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Tsuchiya Brewery in Tokyo’s Komae is set to release Sakurako brand “jizake” (local sake), featuring the name of the future figurehead of the 128-year-old company.

The new sake has been brewed through the winter by 31-year-old Sakurako Tsuchiya, who will become the fifth “kuramoto” (brewer) when she succeeds her 68-year-old father, Shozo. The sake will be on hand for the “sakura” cherry blossom season.

Sake ferments in a huge vat under the watchful eye of Sakurako Tsuchiya.

“By cutting down on my sleeping time, I devoted all my skills and efforts to these pink Sakurako bottles all through the winter,” Sakurako Tsuchiya said.

Of the 12 sake breweries in Tokyo, she will be the only female master — partly the result of two tragedies that hit the firm in the past 12 years.

The sudden death of Sakurako’s elder brother at the age of 21 in 1989 was followed by her mother being taken seriously ill in 1994. The family had expected Sakurako’s brother to succeed his father, while her mother was in charge of the brewer’s clerical administration.

Faced with the possible closure of the brewery, Sakurako — who was a graduate student planning to go on to become a computer engineer — decided in 1995 to turn her attentions away from the modern world and focus on an age-old art.

She is now of the belief that, “there is a small universe in every vat (of sake).”

“So many factors, such as climate, humidity and the condition of all the ingredients, including the yeast of rice, malted rice and pure water, all of which differ every year, relate with each other to affect the taste,” she said.

In the brewing of sake, the first written record of which dates back to the third century, boiled rice is mixed in a vat with several kinds of yeast for saccharification and fermentation.

Unlike with other brewages, these two processes are carried out simultaneously, requiring the vat to be uncovered in order to allow gases to be emitted. This makes brewers extremely sensitive about the sanitary conditions of their facilities, as bacteria must be prevented from being mixed into the opened vats.

This obsession with cleanliness provides one of the reasons that women, who were considered impure because of menstruation and other superstitions, were prohibited from approaching a sake vat for centuries. Many breweries still bar women.

It was only after Sakurako told her father that she would study the art of brewing sake in order to succeed him that she was allowed to enter the facility, she said.

The remnants of Sakurako’s computer dreams can be seen in the brewery’s Web site — newtown.hi-ho.ne.jp/tsuchiya/ — which she set up in 1998 to provide information about the firm’s brewing processes on a day-to-day basis.

“Sake brewing requires your complete devotion during the brewing season (in winter), but I feel most comfortable sitting in front of my computer and renewing the home page, even when I don’t have enough time to sleep,” she said.

Like the Sakurako brand, which is bottled in small pink containers and has a relatively sweet taste in an effort to attract female consumers, Tokyo’s 11 other breweries are struggling in an era of shrinking sake consumption.

Sake brewery tours in Tokyo
Of the 12 breweries that produce sake in Tokyo, the following are open for group tours by reservation.
Tsuchiya Brewery in Komae: A 10-minute walk from Odakyu Kitami Station(03) 3489-4753
Ishikawa Brewery in Fussa: 15 minutes on foot from JR Haijima Station — Restaurants, garden and sake museum(042) 553-0100
Tamura Brewery in Fussa: A 15-minute walk from JR Fussa Station(042) 551-0003
Watanabe Brewery in Musashi-Murayama: 10 minutes by bus from Kamikitadai Station on the Tama Monorail(0425) 62-3131
Nishioka Brewery in Hachioji: 15 minutes on foot from JR Nishi-Hachioji Station(0426) 25-0052
Nakamura Brewery in Akiruno: A 15-minute walk from JR Akigawa Station(0425) 58-0516
Toshimaya Brewery in Higashi-Murayama: A 12-minute walk from Higashi-Murayama Station on the Seibu Shinjuku Line(0423) 91-0601
Ozawa Brewery in Ome: Near JR Sawai Station. Restaurants, gardens and a sake-tasting bar. Tours are temporarily suspended due to renovation work.
(0428) 78-8215

The annual production of sake across the country shrank to 1,061,000 kiloliters in 1999 from 1,766,000 kiloliters in the peak year of 1973, according to the National Tax Administration.

Correspondingly, the number of registered sake breweries in Japan plunged to 2,191 in 1999 from 4,021 in the peak year of 1956, the NTA said. An association of breweries in Tokyo estimates that less than 1,700 breweries now operate across the country.

In Tokyo, sake production has shrunk by 40 percent over the last 20 years, and five breweries have closed or suspended operations during the same period, the association said.

“The country’s changing food culture has diversified people’s alcohol consumption. This has marginalized sake, which most people believe only goes well with Japanese food and is a liquor that isn’t mixed,” said 36-year-old Taro Ishikawa, an executive of Ishikawa Brewery in Fussa, western Tokyo.

Production at the second-largest brewery in Tokyo, which is known for its Tamajiman brand sake, has plunged by almost 60 percent over the past 20 years, he said.

Amid diminishing consumption, the nation’s small and medium-size breweries — including all 12 in Tokyo — are fighting an uphill battle in terms of price competition with the industry’s major players, most of which are based in the Kansai region.

Yoshinobu Watanabe, sales manager of Tamura Brewery in Fussa, claimed that Tokyo’s breweries are at a disadvantage in selling their brand images due to a general belief that high-quality water and rice — the most important ingredients of sake — are not available in the region.

“But Tokyo’s sakes have maintained a high quality in the long-term battle with other brand-name sakes from across the country to win customers in the Tokyo market,” he said.

“Despite its urban image, Tokyo, with mountains on its western side, traditionally has one of the purest and richest water reserves,” he added. The brewery has used the same well for its Kasen brand sake since 1825.

While breweries in Tokyo used to struggle to get rice of a high quality, which is mainly harvested in the Tohoku, Hokuriku and Kinki regions, transportation improvements mean it can now be shipped to Tokyo overnight, he added.

Another change occurring among Tokyo’s breweries is the decreasing number of “toji,” or professional sake brewers, who come to Tokyo every winter from Niigata or other prefectures in the Hokuriku and Tohoku regions.

The toji system was originally developed to provide winter jobs for farmers from these areas, where heavy snow prevents farming of any kind during wintertime.

Job opportunities in these regions have increased, however, and young farmers no longer tend to want to separate themselves from their families by working in Tokyo for nearly one-third of the year.

To combat this trend, breweries in Tokyo have nurtured professional sake brewers to replace the seasonal toji, whose average age is now believed to be over 60.

At Ozawa Brewery in Ome, western Tokyo, the task of replacing Niigata toji with the firm’s own employees was completed two years ago.

Atsuo Tanaka, 42, the head toji at Ozawa Brewery, which is the largest sake brewery in Tokyo and produces the Sawanoi brand, is among the first of the new breed of “salaried toji.” He joined the brewery 20 years ago after graduating from college.

Recalling his early training under the Niigata toji, Tanaka said there were numerous times when he cried at night because of the severity of his work and the loneliness of being separated from the rest of the world for the entire winter.

“A toji leader at the time told me that hierarchy and discipline at a brewery is second only to that in the military,” he said.

The current competition in the market, however, has pushed the toji to engage in sales activities as well, in an effort to capitalize on customer confidence in their knowledge of sake, he said.

“I think dealing with people, including customers and my fellow toji, is as complicated as brewing sake,” he said.

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