The 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster had a devastating impact on the Japanese prefecture of Fukushima, but five years on its famed sake industry is safe and sound – and has the test results to prove it.
Text by Johannes Pong
*Featured in Crave’s Issue 77, October 2016
When friends found out that I was embarking on a four-day sake brewery visit to Fukushima – the Japanese prefecture hit by the triple whammy of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011 – they reacted with hysteria as well as genuine concern. Then came the jokes about growing third eyes and extra limbs. Fortunately, radiation is easily detected. Its presence can’t be covered up, nor can it be exaggerated easily. But sadly, there’s still a lot of misinformation, myth and fear-mongering regarding the prefecture – and, indeed, the whole island nation.
Before flying to Japan, I borrowed a sleek, stylish Lapka personal environmental monitor from a techie friend. Since acquired by Airbnb, the monitor connects to a smartphone app and looks way less intimidating than a clunky geiger counter. One program figures out whether your fruit is organic, another analyses the background radiation levels of your immediate surroundings. When I tested it around Hong Kong, it was rather unsettling to discover the bar of a five-star hotel in Central had higher background radiation than places I was going to visit in Fukushima.
The prefecture’s topography is split into three strips and the climate is also varied enough for the Fukushima weather forecast to separate it into three distinct areas as well. Hamadori, the coastal strip, is still reeling from the shock of the tsunami and disaster at the Daiichi Nuclear Plant. Nakadori, the central strip, is the location of Fukushima’s commercial centre and transport hub, Koriyama city, where we disembarked from the bullet train. Our destination lay further west in the mountain-encircled Aizu strip, in the fertile farmland of Kitakata and the sake-brewing castle town of Aizuwakamatsu.
US, British and Australian governments advise keeping a safe distance of 20km
from the Daiichi plant. Koriyama is at least 94km away – about the same distance
Mount Fuji is from Tokyo. My Lapka monitor assured me that background radiation
levels in Koriyama, Kitakata and Aizuwakamatsu were consistently lower
(0.17) than those in Hong Kong (0.20 to 0.21). It’s sobering to realise major metropolises built with concrete and granite, like Hong Kong or Tokyo, trap much more radiation than rural areas such as Fukushima, even after a nuclear accident
Besides shielding western Fukushima from the worst of the radiation in the days immediately after the March 2011 disaster, the Azuma mountain range around Aizu has some of the region’s best onsen resorts, hiking trails and ski slopes. Thousands of refugees from Hamadori and Nakadori were relocated in Aizu and they have chosen to stay in the prefecture.
The three geographic regions have distinct dialects and cultures. Except for the coastal strip, where the nuclear plant is still simmering, the other areas never consumed much fresh fish. Aizu’s local sashimi is often a vegetarian version of delicate tofu skin, or raw horse mixed with kara-miso, a spicy bean paste. Dishes such as kozuyu, the signature soup for festive occasions, use dried scallop to impart a briny seafood umami, similar to Cantonese culinary traditions.
We started our sake tour at the Niida Honke brewery in Tamura, a city that seems more like a village and where the bus service stops at 6pm. The family brewery was founded in 1711 and is currently run by Yasuhiko Niida, the handsome 18th-generation tji (master brewer). He and his staff of 22 handle the whole sake-making process, from planting and harvesting the rice to the cooking and fermenting. He’s very proud of his artisanal product.
2011 was Niida Honke’s 300-year anniversary, and to celebrate it began planting organic sake rice to produce fuller, softer sakes. Although organic sake rice is 1.5 times more expensive than regular rice, Niida’s dream is that all the farms in Tamura will be sustainable and 100 per cent organic by 2025. “So that the soil will be healed, and we can be proud of our land,” he explains.
After harvesting, the rice grains are meticulously raked after being sprinkled with koji mould. Different strains of Japan’s “national fungi” flavour soy sauce, miso, alcohol and everything in between. The meditative, repetitive motion may have inspired the raked Zen sand gardens in Japanese temples, which used to produce their own sake just as European monasteries made beer and wine.
“In the past, rice and sake were viewed as gifts from the gods. We’re inspired to honour that tradition and make sake the way it should be made,” Niida says. Currently, 95 per cent of the rice is grown without pesticides or chemical fertilisers. “I raise my two daughters here. I wouldn’t make anything that I cannot feed them,” Niida said.
All Fukushima breweries test their rice, water, sake and sake lees for radioactivity. No test result has ever exceeded 10 becquerels per kilogram, which means radioactive contamination has never been detected in sake, or any other product that leaves the prefecture for that matter.
The beautiful Fukushima Agricultural Technology Centre in Koriyama is the size of 12 Tokyo Domes. Surrounded by forest, it’s spotlessly clean in soothing whites and warm timber. In its labs, scientists sample, monitor and test all the prefecture’s food products for radioactive contamination. Every bag of rice, fruit or vegetable grown, and every animal slaughtered, in Fukushima undergoes rigorous screening, with standards far stricter than those in the US
or the EU.
In addition to the FATC monitoring, all the sake breweries conduct their own independent testing on the water and rice they use – crucial elements to make a fine brew. It seems excessive but we’re impressed. Fukushima’s regular Joes know and care where their food and drink come from. Besides chefs, food writers and foodies, who really does all that research nowadays? Fukushima locals have no choice. They can’t risk it. Consequently, they eat better and more healthily than people in Hong Kong, London or New York.
Even more impressive, the prefecture has won the most gold medals at the Japan Sake Awards, the most prestigious industry event in the country, for three consecutive years. These are not pity prizes awarded to the prefecture that was hit so badly by the tsunami. Twenty-four judges taste 400 sakes from across the country. Brutally minimal and utterly Japanese, the judges simply sit, sip and spit. There’s no talking or commentary. The sake is then awarded a number – one for the best, five for try harder next year – and the top sakes go into a second round, awarded one to three. Gold labels are awarded to 20 to 25 per cent. Fukushima brews are ranked consistently up there.
Typical Fukushima sakes are crisp, clean ginjs (40 per cent of the rice is polished away, and the sake is fortified with a smidgeon of distilled alcohol). They exhibit a dainty sweetness, very refined but with a deep umami. These characteristics are a product of Fukushima’s good rice, soft water from mountain streams or deep wells, and ideal climate for the fermentation process.
Even before the 2011 disasters, master brewers were never stingy about sharing their knowledge. But when the tsunami struck 51 of the prefecture’s 65 breweries, naturally they helped each other out.
I have a chance to make sake at Suehiro’s venerable Kaei Brewery in Aizuwakamatsu. Established in 1850 during the Kaei era, the wooden building is where the famed Yamahai method was developed, using naturally occurring yeast or lactic bacteria floating down from the rafters to create richer, umami-laden sakes. Its sake is still brewed by hand and heart, without modern machinery, under the watchful eye of 80-year-old master brewer Juichi Sato. He started making sake in the 35th year of the reign of Showa (1960) and does not intend to stop anytime soon – his wife says Sato has too many fans all over the world to quit. His photo is even on some of the labels.
Suehiro also has a modern brewery able to produce enough sake for export. The sake I am to make with Master Sato is of limited quantity, and sold only in the brewery’s gift shop. Brewing with Sato is an honour, but it’s backbreaking work. Rice is steamed in gigantic iron pots until the texture is almost like clay, unlike the parboiled rice we eat. High heat makes it dry, but moisture is contained within the grain. I lug wooden barrels full of hot steaming rice over my shoulders to a sheet of cloth rolled out on the floor where we spread out the rice clumps to cool down. The cooling process differs every day, depending on the temperature, humidity, and whether it’s the first, second or third batch of rice. It’s all up to Sato and his senses to ensure it all goes well, to get the right flavours and aromas.
Koji spores are sprinkled onto the rice by hand. Once cooled, the rice is carried up a flight of stairs and poured into vats of living, bubbling mash. Fermentation takes up to a month or so before being pressed to separate the clear liquid from the lees. Fukushima sakes are artisanal products that take clean, pure ingredients, dedication, care and craftsmanship honed throughout the centuries. The result is truly exquisite.
1. Aizu Higashiyama Hot Spa Kutsurogijuku
This onsen hotel offers hot springs and local kaiseki. Aizu signatures include namayubasashi (velvety raw bean curd skin), horse sashimi (known as “sakura” for its rosy colour) with spicy miso, buckwheat congee and kozuyu, the regional celebratory stew made with mountain vegetables and flavoured with dried scallops.
43 Yumoto Terayashiki, Higashiyama, Aizuwakamatsu
Aizu Higashiyama Hot Spa Kutsurogijuku
Sitting around a traditional sunken hearth, or irori, elevates the experience at this charming ryokan restaurant. The speciality is grilled ayu (sweetfish) fresh from the rivers with a pouring of delicate rice vinegar. The inn is also famous for its meppameshi, rice in round wooden containers topped with a variety of seasonal ingredients, including mushrooms in autumn and crab in winter.
5-15 Johokumachi, Aizuwakamatsu
3. Kiriya Gongentei
Aizu is famous throughout Japan for its soba noodles, thanks to the high quality of local buckwheat flour and the region’s pure, clean water. This famous soba shop is known for its gank (stubborn) soba, served with al dente noodles and a fresh wasabi root for diners to grate to taste. Go for the set of three different buckwheat noodles.
2-34 Uwamachi, Aizuwakamatsu City