Takaharu Tanaka x Naoto Wada
Toshimaya Shuzo Co., Ltd. x Anchorman, Inc.Photos by Tomo Kosuga Text by Tomo Kosuga
“Soul of Takumi” is an interview series in which we speak with master craftsmen from across Japan about the source of their creativity. Our guests for this third installment are Takaharu Tanaka, head of sales at Toshiyamaya Shuzo Co., Ltd., and Naoto Wada, president of Anchorman, Inc.
Nihonshu is beloved around the world under the catchall term “sake”. Many also often imagine that all sake is brewed in secluded settings far removed from the concrete jungle. However, the fact is that there are still breweries nestled snugly in the heart of the city that continue to produce the sake of Tokyo and old Edo. What’s more, these breweries are open to visitors and even conduct tours that allow guests to not only observe the brewing process firsthand but also sample sake fresh straight from the barrel.
Since opening its doors in the city of Higashimurayama in 1596, Toshimaya Shuzo has brewed “Kinkon Masamune”, a brand so highly regarded it even serves as the sacred sake offering at Meiji Shrine. In recent years, however, the venerable brewery has proven to be the perfect example of learning from the past thanks to new creations such as “Okunokami”, a local brand only sold to local sake specialists.
On the flipside of the coin we have Anchorman, a venture company with a vision of bringing nihonshu to the world that acts as a bridge for breweries and overseas audiences by planning and organizing brewery tourism. As it happens Toshimaya Shuzo and Anchorman have teamed up to create a set of brewery tours that attract many fervent sake fans from across the globe.
Though they continue to carry the baton of generations of history from their predecessors, Toshimaya Shuzo has also taken up the task of creating the new brand “Okunokami” and marketing it as local sake from Tokyo, all while accepting visitors from overseas. What has inspired this brewery to go to such lengths in adopting a head-on approach toward tradition and innovation? The truth lies in an anecdote no one would ever expect.
Sharing nihonshu with the world
In 2013 the Japan Tourism Agency launched the new “Brewery Tourism Promotion Group” as part of an effort to raise awareness of nihonshu, a tourist resource with vast potential, among visitors from abroad by opening up breweries for others to experience. One of the members of this group and someone involved in both brewery tourism and export assistance is Naoto Wada of Anchorman, Inc.
“I’ve visited over 100 breweries throughout Japan while planning tours. The most important thing for me was ensuring that tourists experience the process that goes into brewing the sake. I have three main conditions for breweries. Number one: their sake must taste good. Number two: they must be easy to reach. Being readily accessible from the airport is a big plus for tourists. And number three: they must have the sort of atmosphere that really makes you feel you’re at a brewery. Toshimaya meets all three of these conditions.”
As it turns out, Toshimaya Shuzo had already opened their doors to the general public and begun holding events demonstrating the rarely seen brewing process so that people learn more about the trade in 2010. But now with tourists brought in by Anchorman being added to the mix, Toshimaya Shuzo is becoming not just a brewery but also gathering spot for sake-lovers.
Wada states, “The people who come on these tours aren’t just looking to get drunk. They want to know what’s going on behind the scenes. Above all they’re interested in how we make the koji (malted rice). For example, everyone listened very closely when Mr. Tanaka explained how he needs to check on the temperature and humidity of the koji every few hours, just like taking care of a baby.”
Brewery tours are currently conducted several times a month. “The ‘anchor’ in Anchorman is meant to refer to both a ship’s anchor and the anchor in a relay race. We have taken up the baton as the final runner in the race to share how wonderful nihonshu is with the rest of the world.”
Wada’s passion to share Toshimaya Shuzo with the rest of the world is plain to see. Just what sort of history does this brewery hold?
“History conceals ideas” The 400-year story of Toshimaya
The year is 1596. It was in the midst of this era of great upheaval as Tokugawa Ieyasu wrested the reins of power away from Toyotomi Hideyoshi that Toshimaya was born. However, Toshimaya did not begin as a brewer of refined sake but rather as an izakaya.
It’s founder, Juemon Toshimaya chose to open his business in the Kanda Kamakura fish market, which was built as a landing point for supplies used in the major renovations being made to Edo Castle. Toshimaya offered sake purchased from Kansai to the craftsmen involved in the renovations at very low prices. In fact, Toshimaya is also said to be the forefather of the modern izakaya since it also served “tofu taraga”, or tofu with another ingredient covered in miso baked into it, as a snack to eat alongside their amazingly cheap sake. Toshimaya was also able to achieve small profits and quick returns by earning revenue in “recycling” as they sold their empty sake barrels to soy sauce and miso makers.
Toshimaya is the oldest sake dealer in Tokyo, and in the sense of when they opened their doors in Edo they might just also be the oldest business in Tokyo. However, they didn’t actually start brewing sake until the Meiji period. At the time Toshimaya’s brewery was based in the Nada region of Hyogo Prefecture, but at the beginning of the Showa period they moved to their current location in Higashimurayama. It was there that they would gather subsoil water from Mt. Fuji from their well and create their famed “Kinkon” brand.
Kinkon is now a household name thanks to it being the only sake used in sacred offerings made at Meiji Shrine, Kanda Shrine, and Hie Shrine. Toshimaya also apparently started the “kagami-biraki” tradition of using a wooden mallet to break open a sake cask at weddings. The 400-year history of Toshimaya is built upon the diverse and revolutionary ideas of its successive generations of proprietors.
The most important part of brewing sake is preparing the koji
Takaharu Tanaka, who was kind enough to speak with us for this feature, is the fourth brewmaster at Toshimaya Shuzo Co., Ltd. since it was established as a branch of Toshimaya in the early days of the Showa period. He is also the father of the local sake brand “Okunokami” that has pleased the palates of so many nihonshu fans.
Tanaka states, “At Toshimaya Shuzo we have five people working under the “touji” or master brewer: the “kashira”, the “funaba”, the “motoba”, and the “kamaya”. I’m in charge of the “koji” or malted rice. The koji needs to be cared for every few hours, just like a baby. Each day, from morning to night, I have look after the koji as it matures.”
Wada from Anchorman states, “The koji is made at the brewery. Yeast cells are sprinkled over steamed rice and then cultured. Cultivating these cells is quite difficult. There’s an old saying among brewers that goes “Ichi-koji, ni-moto, san-tsukuri” (First the koji, then the yeast starter, then the main mash), which just goes to show that making the koji is the most important part of the brewing process. Fail there and everything is ruined. You won’t find a single brewer who is careless when it comes to making the koji.”
The brewing process is timed carefully from caring for the koji to arriving at the final flavor. All of this is left up to Tanaka’s judgment. He single-handedly undertakes a role that doesn’t allow even a single moment of slack. This is why it’s so surprising to hear that he took up his position and became the fourth generation brewmaster when he was just 27 years old.
The birth of “Okunokami”, Tokyo’s local sake
The first thing Tanaka did upon taking the helm of the family business was not take a look at their historic brands, but rather create a new local sake. His keyword was “sake from Tokyo and Edo”.
“At the time I was still searching for something that really clicked with me. Then one day while I was in Kichijoji I just happened to stop by a restaurant that served mainly local sake. The sake I had was called ‘Kamoshibito Kuheiji’. It had a very impressive flavor and was truly delicious. But, when I looked for local sake at sake dealers in Tokyo, everything was being made in other parts of Japan, with nothing from here in Tokyo.”
Tanaka knew right away that he had to make a local sake brand from Tokyo. This was to be the beginning of many days of hard work, with the development of his new sake taking a full four years. Two of those years were devoted to development, and at the beginning of spring in the third year he sent the sake off to sake dealers to sample. Unfortunately the response he received was much more harsh than he could have ever imagined.
“They didn’t want it. They told me, ‘Listen up. No one buys sake based on the package here. They’re expecting sake that tastes good. It doesn’t matter if you tended the koji so much you never slept or worked your fingers to the bone. We can’t sell this sake.’ A whole vat of sake went to waste that way. We started over from scratch and then in early spring of the fourth year took what we had made back to the dealers. And they said, ‘This is what we’ve been waiting for!’”
“One shopkeeper told me ‘It all comes down to how much of your soul you can put into your creation. This is our life.’ Now there is one sake dealer that buys 25 percent of our stock. That wouldn’t have happened if I had gotten excited and released the sake as it was in the third year.”
And thus “Okunokami”, the local label from Tokyo that is now taking the sake scene by storm, was born. The kanji in its name are read as “okunokami”, but they can also be read as “yamori”. A yamori is a species of lizard in Japan that since ancient times has been regarded as a fortuitous animal since it lives in or around houses and eats harmful insects. Tanaka named his sake this way in the hopes that it too would become a presence that protects the future of brewing.
From the brewery to Japan, and the world
We ended our conversation by asking Wada about his future goals:
“Selling directly from breweries. Good sake at good prices. Getting people to come to the breweries is the same as getting people to come play on our home field. We don’t want people to go to sake shops and choose from many varieties of nihonshu; we want them to actually visit breweries, see the process of the sake being made from organic ingredients, and then buy the sake right there at the brewery.”
Tanaka had this to say about the batch he is brewing this winter:
“The other day I went out drinking with my team before we started brewing. One of them said to me, ‘Hey, you know how when November comes around there’s a chilly feel to the air in the brewery?’ I was like, ‘Yeah I know, it’s because the rice is arriving.’ Then they said, ‘It kinda makes your stomach hurt, right?’ I said, “Yeah, it’s like a sign that another year is beginning.’ It makes me really happy that we have this kind of common consciousness; that we’re on the same wavelength.”
From the brewery to Japan, and then the world. The baton of tradition that has been passed down since the Edo period could one day reach the hands of young people overseas who became sake fans thanks to Anchorman’s brewery tours, and may even begin brewing nihonshu of their own on the other side of the ocean.
Though he is focused on his brewery now, Tanaka stated happily that he still hasn’t forgotten his dream job of driving a truck all over Japan. Listening to Wada and Tanaka speak, one can almost see the two of them smiling as they fly a giant winged truck loaded with Kinkon and Okunokami.
Toshimaya Shuzo Co., Ltd.
Toshimaya Shuzo was established in the early Showa period as the brewery of the venerable sake shop Toshimaya, which was itself founded in 1596. Their “Kinkon Masamune” label is the only sake used for offerings at Meiji, Kanda, and Hie Shrine. The brewery has won numerous gold medals from the National New Sake Evaluation Committee. In recent years their original local sake brand “Okunokami” has created a stir among nihonshu fans as local sake from Tokyo.
Anchorman has a vision of bringing nihonshu to the world, and as such acts as a bridge connecting breweries and tourists from abroad by planning and organizing brewery tourism. The company is a member of the Brewery Tourism Promotion Group authorized by the Japan Tourism Agency.