OVERSEAS, Hiroshima is known almost exclusively for the tragic role it played in the closing days of World War II, but to the Japanese, it’s a big prefecture with much more to see than just the city of the same name. The island shrine of Itsukushima, with its famous orange torii out in the water, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The islands of the Seto Inland Sea cry out to be explored. And when you’re hungry, there’s Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki to be sampled and (in winter at least) oysters aplenty.
And then there’s the sake. Together with the Nada area of Hyogo Prefecture and the Fushimi district of Kyoto, southwestern Hiroshima Prefecture is one of the sandaisakedokoro – or the three big sake making areas of Japan. If you love sake, then it’s time to view Hiroshima through a different kind of lens: the bottom of a sake glass.
Sake-brewing happens only during the winter months, from November to April. The key ingredients are rice, water, and a mould known as koji (also endearingly referred to as the “national fungus of Japan”, because it’s also used to make soy sauce, miso, and shochu). Enormous quantities of rice are steamed in pre-dawn darkness, and when the rice emerges from the steamer, the brewery bustles with activity: some rice gets taken to a special climate-controlled room to have koji sprinkled over it and mixed in while some gets added to the mash which is already fermenting in giant tanks. Later, that mash will be put into bags, and the liquid squeezed out. A month or more after it has been steamed, the rice will have been transformed into clear sake with an alcohol content of roughly 17 per cent, ready to be bottled and sent off to consumers around Japan and around the world.
Kick off your sake tour at Saijo Station, in Higashi-hiroshima City, where old, square, red-brick smokestacks tower above the buildings to the south of the station. In just that one neighbourhood there are no fewer than eight breweries, each with a history of a century or more, making it a great starting point for an immersive sake experience. Kamotsuru Shuzo is the largest of these breweries, producing over 2,500 kilolitres per year.
The visitors’ centre at the brewery, housed in an old building with the traditional cross-hatched namakokabe pattern on the outside, shows a video about sake-making. But with a polite enquiry and a bit of luck, you too might be allowed to go inside and observe actual sake production first-hand.
Less than an hour’s drive southeast of Saijo, the town of Takehara also makes a worthwhile stop for anybody doing a sake-themed tour, both for its breweries and the lovingly-preserved Edo-period houses to be found there. Once a major port, it was home to wealthy merchants whose ships sailed from Takehara, and though the town’s commercial importance faded long ago, many of the merchants’ homes survive to this day.
Takehara is home to sake brewery Fujii Shuzo, which dates back over 150 years. It may be a small operation producing just one-twentieth as much sake as Kamotsuru, but it punches well above its weight, regularly winning the top prize at a number of national and international sake competitions over the years.
(Related: Why the French are going crazy over sake)
Another worthwhile stop on any sake tour is the sleepy town of Akitsu, which like Takehara faces the Inland Sea. Akitsu was the hometown of Senzaburo Miura, a pioneer in Hiroshima’s sake industry who figured out in the late 19th century how to brew sake with the local soft water rather than the harder, mineral-rich water found around Nada and Fushimi.
Today’s Akitsu is home to a pioneer of a different sort: Miho Imada, the toji, or master brewer, at Imada Shuzo Honten. Not even 7am on a cold winter’s morning, the brewery’s employees are already working up a sweat shovelling rice out of the steamer, breaking up clumps of rice, scurrying between the steamer, the koji room, and the fermentation tanks, carrying towels loaded down with freshly-steamed rice.
At every step of the process, the toji doesn’t just supervise but plays an active role, hauling as much rice as the rank-and-file workers and getting just as much of an aerobic workout. There are some 1,800 sake breweries in Japan, each with its own toji, but Imada Shuzo Honten’s toji is different from almost all the rest – because Miho Imada is a woman.
Sake-brewing is a fascinating part of Japan’s historical and cultural landscape, and if you get a chance to tour a sake brewery, whether in Hiroshima Prefecture or anywhere else, there’s no question that it’s worth doing – even if you’re a teetotaller.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.