Kinpou/Niida Entrance
Photo: Kinpou Shuzo (sake brewery)/Niida Honke (main house).

March 15, 2008: We four otaku members of the Tokyo Sake Meetup Group got off the shinkansen in Koriyama (Fukushima Prefecture) and caught a local bus. Soon after the bus left the town center, we started to see empty rice fields surrounding farm houses. Inaka da yo!

In this part of the Japanese countryside, at the happy confluence of pure mountain water and rice fields, one may find Kinpou Shuzo, a 300-year-old sake brewery.

Shikomi sui well water
Photo: Well water for sake making. The source of the water is in the surrounding mountains.

We came for a day-long work experience in the brewery. The head of the brewery, Yasuhiko Niida, invites the public to participate the process of growing rice and making sake.

Photo: The head of the brewery, Niida-san.

Depending on when one visits during the year, one might help plant rice seedlings, weed the rice fields, harvest the rice and clean up the fields, or, as in our case, participate in the shikomi. Shikomi is a multi-step process in which the elements of sake—water, yeast, mold spores, and rice—are added to the fermentation tanks in batches over several days. Our work was light and enjoyable, and it was hands-on learning. Our work that day will be part of a batch of completed sake.

Children are invited to participate. The children in the photo below, in fact, received certificates of completion the day we visited. They had completed the cycle of tasks that started in last May (planting rice) and ended in March (brewing sake).

Measuring out rice to be washed
Photo: Measuring out exactly 20 kg of rice in wire mesh baskets.

Our first task was to measure out 20 kg of rice into wire mesh baskets. At a signal from a kurabito (brewery worker) with a stop watch, teams of two immersed their basket into a large plastic bin full of water. We took turns plunging our arms into the FRIGID water to churn the rice from the bottom to the top.

After exactly two minutes of washing, we promptly removed the baskets from the water and let the rice drain slightly. We poured more clean water over the rice as a rinse and let it drain again. On the next signal, we placed the baskets into a fresh water bath. This time we left them in the water to soak the rice for exactly 30 minutes.

Pouring out the wash water
Photo: Dumping out the starchy water left in the bucket after washing the rice.

We washed the bins out, and headed to the tank room to learn about making the yeast starter. We peered into the rows of tanks and inhaled the vapors of blooming sake.

Moromi tank
Photo: The shubo (yeast starter) tank.

After 30 minutes, we weighed the rice again to check the percentage of absorption and added it to the steamer. It was time for a delicious nabe lunch with the brewery workers.

Steaming rice
Photo: The rice steams while we all go to eat lunch.

After lunch, we removed the rice from the steamer (with shovels) onto large cloths and then shouldered these to a fermentation tank. Note the plastic capes we were given to keep our clothes dry as we carried the rice to the tanks.

Moving rice from the steamer
Photo: Removing the rice from the steamer.

Moving the steamed rice to the tank
Photo: Moving the steamed rice to the fermentation tanks.

After adding our steamed rice to one tank, we toured the brewery. We were invited to inhale the aroma of a tank of daiginjo moromi (a tank of super premium sake) to smell the difference between the daiginjo tank and the earlier junmai tanks we had seen.

The day had flown by. We ordered some sake to be delivered to us when the batch was bottled. We thanked everyone, and then it was time to catch the bus and the train.

Kinpou moromi tanks
Photo: Kinpou Shuzo tank room.

That night we slept in Niigata, because the next day the small gang of Tokyo Sake Meetup Group warriors would make an assault on the Niigata Sake no Jin…