Pinch of magic revives traditional ‘koji’ maker

Centuries-old family business ferments taste success of past

by Shinichi Ogata

Kyodo

Close to calling it quits six years ago after more than 320 years in business, a small producer and retailer of “koji” in Saiki, Oita Prefecture, is now thriving thanks to a flood of orders for a “magical ingredient” — a salted (“shio”) version of the traditional fermented seasoning made from rice malt.

Used for centuries in Japan to produce healthy fermented food products such as soy sauce and miso, the use of koji has been on the decline as a result of changes in the Japanese diet.

According to government data, the per capita consumption of miso plunged to 2,016 grams in 2011 from 3,960 grams in 1970 and that of soy sauce fell to 6.5 liters from more than 10 liters.

Plummeting demand for koji dealt a near fatal blow to Kojiya Honten, forcing 88-year-old Koichi Asari, the eighth owner of the store, to seriously consider pulling the plug on the business.

Asari’s eldest daughter, Myoho, 60, strove to turn the family business around as the ninth owner but everything she tried failed, such as selling other products like shaved ice.

After graduating from a junior college in Tokyo, Myoho returned home and married Shingan, now 57, when she was 25 years old. While raising three boys and two girls, Myoho ran the store and taught at a neighborhood cram school.

The family lived a hardscrabble life. Unable to buy meat for curry with rice, a favorite of children, Myoho used deep-fried bean curd and “konnyaku” (devil’s tongue) instead. “We are pretending to be a poor family,” she told her children.

When one of her kids complained, Myoho replied: “The longer (you play-act), the more you can enjoy it.”

Myoho opened a website for Kojiya Honten in 2005 but saw no increase in orders. When Koichi fell ill in 2007 and began considering closing the shop, Myoho’s second son, Ryotoku, 29, said he wanted to take over the business.

While at a university, Ryotoku befriended some foreign students and thought he would like to “offer the goodness of Japan to the rest of the world.” He then recognized koji as such a thing that Japan can boast of.

Ryotoku changed his course of study to zymology, or fermentation science.

Ryotoku’s offer to take over Kojiya Honten surprised and inspired Myoho, who felt she needed to give him a head start.

While desperately trying to revive the family business, Myoho came across the term “shio koji zuke” (pickled with shio koji) in a book from the Edo Period (1603-1868).

Taking cues from the book, Myoho developed easy-to-use seasonings combining koji, salt and water.

As the popularity of the seasonings grew, Myoho began to be invited to cooking seminars across Japan, where she attracted followers with her natural smile. Bookstores began to feature books on shio koji, while television stations and magazine publishers covered it as well.

As a result, Kojiya Honten was flooded with orders for shio koji.

Instead of starting the fermentation process twice a month, as they did before the nationwide boom, they had to do it almost every day to keep up with orders.

People should make use of the things mastered by their ancestors, and add new twists to make them suitable to current needs, according to Myoho.

“I recognized that I should discover new things from the treasures of everyday life in the past,” Myoho said.

Myoho and Shingan went overseas last year hoping to “make people happy with tasty foods,” she said.

The couple visited Italy, the birthplace of the slow food movement, in May and New York in July.

The following month, they flew to Paraguay, where their oldest son, Joei, 30, works as a nurse dispatched by the Japan International Cooperation Agency. In October, they visited Germany and Belgium to pave the way for establishing European outlets.

Myoho and Shingan grew convinced their “magical ingredient” could gain acceptance worldwide when they saw the surprise in people’s faces at the sudden improvement in the taste of basic foods such as meat and sausages when seasoned with shio koji.

Despite the growing popularity of shio koji, Kojiya Honten “will not become a company but remain a family business so as to continue producing high-quality koji,” Shingan said.

Kojiya Honten derives its strength from the unity of the family. While Koichi, Myoho and Ryotoku now engage in production, Joei is planning to return from Paraguay to join them, to mainly take charge of overseas expansion.

Myoho hopes Kojiya Honten will grow together with other koji stores taking advantage of the shio koji boom.

“A shortage occurs when you vie for something with others,” Myoho said. “A surplus results if you share it with others.”