at a time Japan started to import and distribute them, but was able to locally produce pale copies only. In 1918, he ended up sailing to Scotland to learn applied chemistry in Glasgow and train at local Longmorn whisky distillery. Through one of his fellow students and Judo, he met a fragile young lady named Rita, and soon they decided to get married, despite the opposition of her parents. They came back to Japan in 1920, where Rita would spend the rest of her life. In 1934 Mas’san decided to take the risk to build a distillery in Yoichi, Hokkaido, a rural, quite remote country. Hokkaido had only been formally colonized by Japan about 50 years earlier (today Yoichi is about 1 hour away from Sapporo by train). They went through a lot of hardship but the first Nikka whisky was released in 1940. Mas’san had chosen Yoichi because of its similarities with the Highlands (climate and natural environment). A loving husband with many passions, Mas’san died in 1979, 18 years after his wife.

I truly enjoyed the visit of the Northland Nikka distillery. So many scenes of the movie had been shot there. The still house in particular still has the first copper still ordered by Masataka Taketsuru (a minimum of two is necessary in general, for a double distillation, however the company did not have sufficient funds), and the still line continues to be heated with coal directly. This rare process in the world of whisky today requires highly skilled workers. A few years ago I visited the Taketsuru brewery in Takehara, Hiroshima Prefecture. That is where Mas’san was born, raised and actually worked for a while, before embarking into his adventure. It must have been heart breaking for his father to have to hand over the family business to a relative as a result. The interesting small museum at Northland distillery tells us a lot about Masataka Taketsuru. A family man with many passions, he had an accident in the stairs of the sake brewery when he was eight years old, hurting his nose badly. He required seven stitches, but this accident actually led him to develop an acute sense of smell, a very useful talent for the rest of his life devoted to blending.



From Kawaba to the world and vice-versa


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.


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

A man on a mission

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


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.

(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.


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.


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


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.


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.