Nanbu toji and Ishidoriya
While Japanese sake, or nihonshu, is made throughout Japan, there are three main regional groups, or schools of nihonshu production that have passed along their methods through generations of toji, or sake brewing masters. These are Nanbu toji from Iwate, the Echigo toji from Niigata, and the Tajima toji from Hyogo. The birthplace of the Nanbu toji, award-winning sake brewers famous throughout Japan, is none other than our own Ishidoriya (and Shiwa). (Ishidoriya was merged into Hanamaki in 2006.)
Despite this glorious history as a hub of sake production and culture, decreasing consumption of nihonshu and the depressed economic climate have caused the number of operating sake producers in Ishidoriya to dwindle down to just one. (The number of Nanbu toji remain strong, spread out over a wider area.)
The Nihonshu Outlaw
I had the pleasure of visiting Kawamura Shuzo, the last remaining sakagura of Ishidoriya, and was able to speak at length with Mr. Naotaka Kawamura, the current Kuramoto (owner/operator).
During my conversation with Naotaka Kawamura, he called himself a sake outlaw. He described a long journey, a sake pilgrimage that he embarked upon 15 years ago. He traveled throughout Japan, visiting numerous other sakagura, seeking others that shared his spirit and passion for nihonshu. Mr. Kawamura did not tell me the details of his sojourn, but I visualize long nights spent debating the roots and future direction of nihonshu, more philosophical wide ranging discussions than detailed elaboration of styles of production.
The result of this transformative journey was a new brand of nihonshu, Yoemon, named after his great-grandfather, the man who founded Kawamura Shuzo in 1922. Yoemon is a limited specialty sake only available in a few select liquor stores and restaurants.
Mr. Kawamura explained how he strives to bring out the unique qualities and flavors of each type of rice used in Kawamura Shuzo. He discusses the rice much as a wine producer would speak of grapes. This may seem like common sense, but the current trend with nihonshu is to refine the grains of rice down more and more, leaving only the starchy center. While this makes for smooth nihonshu, it also significantly reduces the unique flavor and qualities possessed by each strain of rice. Mr. Kawamura explained that many producers of nihonshu aim to win awards in various categories, and in order to do that there is a decided ‘target flavor’ that must be achieved. This has resulted in many delicious, but quite similar-tasting types of sake.
Refusing to strive for the same goals that have become common in the industry, Kawamura Shuzo takes pride in the rice and water that they use, holding the enjoyment of sake drinkers above official recognition through awards. In Mr. Kawamura’s own words, he aims for a “soulful” nihonshu that delights the drinker.
At present Kawamura Shuzo uses five types of rice: Yamadanishiki, Ginginga, Miyamanishiki, and Hitomebore. (They grow the Miyamanishiki themselves.) Mr. Kawamura recently made the acquaintance of Ryosuke Takahashi, a retired police officer turned organic rice farmer that has developed a passion for sake rice. They have made plans to start organically growing the legendary Kame-no-o sake rice, an ancient strain thought to have disappeared that has been recently revived by some sake producers and was made famous by the manga “Natsuko no Sake.” This Kame-no-o rice is not only rare, but extremely difficult to grow. It yields significantly less harvestable rice than other types, but the taste of the resulting sake will more than compensate this effort.
Kawamura Shuzo has been making nihonshu under the label of Nanbuzeki since their founding. This continues, and certain types of Nanbuzeki can be purchased at specialty liquor stores in Hanamaki. The new Yoemon is only available at a few shops, including the Wakaba liquor store (Ph. 0198-24-6165), just west of the main Fire Station in Zaimokucho on the road heading out toward the Toyosawa Dam.