Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

July 3, 2017

Sake from Nara Prefecture (Sake by Region)

In comparison to the giant sake centers of Nada and Fushimi, the other areas in the Kansai are mere dwarfs. That does not mean you won't find excellent sake there - especially Nara Prefecture boasts some great local makers.

There is one more important factor in Nara: it is after all where sake originated, the historical heartland of sake so to speak, and the ancient Omiwa Shrine is intimately linked to sake. The brew was handed down to mankind by the deity of the shrine and continues to be offered to him as a way of thanksgiving.

[Monument to Bodaimoto in Shoryakuji Temple, Nara]

"Umazake," "delicious sake" is employed as an epithet for the Omiwa Shrine in the Manyoshu. The term "miwa" was used to designate sake in the past, just as "miki." The Omiwa Shrine holds an annual Sake Matsuri on November 14, when brewers come to pray for a successful brewing season. One of its sub-shrines is dedicated to the mythical "First Master Brewer," Takahashi Ikuhi.

The cedar trees in the shrine grounds provide materials for making sakabayashi (also called sugidama), the globes of green cedar twigs and needles hung under the eaves of breweries in autumn when the new brewing season starts - when the first sake of the year is ready for drinking in spring, the globe has changed to brown.

It was in the 7th c. in the palace in Nara that a brewing department was first established. Later, in the Muromachi period, monasteries started brewing sake and a very famous one was Bodaisen Shoryakuji in Nara. The priests of this temple even went to China for study. Their sake was known as soboshu or "monk's sake."

[Omiwa Jinja]

One of the technical developments the temple became known for was the use of a starter mash (yeast starter), which at that time was called "bodaimoto" - a term that still is occasionally used for what now is called shubo. In the medieval period, the sake from Nara was justly famous for its high quality. There are again about twelve breweries in Nara who are making the yeast starter of one of their sakes with this ancient method.
Bodaimoto is also called mizumoto, "water starter." A bag of a few kilo's of steamed rice that has been infected by yeast from the air is buried in a large vat of unsteamed polished rice, after which a lot of water is added. After a few days, the yeast starts being very active, causing all kinds of bubbles. and the water develops a sour taste. Now the water is filtered off (but kept) and the rice is steamed. The real starter batch now is made with the yeasty water, the steamed rice, plus an additional amount of koji. After fermenting for five days this starter is ready for use. As this starter contains a high concentration of lactic acid bacteria (which in the modern process are gradually eliminated by the yeast as it grows), the sake is rather sour, but it also has a very deep taste. (Explanation based on H. Kondo, Sake, A Drinker's Guide, Kodansha International, 1984)
Other terms indicating the importance of Nara, are Yamato-shu and Nara Shohaku as terms for sake.

The local sake rice (shuzo kotekimai) of the prefecture is called "Tsuyuhakaze."

There are 29 active breweries in the prefecture. All breweries in Nara are relatively small.

Nara sake is well-balanced between sweetness and dryness, has some softness, but also lots of flavor.

[Harushika Brewery in the Nara old town]

Some of the main breweries are (in alphabetical order):
  • Harushika (Imanishi Seibei Shoten), Nara City. "Spring Deer." The sake from this brewery in central Nara goes back to the brewer priests of the Kasuga Shrine in the Middle Ages, who started brewing as a modern company in 1884. The name is also related to the shrine, where deer are the deity's messengers. The sake is mellow yet flowery and is brewed with the slogan: "Polish the rice, polish the water, polish the technique and polish the mind." Famous for its Super Dry Sake (Cho Karakuchi), which is also exported (in contrast, its other sakes are a bit sweet). 70% of all its sake is pure rice sake. There is a nice brewery shop with sake tasting possibility for a small fee. Next door is the Imanishike Shoin, the historical residence of the Imanishi family, who were abbots of Kofukuji Temple. Location is in the old Nara town, north of Jurinin Temple, two blocks south of the Nara Hotel, 15 min on foot from Kintetsu Nara Station.
  • Hoshuku (Toyosawa Brewery), Nara (Imaicho). Founded in 1868. Continues to brew by hand. 80% of sake produced is Tokuteimeishoshu (premium sake). 
  • Kinko / Okura (Okura Honke), Kashiba. Founded in 1896. In the vicinity of the old Taima temple, at the foot of Mt Nijo. Employs the yamahai method of making the yeast starter and grows its own rice called "Hinohikari." Also makes sake with the ancient bodaimoto method from Shoryakuji Temple (the sake is called Dakushu).
  • Mimurosugi (Imanishi Shuzo), Miwa (Sakurai-shi). Est. 1660. "Mimuro" is an epithet for Mt Miwa, and "Sugi" refers to the sacred cedar trees on the mountain where the deity dwelt when coming down to earth. The only sake brewery left in Miwa, near the Omiwa Shrine with its deep links to sake. The brewing water used is the underground water of Mt Miwa. Also makes sake with the bodaimoto method. 
  • Ume no Yado (Ume no Yado Shuzo), Katsuragi. "Dwelling in the Plum Tree." Founded in 1893. Located north of the Katsuragi range, near Shinjo St. The name has been derived from a 300-year old plum tree in the garden of the brewery owner, where a bushwarbler used to make his nest ("inn"). A complex and very tasty sake. Philip Harper, the only foreign brewer in Japan and author of The Book of Sake, used to work here.
  • Yatagarasu (Kitaoka Honten), Yoshino. Situated at the Yoshino River in Kami-ichi, at the entrance to the Yoshino-Kumano National Park, in an area of historical interest that was already praised in the Manyoshu poetry collection for its natural beauty. The name has been taken from a three-legged crow in Japanese mythology, who guided the mythical Emperor Jimmu to Nara, passing through Yoshino. The brewery is known for its elegant daiginjo sakes. 
[Imanishi Shuzo in Miwa, Sakurai]

Nara Prefecture Sake Brewers Association
When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation.
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Hyogo - Kyoto - Nara - Osaka - Shiga - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
Reference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).
The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.

June 28, 2017

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 26 (Fujiwara no Tadahira)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 26

Ogura-yama
mine no momoji-ha
kokoro araba
ima hitotabi no
miyuki matanamu

小倉山
峰のもみじ葉
心あらば
今ひとたびの
みゆきまたなむ

If the maple leaves
on the peak of Mt Ogura
could have hearts
they would wait
for the Royal Outing

Fujiwara no Tadahira (880–949)

[Arashiyama, Kyoto]

Nisonin Temple on Mt Ogura (in Kyoto's Arashiyama/Sagano area) is famous as the place where Fujiwara Teika had his villa and where he is supposed to have compiled the Hyakunin Isshu anthology. Verdant Sagano was a kind of resort area (like Uji in Poem 8), with fresh air and clear rapids, a world away from the noisy and dusty city. Many Heian aristocrats had villas here. 

The exact location in Sagano of Teika's villa is however not known from independent sources - the idea that it was Nisonin comes from poetry fans in the Edo-period and has no scientific basis. There are also competitors, such as nearby Jojakkoin or the quiet nunnery Enrian. Both Nisonin and Jojakkoin seem in fact doubtful as they are located on hills and Heian aristocrats usually built their villas on more easily accessible, level ground - probably Teika had his country house somewhere in the vicinity of where now Rakushisha with its memories of another poet, Basho, stands.

The temple itself is supposed to have been founded in 841 by the Emperor Saga (who is also intimately connected with Daikakuji). Belonging to the Tendai faith, it derives its name "Temple of the Two Images" from the fact that it has two main images: Shaka, who enlightens humans in this world, and Amida who takes care of our souls after death.

[Kyoto seen from Arashiyama (Okochi Sanso)]

This is the only poem in the collection associated with Mt Ogura, which is in fact a small, round hill rather than a soaring mountain peak. The present poem also starts the association of Sagano with autumn and momiji, maple leaves, turning away from Tatsuta in Nara which until then had been the classical poetic association for autumn colors. As the emperor still has not made his outing to see the maple leaves, the poet playfully asks the leaves to keep their colors for a while.

A headnote accompanying the poem in the Shuishu, puts the sentiment of the poem in the mouth of the Retired Emperor Uda, who wanted his son, Emperor Daigo, to see the autumn leaves at Mt Ogura. Tadahira then composed the poem to convey the Retired Emperor's will. The occasion was quite famous as it also figures in the Tales of Yamato (episode 99) and in the Great Mirror (Okagami).

Note that the basic situation of Tadahira's poem is similar to that of Poem 24 by Michizane. "Miyuki," "Royal Outing," is also a chapter title in the Genji Monogatari.

[Nisonin Temple in Sagano]

The statesman and politician Fujiwara no Tadahiro was also known as Teishinko or "the Ko-Ichijo Chancellor." Tadahira is also credited with writing the Engishiki and was one of the principle editors responsible for the development of the Japanese legal code known as Sandai-kyaku-shiki ("Rules and Regulations of the Three Generations"). Tadahira served as regent under Emperor Suzaku who ruled from 930 to 946.

Tadahira was the son of Mototsune; his brothers were Fujiwara no Tokihira and Fujiwara no Nakahira. Tadahira took over as head of the Hokke branch of the Fujiwara clan in 909 when his elder brother Tokihira died. He was the father of Morosuke, who in turn was the grandfather of the famous Michinaga. Tadahira's diary is extant, as are 13 of his poems in various imperial anthologies.

References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). 
Hyakunin Isshu Introduction - Poem 1 - Poem 2 - Poem 3 - Poem 4 - Poem 5 - Poem 6 - Poem 7 - Poem 8 - Poem 9 - Poem 10 - Poem 11 - Poem 12 - Poem 13 - Poem 14 - Poem 15 - Poem 16 - Poem 17 - Poem 18 - Poem 19 - Poem 20 - Poem 21 - Poem 22 - Poem 23 - Poem 24 - Poem 25 - Poem 26 -

June 27, 2017

The Omiwa Shrine and Sake

Mt Miwa, a beautiful conical mountain (467m / 1532ft) north of the city of Sakurai, at the eastern edge of the Yamato basin in Nara Prefecture, is an important sacred mountain, home to one of Japan's earliest Shinto shrines, called Omiwa or "Great Deity." The whole mountain is sacrosanct and entry is in principle forbidden even today.

[The Haiden of Omiwa Jinja]

An alternative name for Mt Miwa is Mimoro (Mimuro), which means "August Hall." Mt Miwa serves as the shintai (object of veneration, or "kami-body") of that shrine. On the western slope is Japan's most ancient road, known as the Yamanobe no Michi, which is already mentioned in the Manyoshu poetry collection of about 759. Several large burial mounds from the early Kofun period (2nd half 3rd c. - 4th c. CE) can be found around the mountain.

[The tip of Mt Miwa seen from Yamanobe no Michi]

The deity enshrined here is Omononushi (or Onamuchi), also identified with the Izumo kami Okuninushi, the leader of the earthly deities. In Kojiki (712) and Nihon shoki (720), the kami of Miwa emerges as the prototypical earthly deity, or as John Breen and Mark Teeuwen write in A New History of Shinto (p. 71): a violent force that the early Yamato kings struggled to control. In one story the Miwa kami transforms himself into a red arrow and impregnates a beautiful maiden while she is defecating in a ditch (before the advent of water closets riversides and ditches often served the purpose of natural toilets). The offspring resulting from this union with the arrow deity of Miwa became the wife of Jinmu, the mythical first emperor and fictional ancestor of the Yamato dynasty.

[The shrine stands in a quiet forest and is reached through an ancient type of torii: two posts between which a rope called shimenawa has been slung.]

In another tale, the land of Yamato was harassed by a dangerous epidemic and the kami of Miwa appeared in a dream to the then Emperor, the legendary Sujin. The deity declared that he was responsible for the disease and demanded that his spirit from then on be worshiped by a certain Otataneko. When this man was found and started venerating the Miwa kami, the disease was quelled. In fact, Otataneko was a mythical descendant of the Miwa kami, who - in another snake story - had entered the sleeping quarters of Otataneko's mother (Ikutamayori-hime) by way of the keyhole in the guise of snake.

And in one final story, Emperor Yuryaku dispatched one of his vassals of Korean background to seize the Miwa kami. The deity turned out to be a large snake, which cracked thunder at the emperor, forcing him to flee. So the kami of Miwa was a thunder (and rain) deity, who could appear in both human form and in the guise of a snake or arrow. Even today, the offerings at Miwa include not only sake but also raw eggs, because snakes are in Japanese folklore believed to love eggs.

[Ikuhi Jinja, dedicated to the mythical Takahashi Ikuhi,
the first ever Master Brewer (Toji) of Japan]

Otataneko was the ancestor of the priestly lineages of both Miwa, Kamo (the two Kamo shrines in Kyoto) and Hie (at the foot of Mt Hiei in Shiga). "In other words, they were part of an extensive network of intermarrying priestly lineages who controlled a category of earthly deities that threatened the heavenly rule of the Yamato kings with techniques that were at least in part of continental origin," is the conclusion of Breen/Teeuwen.

There existed already an important cult place at Mt Miwa in the Yayoi period (300 BCE - 250 CE); archaeological surveys have shown that offerings continued here until well into the 7th c. The 7th or 8th c. was probably the time that for the first time physical shrine buildings were set up, as happened around that time at many kami cult places in Japan inspired by Buddhist example. The Omiwa Shrine only has a Haiden (prayer hall) and no Shinden (main hall where the deity dwells), because Mt Miwa, right behind the shrine is regarded as the shintai of Omononushi. Behind the Haiden is a triple torii, this time (in contrast to torii in general) with gates (and a fence) which normally remain closed as the mountain is a so-called kinsokuchi or forbidden place. (There is one entrance at the nearby Sai Shrine where pilgrims identified as such and under strict conditions are allowed to follow a path to a rock formation at the summit of Mt Miwa). The present Haiden at Omiwa dates from 1664.

[Sacred cedars in the shrine grounds. Offerings include sake and eggs,
as a snake is said to live at the foot of the tree]

The above mentioned large keyhole-shaped burial mounds in the neighborhood of the mountain probably belong to the first "great kings" (okimi, the term tenno or emperor was only devised in the late 7th c.) of the Yamato lineage. They probably ruled in the second half of the third and in the fourth centuries CE and Sujin, as we saw credited with initiating the worship of Omononushi at Miwa, may have been the first of the line (his real name was Mimaki-iri-biko-inie no mikoto, "Sujin" is a Sinified name devised - as for all emperors - in the 8th c.; also note that the Nihon shoki adds a fabricated calendar pushing the reign back to the impossible dates of 97-30 BCE).

[Sai Jinja is dedicated to the healing aspect of the Miwa deity]

Like the Matsuo Shrine in Kyoto, Omiwa has deep connections with sake brewing: the brew was handed down to mankind by Omononushi, the deity of the shrine, and continues to be offered to him as a way of thanksgiving. In the Manyoshu, "umazake," "delicious sake," is employed as an epithet for the Omiwa Shrine, and the term "miwa" itself was used to designate sake in the past. The Omiwa Shrine holds an annual Sake Matsuri on November 14, when brewers come to pray for a successful brewing season. In contrast to Matsuo Taisha and the Umemiya Shrine in Kyoto, the link of Omiwa with sake is documented in written sources and it was also deeper than that of just a patron deity for the craft of brewing. Deity and sacred drink form a unity, the one is a manifestation of the other. One of the sub-shrines of Omiwa, Ikuhi Jinja, is dedicated to the mythical Takahashi Ikuhi, the first ever Master Brewer (Toji) of Japan. Several songs preserved in the Kojiki and Nihon shoki deny human agency but affirm divine responsibility (through the power of Omononushi, or alternatively, Sukunabikona) for successful sake brewing. The process of alcoholic fermentation must have been considered miraculous and sacred in antiquity. The song in the Nihon shoki occurs when Emperor Sujin has Otataneko worship Omononushi and for that event master brewer Ikuhi has to brew the sake. Ikuhi then sings the following song:

This sacred sake
Is not my sacred sake,
He who brought forth Yamato,
Omononushi,
He has brewed this sake,
Everlasting,
Everlasting.

[Sake brewery in Miwa - Imanishi Shuzo. The brand name is Mimurosugi, or "Cedar of Mimuro (Miwa)"]

Sake was seen as having regenerative powers, even healing ones. That is again connected to the Izumo myths in which Okuninushi figures a a creator deity, who creates the earth ("the land"). In this endeavor he is assisted by Sukunabikona, a dwarf or child deity who suddenly appears from over the sea. Sukunabikona is clearly a medicine god, who also is venerated in the Sukunabikona Shrine in the pharmaceutical quarter of Osaka. After his work is done, he again retreats to Tokoyo, the Land of Eternal Youth. In the grounds of the Sai Shrine (another sub-shrine) is a well with water to which medicinal properties are ascribed. There is here a clear link of sake with "the water of life."

Cedar twigs from the shrine forest of Omiwa are traditionally used to make sugidama (also called sakabayashi), globes of cedar twigs and needles hung under the eaves of sake breweries (and also the Haiden of the Omiwa Shrine) when the new brewing season starts. When the twigs turn brown, the new sake is ready for consumption.

[Otataneko Jinja (Wakamiya) - it is clear from the architecture that this hall was originally a Buddhist temple: the jinguji of Omiwa called Daigorinji]

The Omiwa Shrine was the most important cult place for the early Yamato court, but later it was superseded by the Ise Shrines. Also, when fixed capitals were set up in Nara (8th c.) and later Kyoto (from the end of the 8th c.) other powerful shrines came up in those areas and managed to get the attention of the court. A sort of apotheosis happened when in the early 9th c. the Hie Shrine in Sakamoto was sponsored (and brought under control) by Enryakuji, the Tendai temple complex on Mt Hiei; Omononushi, the kami of Miwa, was invited to this shrine, where he was paired with the mountain deity Oyamakui. Like all kami cult places, around that time also Omiwa was brought under the management of Buddhism and incorporated in a Buddhist worldview, where kami were seen as a sort of lesser avatars of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Several temples (jinguji) were built at Miwa, and remained in charge for about 1,000 years, until the end of the Edo-period.

The Meiji-government had a strict and entirely new policy of separating Buddhism from the kami cult (called euphemistically "clarification;" in fact, as Breen and Teeuwen stress, this was when "Shinto" was created [invented?] for the first time). The temples at Miwa were destroyed; one, Byodoji, was leveled completely, as it was a shugendo temple (the Meiji government particularly disliked the yamabushi priests); the other, Daigorinji, was turned into a sub-shrine (Otataneko Jinja) and here the Buddhist-style hall still survives. The main statue of Daigorinji was a magnificent Eleven-headed Kannon, which at the time of the separation in 1868-71, when countless Buddhist treasures were destroyed, was simply thrown into a ditch. There it was found by the priest of Shorinji, a small temple south of Sakurai, where it received a new home. The once discarded statue now even has the status of a National Treasure! (The main statue of Byodoji, a Fudo Myo-o, is now kept in a small temple near Hasedera).

Thanks to its ancient links with the imperial house, Omiwa Jinja was designated as a "state-funded great shrine" (kanpei taisha) from the Meiji-period until the end of WWII (meaning it was counted among the about 65 major shrines in Japan and its then colonies). Also today, the shrine stresses its link with the imperial family; a visit by the Showa Emperor unfortunately motivated it in 1986 to build a massive steel torii, which is an eyesore on the landscape. But the forested surroundings in which the shrine itself stands are beautiful and allow visitors to catch a whiff of the early kami cult and its strong connection to sake.

[Sources: Miwa - der heilige Trank, by Klaus Antoni (Stuttgart, 1988); Yamato/Kii Jiin Jinja Daijiten (Heibonsha, 1997); A New History of Shinto, by John Breen and Mark Teeuwen (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010); The Cambridge History of Japan, Volume I (Cambridge U.P., 1993); Kojiki, translated by Donald Philippi (University of Tokyo Press, 1968); Nihongi, translated by W.G. Aston (reprint Tuttle, 1985); Shinto Shrines, by Joseph Cali and John Dougill (Hawaii U.P., 2013)]

June 17, 2017

Sake from Kyoto Prefecture (Sake by Region)

Kyoto Prefecture is in volume the second sake producing prefecture in Japan (71,286kl or 16.0% - figures 2015) - after Hyogo (28.5%) and before Niigata (8.4%). That is thanks to the breweries in the southern part of Kyoto city, in Fushimi, which are good for 90% of the total output. There are 43 active breweries in the whole of Kyoto Prefecture, of which 23 in Fushimi (numbers based on membership of local Sake Brewers Association). Except for the huge, nationally operating Gekkeikan and Shochikubai (Takara Shuzo), these are mostly smaller breweries that have dedicated themselves to brewing premium sake.

Fushimi is in the first place famous for its excellent water: until the early Meiji-period, it was called "Fushimizu," alluding to the underground water (fusui) that flows down from nearby Mt. Momoyama and fills the wells of the district with delicate and mild water. That water is honored in the Gokonomiya Shrine ("Shrine of the Honorable Fragrance"), which according to legend was so named when in 861 fragrant water gushed up from a well that appeared in this area - the water even healed the sick.

[Old sake breweries in Fushimi along the Horikawa canal]

The sake brewed in Kyoto has always been of high quality - after all, it was destined to be consumed by such demanding customers as the imperial court and its nobles. Important technological innovations, such as the isolation of koji spores and use of a starter mash can also be written on the account of the brewers of the Old Capital. In the Middle Ages (Kamakura and Muromachi periods) there were hundreds and hundreds of small breweries in Kyoto - at that time, not in Fushimi, but in the city itself.

But in the Edo-period, Kyoto was superseded by Nada (as well as Itami and Ikeda) as a sake center. Conditions for large scale production were not good in the crowded inner city. That changed when in the Meiji-period (1867-1912) more and more sake producers started moving to the suburb of Fushimi where they found space, good water and better transport possibilities. Many of those breweries had a history going back to the 17th century.

From Fushimi, sake could be transported directly by rail to Tokyo, and this greatly boosted the industry. Another modern development was that Fushimi's breweries as Gekkeikan started to ship their sake in hygienic glass bottles instead of wooden vats (also making it impossible for shops to dilute the sake!) - you will find these early bottles on display in Gekkeikan's museum.

Thanks to the softness of the water, Fushimi's sake has been called "feminine," in contrast to Nada's hard water sake, which is more "masculine." Kyoto's sake has a soft, full and sweet taste (the sweetness comes from the soft water). It is delicate and graceful, as befits the Old Capital.

Besides Fushimi, there are three breweries located elsewhere in Kyoto City itself and one in Joyo.

A second large sake area is the northern part of Kyoto prefecture, such as Miyazu on the Japan sea coast, where you will find many small and relatively unknown breweries. Kyotango counts six breweries; Miyazu five; Fukuchiyama two; Kyotamba (incl. Kameoka) three. Not accidentally, there are also many good ports here - some of them were important as naval bases from the Meiji to early Showa periods. This is also the area where the Tango Toji came from, a small group of Kyoto-based brew masters.

As sake rice goes, the brand "Iwai" has been developed in the prefecture (already in 1933; cultivation stopped in 1974, but was revived in 1991) - it is low in proteins and helps make light sake, while the shinpaku is very large; also popular are Miyama-Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku.

[Sake vats in the Gokonomiya Shrine, Fushimi, Kyoto]

Some of the main breweries are (by region and in alphabetical order):

Kyoto City, Fushimi area:
  • Eikun (Saitoh Shuzo Co., Ltd., Kyoto). "Heroic decoration," the company selected this brand name at the ascension to the throne of the Taisho Emperor. Est. 1895. Has developed its own fragrant yeast. Uses underground spring water "Shiragikusui."  Iwai sake rice for ginjo sakes. Smooth texture. Other brand names: Koto Sennen, Izutsuya Ihei, Igin. 
  • Gekkeikan (Gekkeikan Sake Company, Ltd., Kyoto). "Laurel Wreath." Est. 1637. The company took its present, Western-sounding name in the Meiji-period. Its original brand name was Tama no Izumi, "Well of the Jewel." Gekkeikan is not only the second largest sake producer nationwide, but is also known for its technological innovations, such as being the first to use glass bottles in the Meiji-period. Was also the first, in the early sixties, to start brewing year round instead of only in winter. Besides six breweries in Japan, it also has facilities in California and Taiwan, plus exports to 60 countries. Gekkeikan started at an early time selling sake at railway stations. It also won prizes in the first national sake competitions (and still continues to do so, for besides ordinary sake it also makes good Daiginjo). Master brewers working in its factories come from such regions as Nanbu, Tajima and Hiroshima. In Fushimi, it has a beautiful museum, a mini-brewery "Gekkeikan Shukobo," and other impressive traditional buildings. These include an office now used as a shop/restaurant and the (closed) former residence of the Okura's. The old wooden buildings look particularly beautiful seen from over the Horikawa Canal which flows through Fushimi. Gekkeikan is still experimenting, such as with the bubbling "champagne-sake" called Zipang. Their top brand is Horin Junmai Daiginjo.
  • Kizakura (Kizakura Co., Ltd., Kyoto).  "Yellow Cherry Blossom." Est. 1925. Originally known for mass market sake, advertised with the help of images of naked, imbibing "kappa" imps, Kizakura started to brew Ginjo sakes in the mid-seventies and has since won the gold medal at the annual competition for new sakes. It is also putting effort into the Yamahai style. Kizakura operates three factories. Kizakura has set up "Kappa Country" in its old warehouses in Fushimi, featuring a gallery, a garden, a restaurant (with kikizake possibilities) and a well-stocked shop.
  • Momo no Shizuku (Matsumoto Sake Brewing Co., Ltd., Kyoto).  "Droplets from the Peach." Est. 1791 in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto, moved in 1923 to Fushimi. Other brand (for regular sake): Hinode Sakari, "Prime of Sunrise." Momo no Shizuku is a smooth, light pure-rice sake, of which the name is based on a haiku by Basho (and the fact that Momoyama in Fushimi in the Edo-period was indeed known for its peach forest). The traditional red brick warehouses of Matsumoto Shuzo, standing along the Takasegawa River, have been declared a special industrial heritage (especially beautiful in spring when the yellow rape flowers are blooming). One of the founders of the Pure Sake Association, a society that at an early time propagated the abolishment of adding alcohol to sake.
  • Shochikubai (Takara Shuzo Co., Ltd., Kyoto). "Pine, Bamboo and Plum," a traditional auspicious symbol in Japan (these "Three Friends of Winter" do not wither as the cold days deepen into winter, so they represent steadfastness and perseverance). Est. 1842. The third largest brewery in Japan. Known for brewing all manner of alcoholic products, including mirinshochu and chuhai. In 2001 established Shirakabegura in Kobe, a more traditional brewery for premium sake, where also kimoto sake is made, utilizing miyamizu water. Also known for its sparkling sake Mio. Opened a brewery in the U.S. (California) in 1982. 
  • Shoutoku (Shoutoku Brewery Co., Ltd., Kyoto). "Inviting Virtue." Postwar merger of four old companies, one, Kimuraya, going back to 1645. Started selling junmaishu (pure rice sake) in 1974 and founded the Pure Sake Association with Matsumoto Shuzo and Tama no Hikari. Has a large repertory of Junmai Ginjo's. All sakes make a quiet and elegant impression, which befits the Old Capital. Uses Kyoto's recently revived sake rice Iwai in its sake called "Kyo Iwai Mai."
  • Tama no Hikari (Tamanohikari Sake Brewing Co., Ltd., Kyoto). "Light of the Spirits" (the "spirits" are those of the deities Izanagi and Izanami of the historical Kumano Hayatama Shrine in Shingu, Wakayama) Est. 1673 in Wakayama. Relocated to Kyoto after WWII. One of the first companies to start making only pure-rice sake, already in 1959. Charming and sweet, this has been called a "quintessentially Kyoto sake." Specializes in full-flavored junmai ginjo's, using various types of sake rice, such as Omachi from Okayama (the brewery played an important role in reviving this strain of sake rice), Yamada Nishiki from Hyogo and Okuhomare from Fukui. Founding member of the Pure Sake Association. Exports to the U.S. and SE Asia. 
  • Tomio (Kitagawa Honke, Kyoto). "The Rich Sage" (from a Chinese saying that people with a rich mind will lead a happy life when they grow old). Other limited production brand: Anaze. Est 1657. Originally in the 17th c. an inn "Funaya" at the canals and rivers here; shipped its sake later by flat-bottomed boats over the Yodo River to Osaka and from there to Edo. Echizen toji. Mellow and sweetish taste, which goes well with Kyoto cuisine. 
  • Tsuki no Katsura (Masuda Tokubei Shoten Co., Ltd., Kyoto), "The Judas Tree in the Moon" (a Chinese legend). Est. 1675. This company specializes in nigori sake ("clouded" due to a sediment of rice and koji). Was also the first company to develop a sparkling nigori sake (through a second fermentation in the bottle) with the help of the famous Tokyo University Fermentation Professor Sakaguchi Kinichiro. Further makes an aged sake "Kohaku Hikari." Its (non-nigori) junmai ginjo "Heiankyo" is a long seller. Uses Iwai sake rice. A very individualistic company, located near the Toba Kaido in Fushimi. Exports to USA, Europe and SE Asia.
[Traditional red brick facade of Matsumoto Shuzo in Fushimi]

Kyoto (elsewhere):
  • Kagura (Matsui Shuzo, Kyoto) "Kura of the Gods." Est 1726. The only brewery left in the center of Kyoto, on the first floor of an apartment building near Demachiyanagi. Other brand names: Kyo-Chitose, Fuji-Chitose. Operates a shop in nice old premises.
  • Okina-Tsuru (Oishi Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., Kameoka) "Crane of the Old Sage." Going back to "Tarobei Sake Store" in the Genroku period in Edo times. Located in a rich rice-growing area, Tanba. Kameoka is an old castle town, linked to Kyoto via the scenic Hozu River. Toji from Tanba. Operates shop, tasting corner and exhibition space in Main Building of brewery. Also operates a sake store in front of Kameoka St. 
  • Shutendoji (Hakurei Brewing Co., Ltd., Miyazu)  "The Boy Drinking Sake," taken from a famous legend about a red ogre living on Mt. Oe. Est. 1832. Other brand names: Hakurei, "White Peak," after Yuragatake, a peak in the nearby Oe mountain range; and Kouden, "Fragrant Paddies." Established by Niiya Rokuemon of the Nakanishi clan, after obtaining a permit from the local daimyo. Uses fresh water from the Fudo no Taki waterfall, which flows down from the Oe mountain range. Brews with locally grown Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku rice, as well as Iwai rice. 
  • Tamagawa (Kinoshita Brewery, Kyotango) "Jewel River" Est. 1842. Full-flavored sake. Also makes Yamahai and Kimoto sakes (which it calls "spontaneous fermentation sakes"). Operates shop for visitors. This is the brewery where Philip Harper, author of The Book of Sake, is working.
  • Tanzan (Tanzan Shuzo, Kameoka) "Mt. Cinnaber" Est. 1882. Uses the same water source as Kameoka Castle. Cultivates its own sake rice.
[Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, Fushimi]

Sake Museums in Kyoto:
  • Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, old tools and Meiji-period advertisement materials, shown in a wooden sake warehouse built in 1909; if you make a reservation in advance, you can also see the 1906 Uchigura Sake Brewery, a mini-brewery.
  • The Horino Memorial Museum was the town house and brewery of the makers of Kinshi Masamune; the brewery moved to Fushimi, but the Machiya from 1781 remains as a museum. There are also a brewery making local beer and a restaurant.
  • Kizakura has a gallery showing drawings of the Kappa (river imps) used by the company in its advertising, plus some tools and information on sake brewing.
[Kizukara Kappaland in Fushimi]

Restaurants of Sake Breweries:
  • Torisei, the restaurant of the Shinsei brewery in Fushimi (est. 1677), with a menu mainly consisting of yakitori.
  • Kizakura Kappaland, also in Fushimi, offers various dishes in a large and spacious restaurant, with sets for sake tasting and also beer tasting (Kizakura also brews local beer). There is also an open courtyard where you can sit outside.
  • There are seven liquor shops in Fushimi selling local sake and one of them, Aburacho in the Otemon shopping arcade, also features a small bar (right in the shop!) where you can get sake tasting sets.
  • Fushimi Yume Hyakushu, the former head office of Gekkeikan built in 1919, is now a café. Tasting sets available of each brewery located in Fushimi. 
[Matsui Shuzo near Demachiyanagi, Kyoto]

Other Things To Do in Fushimi:
  • A boating tour on the Horikawa canal. Jukkokubune were boats to transport rice and sake, Sanjukkokubune served as passenger ferries on the canals between Fushimi and the Yodo River (all the way to Osaka). Between April and November, you can make a small ride on a modern copy of these boats through the Horikawa canal, along the beautiful wooden sake breweries, to where it enters the Yodo River, where the boats stop for a while so that passengers can visit a small museum.
  • The Gokonomiya Shrine is famous for the quality of its water.
  • The Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine has no connection with sake, but is famous for the tunnels of red torii gates leading up the mountain behind the shrine.
  • Last but not least (though not in Fushimi but in Arashiyama), note that Kyoto is also home to the foremost shrine associated with sake brewing, Matsuo Taisha. In many sake breweries you will find a small altar dedicated to Matsuo-san. Read my article about Matsuo Taisha
[Matsuo taisha]

Association of Sake Breweries in Fushimi
Association of Sake Breweries in Kyoto City (except Fushimi)
Kyoto Prefecture Sake Brewers Association
When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation.
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
Reference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).
The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.

June 8, 2017

Okera mairi (Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto)

The Yasaka Shrine on the eastern edge of Kyoto plays an important role in the cultural life of the old capital, now and in the past. In July it organizes Kyoto's largest festival, the Gion Matsuri, and and top of that it is one of the most popular destinations for a New Year shrine visit (hatsumode). It also gave rise to the large pleasure quarter at its gates, catering to native townsmen and visitors from all over the country, of which the elegant Gion geisha quarters still form a vivid testimony.

The Yasaka Shrine is also the location of an interesting observance that already starts on New Year's eve and continues throughout the night: okera mairi. People come to the shrine to light a length of straw rope at a ritually pure fire to which okera plants have been added. Okera is a herb used in Chinese medicine (it is related to the chrysanthemum) and is believed to help against stomach trouble. It is burned in the New Year fires of the shrine because it keeps the air dry and pure. The slow-burning straw ropes, by the way, are sold by vendors in the shrine grounds for rather inflated prices (700 yen).

[The holy fire]

The Yasaka Shrine is a 24 hours affair even on ordinary days. Its large red Romon gate, that is turned towards Shijodori as if in a welcoming gesture, is open also at night and in fact, after dark, when the lanterns on the Kagura platform are lighted, the shrine is at its best. So too, on Omisoka, New Year's Eve, when the grounds are literally ablaze with light.

We carry our rope to the lanterns where the okera is burned together with gomagi, oblong wooden tablets on which wishes have been written (in fact, a Buddhist custom - the shrine used to be half Buddhist in the past as also its name Gion testifies - Gion is the name of the first Buddhist temple set up in India, already during the lifetime of the Buddha).

[Lighting the rope in the holy fire]

Traditionally, the flame was taken home to light the first hearth fire in the New Year, but that is not very practical anymore in this modern age of electric stoves and automatic gas burners. Still, people walk around gaily twirling the ropes to keep the sacred flame alive and for a while, we join the crowds, swinging the rope so that its burning end makes red circles in the night air.

It helps that we have come early, there are no lines, there is no danger to set each other afire. From 12:00 the main gates which have been temporarily shut, will open to let in the masses, and then the shrine grounds will become one-way traffic from Shijodori to Maruyama Park.

[The shrine is prepared for New Year with a fresh supply of amulets and other religious goods. Note the shinya, hanging down from under the eaves, the holy arrows that people come to buy for decorating in their homes]

It is clear that the shrine has prepared itself carefully for the coming onslaught of the masses. There are more booths than usual, all loaded to the brim with fresh supplies of amulets and holy arrows. The shrine maidens (mostly part-timers, I guess) sit primly ready in their neat costumes. This is the largest income generating event in the whole year for shrines and temples and nobody takes it lightly. New Year is when the whole of Japan stocks up on luck.

Having obtained our fire, we walk back, into the park, past the many small stalls selling everything edible conceivable, huge sausages, squid on a stick, toffee apples, octopus balls, yakisoba, sweet sake, and even Kitty candyfloss. The red and white of the stalls and the many lanterns create a magic atmosphere.

Before going down the steps for the subway at Higashiyama station, we remember at the last moment: better to extinguish our holy fire before boarding.

June 4, 2017

Sake from Hyogo Prefecture (Sake by Region)

The largest sake producing area in the whole of Japan can be found in Hyogo Prefecture, at the seaside of Nishinomiya and in the eastern part of Kobe. This area is called "Nada" and as there are five sake producing districts, one speaks about the "Five Nada Districts" (Nada Gogo). From east to west these are: Imazu, Nishinomiya, Uozaki, Mikage and Nishi.

[Miyamizu wells in Nishinomiya]

There are about 26 breweries in Nada. The first brewer, Zakoya Bunzaemon, moved from Itami to Nishinomiya in the Kanei-period (1624-43). Gradually more followed and the Nada Five Districts came to prominence about 200 years ago in the Edo-period (1600-1867), thanks to the following factors:
  • Technical: the use of water mills to polish the rice used for making sake (other breweries in Japan at that time still milled by human effort, by men stepping on levers) - this in turn was possible thanks to the water power offered by small rivers as the Shukugawa, Ashiyagawa and Sumiyoshigawa, flowing down from the steep Rokko mountains to the sea. Moreover, while milling by human power could only remove up to 8% of the husk and bran, the water mills could take off 20%, reaching a rice-polishing ratio of 80%, which resulted in a better and clearer taste.
  • Nature: the cold wind blowing down from Mt Rokko in winter called "Rokko-Oroshi" created excellent brewing conditions (cold weather helps slow the fermentation process and keeps unwanted micro-organisms away). The breweries therefore built elongated structures stretching east to west with windows in the north wall to allow as much of this freezing air as possible into the brewery.
  • Logistics: from the coast with its many ports, the sake could easily be shipped to Edo (now Tokyo); the sake was shipped on Taru Kaisen, boat services exclusively for sake casks. Vessels could carry 3,000 casks and took 20 days to reach Edo. The main port for Nada was Imazu, where the Ozeki Brewery built a lighthouse.
  • Water: in 1840 "miyamizu" was discovered by Yamamura Tazaemon, the water from certain wells in Nishinomiya that thanks to its high mineral composition (and lack of iron!) proved eminently suitable for sake brewing (it contains phosporic acid, but also potassium and magnesium - three elements that help the yeast and make the brewing process quicker). The story about Tazaemon goes as follows: he was active in breweries in both Nishinomiya and Uozaki and one day noticed that the taste of the sake made in these two locations was markedly different - the one from Nishinomiya being much more tasty. Tazaemon closely monitored the brewing process and ingredients on both locations and came to the conclusion that the difference had to be ascribed to the water. In other words: the Nishinomiya water was particularly suitable for sake brewing. Later the name "Nishinomiya water" was shortened to "Miya water," - our miyamizu (Nishinomiya is named after its Shinto shrine, the "Western Shrine" dedicated to the deity Ebisu; miya means shine or palace and is therefore auspicious in meaning). The water is transported by tank lorries to the various breweries - the largest ones have their own wells. 
  • Rice: the availability of excellent sake rice in the area north of the Rokko mountains and the early introduction of the system of contracting farmers and fields, ensuring a stable production. In 1936, the famous Yamada Nishiki strain of sake rice with its large-sized grains full of starch was cultivated by crossing various other strains. 
  • Skills:The toji or brewmasters from Tanba (from the area around Tsuchiyama) are nationally famous for their brewing skills; they are known for their dry and strong sake. In the north of the prefecture one also finds the Tajima brewmasters.
Although eight of the fourteen largest brewers in Japan are located in Nada (these are the companies whose mainstay is regular sake, sold in paper packs or glass cups), you will also find plenty of small brewers specialized in high-quality products.

The sake from Hyogo usually tastes strong and dry - it has been called "masculine," otokozake, especially when consumed in spring before storage, when it has a strong bite and deep flavor. During the summer storage, it mellows and is therefore called akibare or "Clear Autumn Sky" when drunk in autumn. Anyway, it is a full and solid rather than fruity sake - quite a contrast with the sake from nearby Kyoto.

The most famous sake rice (shuzo kotekimai) of Hyogo is of course the expensive top-brand "Yamada Nishiki" developed in the prefecture by crossbreeding in the thirties of the last century (in fact, first in 1923, by crossing Yamadaho and Tankanwataribune; the present name was given the rice in 1936). It is now used nationwide for brewing premium sake. It has a large, lustrous white kernel and absorbs water extremely well. It is superbly fit for making koji rice. Although now also cultivated in other prefectures, the best Yamada Nishiki comes from Hyogo, which is good for 80% of total production. In Hyogo, the very best Yamada Nishiki ("special A grade") is cultivated in Miki and Kato, in the mountains north of Kobe. Other sake rice brands from the prefecture are "Hyogo Kita Nishiki" and "Hyogo Yume Nishiki."

Number of active breweries (Hyogo Sake Brewers Association website): about 74 (based on membership of local Sake Brewers Association; there are also a few non-members)

Taste: Dry, strong, with a certain amount of acidity.

Production: 126,747kl in 2015 (28.5% of nationwide production)

[Hama Fukutsuru Meijo]

Examples of Breweries (some of the major ones with websites; first the name of the brewery is given, then between brackets the year of founding and the name of the major brand - which is often different from the name of the brewery!):

The foremost sake region in Hyogo one consists of the "Five Nada districts:"

Nada: Uozaki district:
  • Hama Fukutsuru Meijo (1950; Hama Fukutsuru、”Crane of Good Fortune on the Beach") - Specializes in high-quality ginjo and daiginjo sake, concentrating on fresh and fruity (unpasteurized) namazake. The modern brewery is always open to visitors (through glass). Close to Uozaki Station (Hanshin and Rokko Liner).

  • Sakura Masamune (1717; Sakura Masamune, "Cherryblossom Masamune") - Concentrates on junmai and ginjo type quality sake. Brewery restaurant and shop "Sakura-en." Yamamura Tazaemon of this brewery discovered the famous "miyamizu" in 1840. Company developed the first Association Yeast in 1905. In 2009 Sakura Masamune acquired the fine Taki no Koi brand when Taki no Koi (Kimura Shuzo, originally est. in 1758) had to close down. By the way, the Yamamura family also built the wonderful Yamamura Residence in Ashiyagawa, the only private residence in Japan designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
[Kikumasamune Shuzo]

Nada: Mikage district:
  • Hakutsuru Shuzo (1743; Hakutsuru, "White Crane") - the largest brewery in Japan. Set up in 1734 by lumber dealer Kano Jihei. English website, brewery museum and (elsewhere in Mikage) a great art museum, with especially Chinese antiquities, set up in 1934 by the 7th owner of the brewery. Set up U.S. factory in 2005. Rather light taste compared to other Nada breweries.

  • Kenbishi Shuzo (1505 or earlier; Kenbishi, "Sword and Diamond") is the oldest sake brand name in Japan. The logo combines the tip of a sword and a diamond shape. The company was originally located in Itami, and moved to its present Kobe location well into the 20th c. Produces a deep-flavored (but dry) sake by cultivating an excellent "sohaze" koji in small trays, using the Yamahai method for the yeast starter, and brewing the main mash at low temperatures during 30 days. Also uses its own strain of koji, proprietary yeast and its own brewing rice called Aiyama. Kenbishi has been called "the real Nada taste." The company is rather secretive about its production methods and allows no brewery visits. Ranks no. 14 in size nationwide.

  • Kikumasamune Shuzo (1659; Kikumasamune, "Chrysanthemum Masamune") - the 9th largest brewery in Japan. Set up 1659 by the Kano family. Already exported sake to the U.K. in 1877. Was one the first of the Big Breweries to stop adding sugar in 1981; upgraded all products to the Honjozo grade in 1988. Large and informative English website; interesting museum with traditional tools (Kikumasamune Shuzo Kinenkan, arguably the best brewery museum in Kobe). Dry-tasting sake, representative of Nada.

  • Kobe Shushinkan (1751; Fukuju, abbreviation for Fukurokuju, one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune) Small brewery making exclusively handcrafted quality sake, sold under the brandname Fukuju. Toji from Tajima. English website. Brewery visit possible (on appointment, see website). The brewery, which was completely rebuilt after the 1995 earthquake, also operates an excellent restaurant, Sakabayashi, where home-made tofu is served. There is also a large shop.

[Sawanotsuru]

Nada: Nishi district:
  • Sawanotsuru (1717; Sawanotsuru, "Crane of the Marsh") - ranks no 13 in size. Operates a small but nice brewery museum "Mukashi no Shuzo" (a replica of the original kura building that was destroyed in the 1995 earthquake). Was one of the first Nada brewers to start producing ginjo sakes. Also has developed some deep-tasting products as a Kimoto Junmai sake and an Koshu "aged" sake. Other products are dry according to the Nada taste.
[Cart to transport Miyamizu water
in Hakushika Brewery Museum]

Nada: Nishinomiya
  • Hakutaka (1862; Hakutaka, "White Hawk" - a sacred bird which only appears once every thousand years) - Has always put quality above quantity. Washes the vats for its Taruzake (sake kept in vats for the typical wood taste) with sake instead of water. Strives after a powerful taste by using the Kimoto method. Also uses the finest Yamada Nishiki rice. Brewery tours possible upon reservation. Hakutaka Rokusuien is a copy of the Edo-period merchant house of the brewery's founder, Tatsuuma Etsuzo, and includes a souvenir shop, Japanese restaurant, bar, multi-purpose hall and tea ceremony room. In addition, there are exhibition rooms for traditional brewing tools (7 min south on foot from Nishinomiya St on the Hanshin line). Also operates the small Tatsuuma Art Museum dedicated to archaeology (near Koroen Station on the Hanshin Line). 

  • Nihonsakari (1889; Nihonsakari, "Prime of Japan"). Set up by a group of twelve young entrepreneurs. No 6 in size. one of its products is a "green pack" sake with a reduced sugar content. Has also developed a new koji with a large amount of inositol, a vitamin good for the liver fucntion ("Kenjo").

  • Tatsuuma Honke Shuzo (1662; Hakushika, White Deer") - English website. One of Japan's largest brands (No 12 in size), made its foreign appearance already in 1889 at the Paris Exposition. The name ”White Deer” goes back to an old Chinese legend; also Jurojin, one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, is always depicted as accompanied by a white deer. A smooth and lively sake. Art museum (with many Jurojin and deer images!) as well brewery museum (rebuilt after the 1995 earthquake), both in Nishinomiya, 10 min walk south of the Hanshin Station. The Tatsuuma founding family has played the role of maecenas in Nishinomiya as well.
[The Nishinomiya Shrine, dedicated to Ebisu,
is popular among the sake brewers of the region]

Nada: Imazu (plus non-Nada Itami):
  • Ozeki (1711; Ozeki, - Ozeki is a top sumo-rank). No 4 in size in Japan. In the Edo-period, their sake was called Manryo and very popular in Edo. Name change in 1889 to what then was the highest rank in sumo (unfortunately, later an even higher rank, Yokozuna, was added!). In 1924, Ozeki opened the first bottling plant in Japan. Introduced sake sold in glasses from vending machines in 1964, for the Tokyo Olympic Games, under the brandname "One Cup Ozeki." Already in 1979 set up factory in the U.S. Known for its marketing power. Has its own sake research center.

  • Konishi Shuzo (1550; Shirayuki, "White Snow" - referring to snow on Mt Fuji, as seen by the brewery owner in 1635 as his ship transporting sake to Edo passed the Fuji) - English website; also importer of Belgian beer and Californian wine; producer of local beer. Brewery restaurant and shop. Ranks as no. 10 in size. Only sake brewery left in Itami (in the Edo-period most breweries moved from Itami to Nada because of the better logistical conditions). Sake is softer and less dry than Nada sakes.
As regards sake producing areas in Hyogo apart from Nada, west from Kobe, in Akashi and Himeji (Inland Sea Coast west of Kobe), you will find some excellent breweries:
  • Akashi Hakko Kogyo (1919; Akashi Tai, "Bream of Akashi") - In the port town of Akashi, west of Kobe. English website. Also makes shochu, mirin and umeshu. Named after the tai (sea bream) caught off the coast of Akashi, where the company is located. Robust and full-bodied.

  • Eigashima Shuzo (1679; Kamitaka, "Divine Hawk") - Also in Akashi. Brewery and museum can be visited on weekdays, on appointment. There are seven traditional kura, the oldest dating from 1889. This company also makes whiskey ("White Oak"), and owns a winery in Yamanashi Prefecture ("Charman Wine"). Sake is very dry, master brewer from Tamba. 

  • Honda Shoten (1921; Tatsuriki, "Dragon Power" and also the Japanese designation for Nagarjuna, one of the Indian founders of Esoteric Buddhism) - In the famous castle town of Himeji, west of Kobe. Established by the then master brewer of Hakutsuru. Junmaishu and junmai ginjos made from the highest grade Yamada Nishiki rice (from the Akitsu region around the town of Tojo, where the company has contracted many farmers). The brewery draws pure underflow water more than 100 meters beneath the Ibo River. Full-flavored, rich sake. Daiginjos make up one third of Tatsuriki's production.

  • Yaegaki Shuzo (1666; Mu, "Nothingness", Yaegaki, "Eightfold Fence") - Also from Himeji. The brewery takes its name "Eightfold Fence" from a famous poem in the Kojiki, Japan's oldest extant chronicle. Uses underflow water from the Hayashidagawa River in Himeji, fed upstream by the Shikagatsubo waterfall. Uses Yamahai method, makes very good junmai sakes. Hand production, also of koji (with small boxes). Factory in the U.S. since 1987.
[Miyamizu monument in Nishinomiya]

Inland sake producing areas as Tanba and Tajima:
  • Homei Shuzo (1797; Homei, "The Call of the fenix" ). In the historical town of Tanba Sasayama. Their brewery, the 200-year old Horoyoi Jokagura, can be visited.

  • Kasumitsuru (1725; Kasumitsuru, "Crane from Kasumi") - English website. Located in the town of Kami, on the scenic Japan Sea Coast, one of the leading fishing ports for snow crab; also close to famous Kinosaki Onsen. Full-tasting sake made according to the Kimoto or Yamahai methods, very different in taste from the dry Nada sakes. Makes well-balanced ginjo's, but also keeps making regular sake for the local population.

  • Nishiyama Shuzojo (1849; Kotsuzumi, "Small Hand-drum") - Located in Tanba City, near Tanba Takeda Station on the JR Fukuchiyama Line. Brewery visit on appointment, Feb and March. Uses soft water from a well in the brewery. Delicate sake, different from the usual Hyogo sake. Company uses interesting and fun labels and bottles, well-coordinated. Artistic is also the family of the owner - for three generations they are haiku poets in the tradition of Takahama Kyoshi (who also devised the brandname "Kotsuzumi"). Uses Association Yeast No. 10 for all its products, resulting in soft taste with little sourness. All koji made by hand. Sake rice is Hyogo Kita Nishiki.
Hyogo Brewing Association Alliance Society
Nada Gogo Brewers Association
When planning a brewery visit, check in advance whether the brewery accepts visitors and whether it is open on the day and time you plan to go, especially if a long trip is necessary to get there (see the brewery's website for tel. no or mail address). Note that brewery tours, if available, always have to be booked in advance. Many breweries, however, do not allow visitors in their production area, or only in certain seasons / for certain sizes of groups. In contrast, if a sake museum or brewery shop is present, this is usually open without reservation.
Sake by Region:
Hokkaido/Tohoku: Hokkaido - Aomori - Akita - Iwate - Miyagi - Yamagata - Fukushima
Kanto area: Ibaraki - Tochigi - Gunma - Saitama - Chiba - Tokyo - Kanagawa
Hokushinetsu: Yamanashi - Nagano - Niigata - Toyama - Ichikawa - Fukui
Tokai area: Shizuoka - Aichi - Gifu - Mie
Kansai area: Shiga - Kyoto - Osaka - Hyogo - Nara - Wakayama
Chugoku area: Tottori - Shimane - Okayama - Hiroshima - Yamaguchi
Shikoku: Tokushima - Kagawa - Ehime - Kochi
Kyushu/Okinawa: Fukuoka - Saga - Nagasaki - Kumamoto - Oita - Miyazaki / Kagoshima / Okinawa
Reference materials: Kikisakeshi Koshukai Tekisuto by Sake Service Institute (Tokyo, 2009); Nihonshu no kyokasho by Kimura Katsumi (Shinsei Shuppansha: Tokyo, 2010); Nihonshu no Tekisuto (2): Sanchi no Tokucho to Tsukuritetachi by Matsuzaki Haruo (Doyukan, 2005); The Book of Sake by Philip Harper (Kodansha International: Tokyo, New York, London, 2006); The Sake Companion by John Gauntner (Running Press: Philadelphia & London, 2000); The Sake Selection by Akiko Tomoda (Gap Japan: Tokyo, 2009).
The blog author Ad Blankestijn works for the Daishichi Sake Brewery and is an accredited sake sommelier and sake instructor. He also hosts independent sake seminars to propagate knowledge about his favorite drink. The above text reflects his personal opinion.

June 2, 2017

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 25 (Fujiwara no Sadakata)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 25

na ni shi owaba
Osakayama no
sanekazura
hito ni shirarede
kuru yoshi mo gana

名にしおはば
逢坂山の
さねかづら
人にしられで
くるよしもがな

If its name is true,
"come sleep vine" of "Meeting Slope Hill,"
isn't there some way
without anyone knowing
that it can reel me in to you?

Fujiwara no Sadakata (873–932)

"Osakayama" does not refer to Osaka, but points again at the "Ausaka" or "Meeting Slope" on the highway between present-day Kyoto and Otsu, which also figures prominently in poem 10.

[Marker of "Meeting Slope"]

Sanekazura is a specific Japanese plant, "Kadsura Japonica." It has deep green, glossy leaves and is cultivated as an ornamental plant in gardens. Extract from this plant is also used for traditional Japanese washi paper making. In our poem only its rope-like quality is alluded to, its ability to "pull" the poet towards his beloved. There is however a second sly allusion here: the name of the plant starts with the elements "sa ne" which can also mean "come, sleep!," so this becomes a rather open declaration of the poet's intention.

"Kuru" in the last line means "to come," but is a homonym with another kuru which means "to reel in."

There is a head-note attached to the poem which reads "Sent to a woman's house." It was usual to attach poems sent to others to some object, as a flower, and in this case the poem was probably attached to an actual piece of the Kadsura Japonica vine.

Although some commentators / translators interpret the last line in the sense that it is the poet who is "reeling in" his beloved, like a vine, in the actual Heian situation that was impossible. As we saw in earlier poems, women of status kept separate residences where they were visited not only by lovers, but even by their husbands; aristocratic women were quite immobile and never left their houses, certainly not for trysts - the only exception were pilgrimages to Kannon temples.

Fujiwara no Sadakata, also known as Sanjo Udaijin or Sanjo Minister of the Right, was the son of Fujiwara no Takafuji, and the cousin and father-in-law of Fujiwara no Kanesuke (poem 27). His son Asatada was also a poet (see poem 44).

References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994).