Sake circle raises a glass for Tohoku victims

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

A buzzy atmosphere of excitement hung in the air as sake fans lined up for the Wa ni Naro Nihonshu charity sake tasting last Friday afternoon. As attendees streamed through the front doors of Tokyo Dome City’s vast Prism Hall, gasps of astonishment mingled with the spirited rhythms of live taiko drumming that signaled the start of the event.

Inside was a sake lover’s dream come true: The nearly 3,000 sq. meter hall was filled with long rows of booths offering samples of sake, wine and shōchū from all of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

“This is my first time at a sake tasting, and I’m a little overwhelmed,” laughed one young woman, who had come with a group of three friends.

The event purports to be the largest of its kind to ever take place in Tokyo: an ambitious gathering of more than 180 sake brewers, who had come together in solidarity to raise money for victims of March’s earthquake and tsunami and to spread awareness of the issues facing breweries in the disaster-stricken northeast. The name Wa ni Naro translates as Let’s Form a Circle.

Things weren’t too rosy even before March’s catastrophe. According to a survey published by the National Tax Agency this year, a shocking 61 percent of Japan’s roughly 1,600 breweries reported little or no profit in 2010. As Wa ni Naro Nihonshu committee chairman Satoshi Kimijima pointed out, losses incurred as a result of the triple disaster could leave some Tohoku-region producers in a precarious position. “The breweries themselves and, by extension, the traditional culture we Japanese are so proud of stand on the edge of a precipice,” he warned.

Costs of hiring the venue and supplying alcohol were borne by the participating producers; all of the proceeds from tickets, which were priced ¥3,500/4,000, were to be donated to breweries struggling to rebuild in Tohoku, the Japanese Red Cross Society and Ashinaga, an organization that provides support for children who have been affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

With literally hundreds of varieties of sake on display, it would have been impossible to taste all of the brews at Wa ni Naro Nihonshu, but that wasn’t the point. The significance of the event’s scale lay in its symbolic implications. Although the sake business in Japan is relatively small, like many artisanal industries, it remains somewhat fragmented. It’s rare to find this many brewers together under the same roof and, as industry insider Etsuko Nakamura commented, seeing so many of the brewers themselves — rather than the temp staff frequently hired to pour at Tokyo tastings — was particularly heartening. “A lot of these brewers traveled from far away, and it was great to be able to talk to them face to face,” she says.

But perhaps even more surprising was the fact that the event also included shōchū and Japanese wine producers, bringing the total number of featured brewers to 195.

“Although the main focus is sake, the problems of brewers and those in the alcohol business in Tohoku touch everyone in the industry,” Kimijima explained.

“The name of the event, Wa ni Narou Nihonshu, actually refers not only to sake, but all Japanese liquor,” he said, noting that although “nihonshu” is typically used to mean sake, the word literally means “Japanese alcohol.”

Widely respected throughout the world of sake and wine, Kimijima, who owns two restaurants in Tokyo and the wine and sake store Yokohama Kimijimaya in Minamiyoshidamachi, was largely responsible for reaching out to the producers, after being approached by izakaya (Japanese-style pub) owner Ken Hanaoka, who had led a month-long charity drive involving 50 Tokyo bars and liquor shops that raised over ¥1 million for disaster victims last April.

For the past three years, Hanaoka has staged sake-industry charity events for children in need, called Sake Mirai wo Suku, and he came up with the idea to hold a fundraiser for Tohoku that would combine a physical event with donation opportunities at businesses around the country.

The massive tasting at Tokyo Dome on Sept. 23 was only half of the plan. The Wa ni Naro Nihonshu committee also rallied support from more than 210 restaurants and retailers in 13 prefectures, which pledged to donate a portion of their liquor sales to the cause on Sept. 24.

Despite the heavy theme of the event, the atmosphere was far from somber. A lineup of 10 musical acts — including Kimijima’s own sake-inspired rock band, Mystic Waters — performed on a stage throughout the day. In one corner of the venue, enthusiastic sake fans posed with their favorite brews in front of a white background, as a professional photographer snapped away. The tasting attracted around 1,500 attendees, and brewers were delighted to find that the crowd included a surprising number of young people.

“It was so good to talk to the people from Suminoe (a brewery in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, that was flooded by the tsunami), to see that they’re safe and even starting to brew sake again,” one woman remarked.

As the first session of the event came to a close, a circle of well-wishers gathered around Koichi Saura, president of Saura Shuzo in Miyagi Prefecture. Saura’s brewery was inundated with waist-high waves that crumbled the earthen walls of one of original buildings and ruined 30,000 bottles of sake. But he says that his brewery, and the city of Shiogama where the brewery is located, are recovering gradually, thanks in part to donations that have come in from people all over Japan and around the world. Saura himself will be donating some of the profit from each bottle of Urakasumi sake sold this year to local rebuilding efforts.

“There’s a warm feeling and sympathy that exists among those in the sake industry and consumers,” he concludes. “This could be a chance for the industry to come together and work closely with people in the affected areas. After all, we have a deep relationship and a long history.”

Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. Her blog, Tokyo Through the Drinking Glass, can be found at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com.