Sendai – Despite being battered by the March 11, 2011, massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, a total of 110 sake brewing companies continue to operate in the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima in the Tohoku region.
Young workers are bringing new life to the regional sake industry amid a downtrend in sales of the beverage across Japan after special purchases in the wake of the disaster aimed at supporting affected areas waned.
After the gigantic tsunami, Akabu Shuzo brewery relocated from the coastal town of Otsuchi in Iwate to the prefectural capital of Morioka while hiring eight employees in their 20s to 30s who had no experience in sake production.
“Initially, we had many failures,” said Ryunosuke Furudate, 27, toji (chief brewer) at the Akabu Shuzo.
Traditionally, women are barred from entering sake breweries. At Akabu Shuzo, however, half of the eight workers are women.
Producing sake used to require around-the-clock work for some of the process. To reduce workloads, Akabu Shuzo has introduced some machines, fixed working hours and allowed eight to nine days off per month.
“We found that a worker-friendly environment enables sake production that does not cut corners in quality,” Furudate said.
Akabu Shuzo has started production of junmai daiginjo, a type of sake that requires advanced brewing techniques, winning a good reception for the product at a prefecture-organized competition.
“I particularly hope that people in our generation will enjoy sake products reflecting the enthusiasm of the makers,” Furudate stressed.
In Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, Hiroki Sugawara, 28, works in sales for the Otokoyama Honten sake brewery run by his family.
In the wake of the March 2011 disaster, Sugawara decided to join the family business. He worked at a major restaurant chain for two years after he graduated from university, and then studied in New York and Paris for a total of one year, with a view to promoting Otokoyama Honten sake products overseas in the future.
Currently, Sugawara travels abroad every month, developing sales channels in Spain, Vietnam, New Zealand and elsewhere.
“We have started to see foreign visitors to the brewery in the last year or two,” Sugawara said. Otokoyama Honten now offers English-language tours.
The brewery’s disaster-damaged shop is set to be rebuilt this spring, with plans to include a standing-bar area in the renewed space and also sell products from other companies.
“We can’t survive if we do the same as we did before the disaster,” said Sugawara. “We aim to continue to produce better sake reflecting the community and social changes.”
Yujiro Ariga, 35, a member of the family running Ariga Jozo sake brewery in Shirakawa, Fukushima Prefecture, quit graduate school after the March 2011 disaster to devote himself to the business.
In the face of a slump in Fukushima farm sales following the accident at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Ariga aims to create his ideal sake from locally produced rice that goes well with dishes using Fukushima vegetables.
“I repeat trial-and-error experiments in the brewery every day, just like life in a laboratory,” a laughing Ariga said. “Finally, I’m starting to be able to realize my images of sake.”
“The appeal of sake comes from the brewers,” said Kenji Suzuki, 58, deputy head of the Aizuwakamatsu technical assistance facility of the prefecture’s Fukushima Technology Center.
“We want to tell you that Tohoku has such a variety of unique sake labels and breweries now,” Suzuki said.