Day 13: My Office for the Next Week

The entire reason for this trip was to come learn how to make shochu. Tekkan-san, toji of Yamato Zakura Shuzo in Ichiki, Kagoshima Prefecture, was kind enough to allow me to come work under his instruction. I’d met him thanks to Komasa-san, president of Komasa Shuzo, one of the largest distilleries in Kagoshima. Yamato Zakura may be the smallest. They are probably friends because they aren’t really competing. Also, Tekkan-san is perhaps the most interesting guy I’ve met in the shochu world.

yz office

He graduated from college, worked in advertising until his father called him home to help run the family business. Being the eldest son, he agreed. And he’s put his heart and soul into the company. Tekkan’s father, who I refer to as Shacho-san (Mr. President), remains the president with Tekkan-san now being the toji (master distiller). It’s a two man operation 9 months out of the year with seasonal help during the imo shochu production season (sweet potatoes rot as soon as you take them out of the ground so production has to happen during the harvest – end of August to end of November). During those 3 months they run one cycle each day, distilling approximately 720 liters of shochu daily. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to large distilleries.

When I decided to try to find an internship at a distillery as party of my visit this fall, the first place I thought of was Yamato Zakura. I knew they could use the help and that I’d be able to participate in every step of the process. They also are one of the boutique sakaguras that produce shochu by hand. Virtually all of the large distilleries make most of their shochu using highly automated and sophisticated equipment, which provides a perfect replication every time and allows for really large quantities to be produced efficiently. Yamato Zakura does it almost all by hand. And it’s really hard work. Tekkan-san loses 20 to 30 lbs every season. I figure a week in his kura could do my waistline some good as well.

I took a very early train from Kagoshima-Chuo to Ichiki, a postage stamp sized train station in a town of 7,000 that houses 6 shochu distilleries thanks to great groundwater. I’ve spent the past 2 months intensively learning Japanese with privately lessons 3-4 days as week in preparation for this day, because Tekkan-san had expressed his concerns that we couldn’t communicate. He met me at the station and with much relief we discovered that his English is much better than my Japanese and my Japanese is just enough to help him out when he gets lost in English. We also have translation apps for when we can’t convey an important point.

ichiki eki

He graciously agreed to allow me to stay with him and his family in their house next to the distillery. I’ve been amusingly referring to it as a “toji home stay” among my Japanese friends, but it all hit home when I walked into his house and was shown into a tatami room that normally serves as the family dining room, but would be my bedroom for the duration. I might not have arrived at a worse time, unfortunately, since his infant son spent the night in the hospital with a fever and his wife is now exhausted from staying up all night. But Tekkan-san waves it off and helps me settle in before he puts me to work.

My first job? The dirtiest job in shochu production – washing the imo. Sweet potatoes are root vegetables and coming up out of the Kagoshima topsoil that’s rich with ash from Sakurajima, they’re aboslutely filthy. I wash 500 kg of imo that first day since I arrived later.

yz washer

(the potato washing machine – trust me, it gets filthy)

Next I was taught to stir the first and second fermentations. And taught again by his father … who taught me a 3rd time, because I was not doing it to his satisfaction. This septuagenarian (i’m guessing) has an easy efficient stroke with the kaibo (Tekkan-san, a Star Wars fan, calls it a “toji lightsaber”). I helped with a few other odd jobs around the distillery before lunch, which Tekkan-san’s wife made when she got home from the hospital.

yz 1st moromi

(the first first moromi I stirred – rice, koji, yeast, and water)

yz 2nd moromi

(the first second moromi I stirred – add sweet potatoes to the first moromi and you get 4 of these pots for one of the 1st moromis)

After a leisurely lunch we went shopping nearby and visited a satsuma-age (fish cake) shop that makes them on site. Apparently, satsuma (the original name of Kagoshima) -age originated in Ichiki and this was the best shop. I was given a tour of their tiny facility where they hand make satsuma-age daily. This has always been a take it or leave it dish for me, but after having tried Ichiki satsuma-age I’m a believer.

yz satsuma age

(satsuma age explanation from the proprietress)

In the late afternoon we woke up the koji from its afternoon nap, breaking the large pile of malting rice into small boxes of rice. An hour later we’d return to mix this koji rice to help maintain the temperature naturally (large distilleries automate this entire process with temperature controls). After putting the koji to bed, we finished the afternoon work with some moromi stirring including the challenging new 2nd moromi, which takes a lot of effort since it remains overnight in a large steel tank before being moved to 4 individual clay pots the next morning. Late in the afternoon the sweet potato delivery for the next day arrived. We separated them into individual bins for tomorrow’s washing.

yz imo delivery

I met Tekkan-san’s children, adorable boys ages 1 and 3. The 3 year old took to me immediately while the 1 year old cried every time he saw me. Hopefully it was the fever. We watched one of the new Star Wars movies – it’s much better in Japanese while Tekkan-san’s wife prepared an enormous spread of sushi-maki (hand roll fixings) … it was fantastic. And especially amazing considering her lack of sleep and having a sick child to care for.

After dinner we returned to the kura to stir the moromi again and check on the koji. I knew I’d chosen the right distillery for the internship when we found Shacho-san in his pajamas running that day’s distillation. I wanted to take a photo, but it seemed somehow unkind. Perhaps I’ll grow more comfortable over the next week.

yz joryu

(straight from the still into the aging kame)

Work finished for the day at after 9pm, Tekkan-san had been working most of the past 15 hours, but wanted to “kampai” with me so we went back to my room (the family dining room) and drank Yamato Zakura oyuwari (shiro koji imo shochu mixed with hot water). It was perhaps the perfect ending to my introduction to shochu. We were both exhausted and had an early morning so we called it a night. I was too excited to sleep.

Tomorrow morning I’d be getting up at 5 to wash the potatoes before taking a day trip to work at Nakamura Shuzo in the morning and visit the legendary Manzen in the afternoon.

 

Kampai!

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  1. […] A great old school bottle from Isami, a Satsuma shochu, or sweet potato shochu made in Kagoshima. Unfortunately, I finished the original contents so I refilled this bottle with another Satsuma shochu, the unfiltered (muroka), Yamato Zakura Takumi, which I helped produce the first time I interned at Yamato Zakura distillery. […]



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