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Yuasa: The salty, fermented heart of Japan

by Lance Henderstein

Special To The Japan Times

The town of Yuasa in Wakayama Prefecture is so well preserved that when you enter it, you feel as though you’re walking into a museum. Even the roofs and windows of homes, which are different here than in other parts of Japan, have been meticulously kept in their original condition.

But it wasn’t until entering Ota Kyusuke Ginsei, a miso factory, that the town really came to life. The 72-year-old owner, Shosuke Ota, is still passionate, vibrant and energetic, despite his old age. He clearly loves his work, and is proud of the culture that surrounds miso-making.

Wandering through his factory, he laments that the traditional style of making miso may not continue in Yuasa after he has gone.

“Culture takes three to four generations to develop, but only one to be lost,” he says.

After explaining his miso-making process, Ota begins to tell stories of his travels, and the Japan he grew up in. He shows us around his home, breaking out artifacts from the Meiji Era (1868-1912): a chest of drawers that plays like a harmonica when opened and closed; lacquered umbrellas; and silk prints, some of which he hadn’t looked at in decades. He grows wistful as he speaks, and we travel back with him as he reminisces about the old days when Yuasa was a bustling community.

All over Japan, towns like this one are only just hanging on, despite the constant changes eroding them: urban migration, the collapse of local industries, an aging population and economic decline.

We leave Ota’s factory and head to Kadocho, the shoyu-making facility next door. Our visit begins as a scripted tour, but things loosen up after I ask 37-year-old Hayato Okabe, the head brewer at the facility, how he got the job. He says he married into the family-run business — he is the son-in-law of 66-year-old master Makoto Kano.

It’s backbreaking work, but cannot be automated because the wooden vats contain original probiotic bacteria and kōji strains that are unique to the facility. The give Kadocho’s shoyu its distinct flavor. Hearing Kano and Okabe speak makes me appreciate the stoicism and effort that goes into making things the old-fashioned way. It also shows why most companies choose to automate the process — even if the quality decreases. It’s a lot to ask someone to dedicate themselves like this in modern times — even if the boss is your father-in-law.

Yuasa is the birthplace of shoyu in Japan, brought from China by a Buddhist monk during the 13th century. The town taught the rest of the country how to make it, and soy sauce is now a global product. Though Yuasa still makes shoyu in much the same way as they always have, their producers are continually losing ground to cheaper, industrially produced soy sauces.

Yuasa miso (known as Kinzanji) is a sweet paste and almost wine-like in complexity. It’s made by adding kōji to salted soybeans and wheat — like most miso — but Yuasa locals also add finely chopped eggplant, melon, ginger and shiso into the fermenting mixture. The result is one of the most complex and delicious flavor profiles I’ve ever tasted. It’s truly unique.

Back outside the town’s buildings and streets are undeniably beautiful, but there’s a melancholic feeling when you imagine what it must have been like when the streets were bustling with people and shoyu makers were getting wealthy exporting their product. Now the community must keep that history alive if they want their town to survive.

What keeps them going? It seems to be pride — rooted in dedication rather than ego. It’s the pride of artisans who have a single-minded commitment to their craft.

Yuasa is a 40-minute train ride from Wakayama City on the Kuroshio Limited Express, which runs on the JR Kinokuni Line along the coast and offers some of the best ocean views in Japan. For more information about Yuasa, visit www.town.yuasa.wakayama.jp. For information about Kadocho, visit kadocho.co.jp.