Sake Corner #5

The Suehiro Sake Shop, Wajima

Wajima Cityis home to the Kitamura Kobo, the studio of contemporary lacquer artist Unryuan Kitamura Tatsuo and a frequent stop on my visits to Japan. On this trip, however, I happily focused on the many unique varieties of Sake that the area has to offer.

Renowned in Japan for its asa-ichi, local market, which has been running for over a 1000 years, Wajima is home to lacquer, fishing and timber industries. Situated in Ishikawa prefecture north-east of Tokyo on the Noto peninsula, it faces the Sea of Japan with China only a few hours away by boat. The city has a population of around 32,000 (which would be the equivalent in Australia of a town of under 1000) and is surrounded by beautiful mountains which provide it with fresh spring water, great for rice cultivation and Sake brewing.

Considering its size, the city has a lot to offer; a lantern museum; 1000 rice fields celebration; a crab festival (Lesley has participated once, standing on the docks waiting for the boats to come in and sampling the first of the season from boiling pots on shore; an Anime Museum: the Taisai light festival, the Gojinjo-Daiko drumming festival (dating back to 1576); the Wajima Lacquer Museum and much more.

The Sake in Wajima is brewed in winter months with the cold brewing method (kanzukuri) used for most quality Sake since the Edo Period (1600-1868). History tells us that this method was a chance discovery. Farmers not usually working during the winter months had time available for Sake brewing. A happy coincidence that led to the modern labour structure that still supports the Sake brewing industry. Many breweries employ full time staff and brew all year round, not concentrating on the winter months. I learned from my eager local drinking partners that this is not the case in Wajima. The best Wajima Sake is brewed by locals, often rice farmers, strictly only during the winter months. This is when the best rice and water are available and creates the ideal brewing climate.

Unfortunately, I was there at the end of the brewing season and missed out on trying some of the ‘shiboritate’ (freshly pressed sake). Shiboritate are brews made early in the season and are basically trials to test the new season’s rice. Shiboritate are often ungraded Sake with no specific rules used in the brewing. They are sold in very limited numbers and are unpasteurized (pasteurized brews are also available from some brewers). Many Sake experts enjoy these brews as they provide great opportunity for study… the drinking is just a bonus. Wajima is well known for shiboritate tasting during the winter months… definitely on next year’s schedule!

My previous experience with Wajima sake was a seasonal Sakura (cherry blossom) Sake… a clear liquid with floating cherry blossoms… that was one of the best flavored Sake I had tried. Being Spring and cherry blossom season, I was on a mission to try and find the same Sakura Sake again. I found a local who knew the bottle, only to be told that it was no longer available. The good news was that the brewery creates a unique Sakura brew each year, the bad news was that this year’s had sold out.

I was given a map (yes a map!) of all the Sake shops in Wajima, so off I went. Luckily the first one visited had 2 bottles left… the last two in Wajima! This years brew had pulverised Sakura leaves (in a powder form) in the bottle. I do have one set aside for our next sake tasting so keep up with the newsletters for the event date, most likely early July.

The shop was inspiring… in a very old building down a tiny side street run by a very genki (spirited) older lady whose family had been Sake brewers and retailers for generations. There were another 15-20 shops on my map but, on a strict schedule, and to my great disappointment, that was the extent of my Sake shopping – but not Sake drinking – in Wajima.

Eager to learn more and try some of the local premium brews, I finally got my chance on the last night in Wajima during dinner with 30 or so of the local lacquer artists (and most experienced Sake drinkers!) from the Shikokenkyukai.

After dinner, I was invited to stay and drink with Tsuji Masashi, Hirasawa Kimiyoshi and Mukaizura-san (an unusual Japanese name – apparently he is only one of three people in Japan to have this family name). The chef from the restaurant decided to join us and after a quick conversation and some introductions, we were given three bottles. I was also presented with a special cup, the ‘god’ cup, sitting on the shop’s altar waiting for the right guest. I was very embarrassed and honoured to have been presented with the cup. I was also told it meant I had to drink lots!

The cup was a deep red matte lacquer with some black showing through on the outside similar to negoro, with shiny black lacquer on the inside – light weight, smooth, with quite a thick lip and a great shape, great sense in the hand. As the first cup was poured, the bottom of the cup began to sparkle. The black lacquer had small pieces of mother-of-pearl shell under the surface that was only revealed once Sake was poured – how this is possible I have no idea. I was humbled, a very special experience, and a further reminder of the fun of the vessel.

Each of the brews was really special and a testament to the quality of Wajima sake:

(Apologies to our avid sake corner followers, ‘gods’ are not permitted to take tasting notes on iPhones during serious drinking, and I humbly confess that the merits of each brew were ‘lost in translation’ !)

1. 石川県鳳珠郡能登町宇出津 <数馬酒造株式会社>
Kazuma Sake Brewer Co.Ltd.
Shisugu Noto Junmai
This was a limited edition brew, only 100 bottles. We had number 14. (Japanese only)

A little about them is also here in English:

2. 石川県輪島市河井町(清水酒造)
Kiyomizu Sake Brewer
Junmai Dai Ginjo

3. 石川県輪島市鳳至町上町24(白藤酒造)
Shirafuji Sake brewer
White Chrysanthemum Dai Ginjo (Japanese Only)

4. 石川県輪島市鳳至町稲荷町(中島酒造)
Nakajima Brewery
Hana Oboru
Momo Iro (peach colour) Junmai Nigori Sake

This is the website for all of the Notou sake brewers….

Left: 1. Kazuma ‘Shisugu‘ Noto Junmai
Right: 2. Kiyomizu Junmai Dai Ginjo

Left: 3. Shirafuji Dai Ginjo
Right: 4. Nakajima Hana Oboru – Nigori Sake

The ‘God’ Cup