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Japan 2008: Wataribune Brewery

yamauchi.jpgDay 4 of my Japan trip takes me on another sake adventure. This 2008 sake tour is starting to pick up speed and the shinkansen has left the station.

This time, I’m headed to Ishioka city in Ibaraki Prefecture to visit Takaaki Yamauchi, the president of Huchu Homare Brewery, makers of the much loved Wataribune and Taiheikai brands of sake. I was lucky enough to get my Sake Sibling Melinda to join me for one more sake escapade!

milling.jpgTravelling out of Ueno station in northern Tokyo, Melinda and I met in the morning and headed out into the countryside on the local train for our one hour trip to Ibaraki Prefecture. The view outside my window slowly morphed from city congestion into rural openness and I began to feel myself relax.

Huchu Homare Shuzo President Mr. Yamauchi met us at the station and we were soon pulling I to the courtyard of his beautiful brewery compound. After arriving, we were welcomed into the historic main building and were served a welcoming tea and sweet by Mr. Yamauchi’s delightful mother.

We proceeded to discuss sake in a wonderful mish-mash of japanglish that gave both Yamauchi-san and myself opportunities to practice speaking each others native languages. However, I was happy to have Melinda there as a helpful translator when the conversation got more complex! (thanks Mel!)

sensei.jpgThen it was on to the Brewery tour! One of the things that struck me about this place was its wonderful beauty. To me the buildings seemed centuries old and the turn of every corner afforded a new photo op. With a gorgeous day as our backdrop, Melinda and I were brought first to the milling area. The milling machine was impressive and Yamauchi-san could read it’s needs like a master. Like a formula one race car driver, he adjusted the knobs and wheels to keep the rice flowing at optimal speed. The one thing was that the milling room was dusty. No fear, they had the perfect solution. A quick blast with a high pressure air hose gun by the exit left us free of any stray rice flour. And it was kinda fun, too.

Our next stop was the rice processing area where the wataribune sake rice was soaked and steamed. Kurabito were already at work at this when we arrived. An overhead flexible tube used vacuum power to suck the rice from the steaming area directly into the brewing tank. pretty neat! Yamauchi-san began to explain the brewing process in English using a wonderful metaphor of progressing through school. The yeast, rice koji were brought through Kindergarten, Elementary, Jr. High and High School. It seems Yamauchi-san is a born teacher. He lead us through the entire production process with an addition lesson in sake chemistry, where he showed us the lab where samples from each sake batch are analyzed.

Wataribune does indeed brew some sublime sake. Here is a quick look as some of their best offerings:

Wataribune Junmai Daiginjo
Wataribune 55 Junmai Ginjo
Wataribune Junmai Daiginjo Nama
Taiheikai Tokubetsu Junmai

soba.jpgAfter the fantastic tour, we all “graduated” to a wonderful lunch in the rolling foothills of Ibaraki. Yamauchi-san took us the the most delightful soba restaurant run by a husband and wife team. The food was magnificent and the view out the window was stunning. I really enjoyed this trip to Ibaraki and can’t tell you how much I appreciate Yamauchi-san taking the time to give us such a wonderful day. Since his Brewery is so close to Tokyo, Yamauchi-san often jokes with New Yorkers to visit his brewery by jumping out of their plane with a parachute 10 mins before landing in Tokyo to visit his Shuzo. Well, after this visit, Yamauchi-san should look up every now and then… I may just take him up on the offer!