Upon return from the majestic Nagano prefecture, I had the pleasure of visiting a great friend and wine director of the San Francisco-based Omakase Group, Brian Kulich.
Brian and his team were spending time in Tokyo opening the Ginza location of Dumpling Time, a must-visit Cal-Asian dumpling bistro that overlooks the busy crossing of this high-end district. After a tour of the new place, we headed to Kabukicho, one of my favorite areas in Japan. Consisting of dozens of tiny bars each with its own theme, this makes for a number of memorable experiences.
After a couple of rounds, I reluctantly headed back to my resting place. A long journey awaited the following morning.
At 8 a.m. sharp, I met my friend Kazu San and we headed to Tochigi Prefecture, a culturally rich area dedicated to many arts including pottery and, of course, sake production.
The purpose of the day trip was to visit Tonoike Shuzo, a brewery that I have followed for a few years delivering a zippy and complex style, which is the signature of this prefecture.
Along the way, we stopped at a buzzing rest spot where we enjoyed some of the local fare, tempura vegetables over a brothy bowl of udon noodles.
After refueling, we drove deep into this rural and quaint corner, which was adorned with picture-perfect landscapes showcasing rice fields and tiny homes.
Tonoike Shuzo, founded in 1937, is the pride of Machiko City, a small town celebrated for its various styles of pottery.
As we arrived, we were greeted with an impressive line-up of sakes and shochu. The tasting was highlighted by the Sanran Gohyakumangoku (a locally grown popular rice strain) Junmai Daiginjo, which was bright and expressive with layers of winter spice, a faint orange peel and an electric finish.
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The Tokuyo Futsushu Asahi No Yume (local table rice), which was rich and robust with a rustic outline and a unique smoky layer. And also the Kome (rice) Shochu, although not a common practice in the main island of Honshu, Shochu has become a popular offering from Tonoike Shuzo amongst Tochigi and Tokyo consumers. This Shochu is unique; they use the Daiginjo sake lees to make it, delivers a lively and elegant sip that is great, on the rocks or blended in a cocktail.
Tonoike Shuzo produces two main brands, Sanran, which translates to brilliant or luminous, and BO, which means hope or vision to the future.
The brewery headed by Tonoike San (third-generation president) is exported to and enjoyed throughout Asia and the United States but the biggest market lies locally and in the Tokyo area.
After the tasting, we met the Toji (brewmaster) Makoto San. The 36-year-old Saitama native became interested in sake when he was 18. Intrigued by nihonshu production, he headed to Hokushika Shuzo in Akita, where he learned the intricacies of sake and learned the art of Kimoto (an ancient method of making sake). After knocking at the door of Tonoike Shuzo, he became the head Toji five years ago in 2014.
“I am always growing and experimenting with technique,” Makoto San says with a sense of joy. “The Tochigi brewers meet regularly to exchange ideas, taste sake and continue education.”
This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Tochigi prefecture. Aside from promoting sake making with younger generations, they collectively work on making better sake. The Shimotsuke Toji Guild (Sake School) stands out in the country because of its vision toward the future of new brewers, necessary to keep this art form alive.
The visit was everything and more that I would have expected. It is heartwarming to experience the highly contagious energy that lies within certain regions and young Tojis.
After the tour, I couldn’t help myself and spent a good amount of time exploring the pottery displays and growing my home collection, only hoping all pieces made it back intact, which miraculously they did.