Introducing shocking Nihonshu to the world!

Q: What motivated you to become a sake brewery worker?

A: After getting married, I ended up living in Hida Takayama, which is my wife’s hometown. I wanted to pursue my career as an athletics trainer, but there was no demand up here in Takayama [laughs]. I had a shock when I first drank Nihonshu at a bar I was visiting with some friends. It was hard to describe… the deep umami and fruitiness set it apart from all other liquors. I couldn’t help but wonder how it was produced.
Maybe it was fate. After that experience, Watanabe Shuzoten, the producer of the sake I had drunk, was looking for workers, and I applied immediately.

Q: Please tell us what your work at the sake brewery involves.

A: At present there are 13 workers at Watanabe Shuzoten, each with their own role to perform. My position is called “kamaya” and involves preparing the rice to be used in the Nihonshu. I go to work at 4 a.m. and begin steaming the rice I put into the “koshiki” (a pot for steaming rice) the previous day. It varies from day to day, but right now I’m steaming 1,500 kilograms of rice. I take the steamed rice to a “muro” (a room where rice is smeared with “kouji” (malt rice used as a starter, converting carbohydrate into sugar) and which is temperature-controlled to cultivate the “kouji”) and wash the used “koshiki” steaming pots. After that, I wash the rice that is due to be steamed the next day, which involves soaking the rice. Daily adjustments are required depending on the condition of the rice and the weather. I also help out with other work. Snow falls at this time of year and the temperature inside the brewery can drop below zero, but working keeps my body warm so I don’t worry too much about the cold.

Q: What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your work?

A: The most enjoyable part of the job has to be when we taste the Nihonshu that we have produced in the year. The flavor of the sake changes every year depending on the quality of the rice, the climate and other variables. We took good rice this year, which is resulting in a juicy sake with good balance.
As for difficult experiences, well, I’m still struggling with the Japanese language. It’s been six years since I came to Japan, but it’s difficult to remember all of the technical terms used in sake breweries. But that’s about it in terms of difficulties. It’s great to be doing a job that I enjoy.

Q: Please tell us about the appeal of Nihonshu and your recommended way of drinking it.

A: Nihonshu is a unique Japanese culture, and there are various types to enjoy, including “junmaishu”, which is made purely from rice, and luxurious “ginjoushu”, which uses the core parts of polished rice. Of the Nihonshu we produce here, I recommend “Iro-otoko”. Its name means “good and handsome man” and the flavor is fruity, almost like white wine, so even foreigners will be able to drink it comfortably. The fact that sake can be enjoyed during meals is another of its appeals. My idea of heaven is slowly drinking an “atsukan”* while being warmed by a “kotatsu” (a unique Japanese kind of heater installed under a table covered with a futon), looking out of the window at the snow falling, and enjoying some of Hida-Furukawa’s famous “negi-miso” (miso mixed with minced leek and egg)!

Q: Finally, please tell us about your plans for the future.

A: I want to continue putting everything into my work each day, increasing my knowledge by progressively learning more and more about the brewery. I also want to let the whole world know about Nihonshu. I went to a Nihonshu event held in San Francisco in October of this year, but there’s a need for words that can convey the nuances of Nihonshu to drinkers overseas. This is something I’m able to help with as a foreigner. I want to build a bridge that conveys the appeal of Nihonshu to the rest of the world.
*Refer to the Nihonshu = seishu = sake section.

At Watanabe Shuzoten, where Cody works, free tours of the facilities are available throughout the year. There is also a sake brewing tour held in Takayama City as a winter event running until February 27 (Wed). Don’t miss it if you are visiting Takayama at this time of year!

Japanese liquor

Japan’s three main traditional liquors since ancient times – Nihonshu, honkaku shochu and awamori – are collectively referred to as “kokushu”. The most commonly consumed liquor in Japan is beer, with Japanese people using the expression “a beer to start with” when drinking at izakayas. The wines made in Japan use grapes that have little sweetness. Yamanashi Prefecture is the most famous producing area thanks to its climate, which is ideal for grape cultivation. Whisky has recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in Japan thanks to the “highball” drinking style where whisky is diluted with tonic water. Please enjoy the rich variety of Japanese liquor.

Nihonshu = seishu = sake

Nihonshu is a sake produced by fermenting and pressing Japanese rice. Its history spans 1,000 years and it is produced in every corner of Japan. Areas famous for producing renowned Nihonshu can be found all over Japan. Such areas are also famous for their excellent quality of water, as this is the key to producing fine Nihonshu. The base ingredient of rice is so important that there is a rice variety called “sakamai” for use in sake production. Nihonshu is a sake produced with simple ingredients and the mastery of Japanese techniques by artisans known as “takumi”.
Nihonshu is enjoyed at different temperatures depending on the season and other factors, which is perhaps unique to Japanese people who as a nation are fascinated by the four seasons. Nihonshu warmed to around 50-55ºC is called “atsukan”, at around 40 ºC it is referred to as “nurukan”, and cooled Nihonshu is called “reishu”. Of course it can also be enjoyed at room temperature. The traditional warming method is to place the “tokkuri” sake pot containing Nihonshu inside a saucepan filled with hot water.

Honkaku shochu and awamori

“Honkaku shochu” and “awamori” are Japan’s traditional distilled liquors. These drinks have evolved in a unique way due to distillation techniques that have been handed down throughout their 500-year history and the effects of Japan’s topography. Honkaku shochu is now produced nation-wide, but it was born in southern Kyushu. The most commonly consumed shochu in Japan is “imo” (sweet potato) shochu, which has a well-rounded sweetness and originated in Kagoshima and Miyazaki Prefectures, which are famous as imo shochu producing areas. Oita and Nagasaki Prefectures are famous for aromatic and refreshing “mugi” (wheat) shochu, while Kumamoto Prefecture is renowned for its production of rice-based shochu, which has clean sweet notes. Regional shochu varieties have been produced out of the local history and land. Shochu is unusual in that it is a liquor enjoyed during meals, and it goes well not only with Japanese food but also with world cuisines. It can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, including being diluted with cold or warm water, or on the rocks.
Awamori is an Okinawan liquor. Its base ingredient is Thai rice, and it has a uniquely mellow aroma and flavor thanks to the unique way in which it is produced. Some “koshu” (old sake) awamori, also known as “kuusu”, has been stored for as long as 100 years and is exceptionally delicious.

Japanese wine

Wines are produced in all parts of Japan, from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south, although the largest producing areas are Yamanashi, Nagano, Yamagata and Hokkaido Prefectures. The flavor of the Japan-specific “Koshu” grape variety has been widely acclaimed, and in 2010 this variety was registered by the EU. There are Japanese wineries that have received awards at world wine contests and whose wines are imported to European wine-drinking countries such as France.
In comparison with European wines, Japanese productions have less organic phosphate and iron content, with the wines boasting a fresh flavor that makes them the perfect match for seafood-rich Japanese cuisine. Many of Japan’s restaurants have Japanese wines on the menu, so please take the opportunity to try local wine together with a Japanese meal.

Japanese beer

Japan’s four major beer companies are Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory. These companies each produce beers infused with their own unique personalities, including various types for drinkers’ enjoyment, from refreshing clean-tasting beer to rich and deep beers. These can be bought from liquor stores, supermarkets and convenience stores nation-wide.
In recent years there has been a rise in the production of local beers in different parts of Japan, and there are now more than 200 breweries around the country, many of which are brewing beers in a diverse range of styles including the mainstream Pilsner style as well as ale, Wiezen and Kölsch. Some of these beers have even received first prize at contests in Europe – the home of beer. Since these beers are only sold in their respective local regions, why not try to find your favorite brew at your destination?

Japanese whisky

Japanese whiskies such as Suntory’s “Yamazaki” and Nikka Whisky’s “Taketsuru” are now globally renowned brands. Japanese whisky is loved by whisky fans around the world and is one of the world’s five whisky continents, along with Scotch, Irish, Canadian and American.
Japan’s whisky companies produce whiskies at single distillery locations, which is rare in the world of whisky, blending whiskies with strong peat aromas together with more subtle varieties to produce their own unique blends. These companies do not sell unblended whisky, instead producing fine quality flavors and taking great pride in their technology and blending ability.
In Japan, whisky is enjoyed with meals and is consumed diluted with water or in other styles of drinking. You might say that Japanese people basically drink liquor with meals.