Day 16: Yachiyoden + NHK

shacho home

I awoke in the traditional tatami room for an early breakfast with the Shacho-san prepared in traditional fashion by his traditional wife in his traditional home. It was pretty special. We made the short drive to his distillery where the staff was waiting to greet us. The drive up the valley to the sakagura was beautiful. The distillery itself had reopened 10 years earlier after a complete remodeling. The shochu boom that took Japan in the early 2000s encouraged a number of families that had stopped distilling to restart. Some of these have ended up making some of the best shochus as they have to compete with large corporations so a great product is their only avenue to success.

yachiyoden

Yachiyoden is no exception. Having run other businesses while the distillery was closed, Shacho-san had the resources and business acumen to make his project succeed. He hired one of the most respected shochu tojis in Japan, Yode-san is in his 80s and is the only shochu toji to be awarded the Japanese government’s gendai no meko award for excellence in craftsmanship. His job has been to train the next generation of tojis, the most promising of which is the president’s youngest son, who at just 28 has already won national awards for his shochu.

yachitoji

Meeting these men was a treat. Yode-san has shrunk with the years, but still runs his kura how he sees fit. He spends most of his time in a laboratory off the distillery floor using various experiments to test the yeast and koji content, the acidity, and the alcohol level. He even runs a mini-still on each moromi to check to see when he believes it will be optimal to distill. Yagi-kun, the young gun, has a ready smile and a terrific look. He may become a shochu celebrity for that alone, but he knows what he’s doing and runs his floor like the leader he should be.

yachistills

(lower pressure, left, and atmospheric preccure, right, stills at Yachiyoden)

I spent the morning learning how to use some of the more modern equipment Yachiyoden has incorporated into their hand made processes including a koji box that requires far less work than I’ve experienced at Yamato Zakura. I also got to work on their kill-line – cutting freshly washed imo. What impressed me here was that not only was the younger son on the line, so was the shacho. Not often you see a company president role up his sleeves and get dirty with the day laborers, but that’s the culture at this distillery.

yachi oden

We stopped for lunch at a famous udon restaurant (the last emperor of Japan once visited) and then NHK, Japan’s largest television station, arrived at Yachiyoden to film a segment of “Mizukikou” (water holiday), a travel show where a celebrity (in this case actress Ritsuko Tanaka) visit spots around Japan known for their water quality. Tarumizu is just one place – mizu means water – and it’s a great place to make shochu. We all went to lunch at a famous udon restaurant – Japan’s last emperor visited this place during his reign.

Afterward we went to the distillery floor to shoot some footage. I was asked to stir moromi in the background while the tojis and president gave them a guided tour. My job was to stir moromi and when the actress approached, let her smell the aromas. Later we were mixing a new 2nd moromi and I handed her my kaibo to try her hand at it. That was the extent of the NHK interaction until the cameras stopped. When the interviews started I was asked to go to the bottling facility to learn how to package shochu. I ended up having so much fun with two oba-chan (older women) who were expert at this. They’d laugh at my ineptitude and applaud as I learned. The two of them ended up asking me for my autograph and taking photos.

yachiteam

(Ritsuko Tanaka – center in the purple shoes)

At the end of the day we all took photos with the NHK actress (others asked for her autograph, but I have no idea who she was). Yagi-san took me to an onsen afterward. My first real traditional Japanese onsen where you get naked in front of strangers. Even more strange was that one of the strangers began talking to me (through Yagi-san, my interpreter). First time I’ve met someone completely naked since I was born. While I’m still not completely comfortable with this kind of bathing, it’s growing on me. The bath is really nice and the conversation is polite – eyes are kept on the face.

After the bath I was ready to go to sleep, but we had a husge feast the president’s house where I met the whole family and we kampai’d with a variety of their shochus. I had such a happy feeling spending time with this family that had invited me into their home. They were extremely hospitable and did everything they could to make me feel comfortable. I’ve also been invited back.

yachi party

As things wound down, Yagi-san took me to the only bar in Tarumizu, a seedy karaoke place on the 3rd floor of a buidling next to his father’s home.

yagi-kun

The guy next to us sang a song, surprisingly well, and the guys at the other end of the bar got boistrous. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and ignoring the gaijin, which I prefer. But I was getting tired – it had been a long day – so we called it a night. I’d finally get to sleep in tomorrow.

 

Kampai!

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