Friday, October 23, 2009

The Wonder of Wataribune Rice

Accompanied by our friend Melinda, I set out early the morning following the SSI awards event for Huchu Homare Shuzo in Ishioka, a small town in Sonoma-like Ibaraki-ken, about an hour and a half north by train from Shinjuku station in Tokyo. On our arrival at Ishioka station, we were greeted warmly by the smiling shacho-san (brewery President) Takaaki Yamauchi. As he drove us to his family-owned brewery, we discussed the local effects of the typhoon which had made landfall in eastern Japan the day before, destroying several older buildings nearby. Fortunately, no harm had come to any of the inhabitants! (Aside from high winds which temporarily shut down rail service, the much-anticipated typhoon had been a non-event in Tokyo).

Following a welcome of tea and sweets in the ancient reception room, Yamauchi-san led us on an intriguing tour of the kura. We then tasted the full line of Wataribune nihonshu as he described the history of the brewery and how he had come to use the unique Wataribune strain of sakamai (sake rice varietal) to make his sake. It seems that a former high-ranking Ministry of Agriculture official who had retired to the locale, about twenty years ago suggested that Huchuhomare consider resurrecting the long-ago used pure strain. Only problem was that all they could find was about 15 grams of seeds in the seed bank. Not a lot to start a rice field with! Nevertheless, they planted it, collected the seeds each year and eventually cultivated a sufficient supply for sake brewing.

The story came to life quickly as our next stop was that very rice field itself which surrounds our lunch destination, the homemade tofu and soba restaurant owned and operated by, you guessed it, the gentleman who brought Wataribune to Yamauchi-san!

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