Talk about a late bloomer. From its location in the northeastern corner of Honshu, Iwate Prefecture exerts a tremendous influence on the sake world. Yet, sake was not even produced there on any real scale until well after 1678, long after Nada, Itami and Kyoto were well into their sake-brewing heyday.
What happened in 1678? One Murai Gonbei, an Omi shonin (traveling Kansai businessman) settled in Iwate. With him he schlepped the knowledge of brewing “sumi-zake,” filtered sake, which was for all intents and purposes sake as we know it today, albeit a bit rougher. He taught this to the local farmers, who picked up the new hobby with enthusiasm.
Also, as with everywhere else in Japan, the samurai leaders of the area had to spend every other year in Edo. This resulted in huge throngs of people moving down into the Kanto region and into Edo. It was through this mass migration that much more sake-brewing technology was picked up and taken back to Iwate. There, it was refined and localized.
It is Iwate’s brewing technology that has made it such a significant region to the sake-brewing world. Back home in the nonbrewing seasons, the farmers systematically organized and taught sake brewing, and quickly became well known for their prowess as toji (head brewers).
Long ago, most (if not all) toji came from one of a few dozen regions. Back at home in the summer, the toji of a particular region would teach each other and their successors techniques and theory, and somewhat distinct styles were the result. For example, Echigo toji, from Niigata, have a particular style and certain strengths. So do Tanba toji from Hyogo, and Izumo toji from Tottori and Shimane.
Referred to as ryuha, these groups, which are more like professional organizations than unions, have long been identified by the old name for their respective regions. As such, the toji group from Iwate are known as Nanbu toji.
Iwate itself does not produce all that much sake, comparatively speaking: They are only 19th in terms of volume produced nationwide. There are only (at last count) 29 kura in the whole prefecture. Niigata and Hyogo have perhaps four times that number. But the Nanbu toji group has well over 400 certified toji at work in kura in 33 of Japan’s 47 prefectures. That’s leverage.
Over the years, the number of these toji ryuha have decreased, as have the number of their members, along with the shrinking sake industry. Only the Nanbu toji group has maintained its size across the decades. Why? Because they instituted thorough and comprehensive training courses to pass on technology and skills.
There are actually about 1,500 members to this Iwate organization. Instead of all coming from just one village (as is often the case, historically), they are spread out among about 20 locales around the prefecture. But they gather regularly, with special summer training classes even today for their members.
The proliferation of Nanbu toji throughout Japan was certainly aided by the lack of a strong brewing industry at home. Although Iwate has nice, cold weather and lots of clean water from the countless mountains of the region, there is very little good sakamai (sake rice) grown in the prefecture. Recently, the Tohoku stalwart Miyama Nishiki has been cultivated there, but this has only been for the last 20 years or so.
Iwate sake itself does not have a particularly clear-cut prefecture-wide character. Overall, it is slightly sweet, and in general it has a good umami to it, that little something that makes one want to drink a bit more. Yet, among Iwate sake there is plenty of light, dry sake as well.
To a lesser degree, Nanbu toji have their own, identifiable style of sake. Nanbu toji brewed sake is usually clean, crisp, solid and layered. Although a toji will brew to meet the requests of the brewery owner, very often the mark of the toji shines through.
There are a few names from Iwate well worth remembering. Most commonly known is Asabiraki, the largest brewer in Iwate, and introduced below. Beyond that, look for Nanbu Bijin, and Shichifukujin, two fairly easy-to-find jizake. Tsuki no Wa and Hamachidori are two absolutely wonderful sake from Iwate, although their small size (the kura, not the sake bottles) may make them a bit harder to find.
But the mark of the fine Nanbu toji ryuha can be seen everywhere. Sometimes the toji ryuha is listed on bottles of good sake, as it is indeed a source of pride. Look, and you will often see Nanbu toji listed on the bottle.
For those that live in the region, or plan to travel there, there is a museum of Nanbu toji brewing history and culture at Ishidoriya Station, very close to Morioka Station.
On the afternoon of June 17, I am hosting a blind tasting of a dozen or so sake from large brewers, with a ringer or two thrown in. Ten Japan Times readers are invited to attend and there are still openings. Results will be presented in a future column. Those interested in participating should e-mail me at the address below, or fax The Japan Times at (03) 3453-5265.
Japan Times Ceramics Scene writer and Japanese pottery expert Robert Yellin and I will be doing a joint seminar on sake and pottery June 1 at the sake pub Mushu in Awajicho, near Shin Ochanomizu or Awajicho Station, 6-9 p.m. The evening will include a meal, half a dozen or so good sake, and lectures by Rob and I.
Seating is limited and fills up fast. To make a reservation, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, fax me at (0467) 23-6896, or call Mushu at (03) 3255-1108. Details will be provided by e-mail later.
Asabiraki (Iwate Prefecture)
Seimai buai: 65 percent
Founded in 1872, Asabiraki is now the largest brewer in Iwate. The name is taken from the ancient epic poem “Manyoshu.” This junmai is solid and settled, with a quiet nose and a nice, gentle graininess with a subdued bitter tone deep in the recesses.
Asabiraki recently took their seventh consecutive gold medal in the tax department’s New Sake Tasting Competitions, which wrapped up last week in Hiroshima. No brewery has ever taken seven golds in a row before. Although the sake submitted to such competitions is special and vastly different from sake such as this junmai, the accomplishment of seven in a row is astounding. (More on this contest in an upcoming column.)