Tohoku brewers: ‘Drink without restraint!’

by Melinda Joe

Last weekend, fifth-generation sake brewery owner Kosuke Kuji of Nanbu Bijin delivered an earnest plea to the public on behalf of sake producers in the Tohoku region: “We’d be sincerely grateful if people would continue to have hanami parties (this year).”

In response to Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara’s call for jishuku (self-restraint), which has led to the cancellation of official hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) celebrations in more than half of the city’s 79 parks over the coming weeks, Kuji launched a video campaign on YouTube under the moniker Hana Sake! Nihon no Kai (Flower Sake! Association of Japan) to encourage people to hold the parties as usual. Cutting back on the festivities, he explained, would threaten to “bring a second wave of economic hardship” to the sake industry in Tohoku, which has sustained substantial losses as a result of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Most of the 100 breweries in the hard-hit areas of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures suffered structural damage ranging from cracked walls to crumbled roofs. Some breweries, such as Suisen Brewery in Iwate Prefecture, were completely destroyed. Moreover, several tons of sake and rice were lost as storage and fermentation tanks were toppled and bottles smashed. Power cuts and gasoline shortages have also caused disruptions in distribution, triggering a further loss of sales.

Those in the sake world had started feeling nervous after advertisements for alcohol disappeared from the trains and on TV. After learning that many parks and companies were planning to cancel their hanami parties, which are a traditional annual celebration and an important source of revenue for the sake industry, Tohoku brewers exhorted consumers to eat and drink products from northeastern Japan.

“Supporting sake in these hard times is the right thing to do,” says Etsuko Nakamura, who leads tours of sake breweries in Akita Prefecture. “Stopping (the spring festivities) would take away the little signs of recovery that we’re starting to see in Tokyo.”

Nakamura has already held one cherry-blossom viewing party this week and is considering hosting an event that would showcase sake from Tohoku and raise funds to support the industry.

Although stocks have run low at some government-run shops selling goods from Tohoku, there are plenty of places in Tokyo where you can buy sake from northeastern Japan. Department stores such as Isetan and Tobu regularly carry well-known brands such as Urakasumi from Miyagi Prefecture and Daishichi from Fukushima Prefecture.

Hasegawa-saketen, which operates four retail shops and an izakaya (Japanese-style pub) in central Tokyo, stocks a wide selection of Tohoku sake, including Nanbu Bijin (Iwate), Katsuyama (Miyagi) and Aizu Chujo (Fukushima). Sake specialty shop Mitsuya in Nishi-Ogikubo sells Hitakami and Suminoe, both from the severely affected city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in addition to a number of terrific brews from smaller producers such as Tsukinowa (Iwate) and Kokken, Suehiro and Tenmei (Fukushima). At Suzuki Mikawa, you can get hard-to-find brands such as Yamawa and Kenkonichi from Miyagi, and Hiroki and Shizenshu from Fukushima.

Nakamura points out that drinking sake from any region in Japan would give the industry a much-needed boost. “Even in areas where there was no direct damage,” she says, “the (brewers) are still going through so much.”

For videos in the Hana Sake! Nihon no Kai campaign, visit www.youtube.com/userHanaSakeNippon.

Sake stockists

Hasegawa-saketen:
www.hasegawasaketen.com
Mitsuya Sake Shop: 2-28-15
Nishi-Ogikubo Minami, Suginami-ku,
Tokyo; (03) 3334-7447
Suzuki Mikawa: www.mikawa-ya.co.jp