Friday, November 27, 2015

Watering Hole for 'The Last Samurai' Is Back in Business

 Sake shop favored by famous samurai reopens in Tokyo after 100-year break

President Shunichi Saito, left, and chief brewer Yoshimi Terasawa stand with sake made in the Shiba district of Tokyo's Minato Ward. (Taeko Hiraoka)

The Asahi Shimbun  November 27, 2015 By TAEKO HIRAOKA/ Staff Writer

A brewery where three of the most famous samurai of the 19th century enjoyed shots of sake has reopened in the heart of Tokyo more than a hundred years after closing its doors.

During the Edo Period (1603-1867), Saigo Takamori, Yamaoka Tesshu and Sakamoto Ryoma could be seen hanging out at Wakamatsuya in the Shiba district of Tokyo’s Minato Ward as the government of the Satsuma Domain, now Kagoshima Prefecture, had an office nearby.

Also, statesman and naval officer Katsu Kaishu would sneak up there on a boat using a waterway linking the area to Tokyo Bay for a secret tipple or two.

“Secret talks on the bloodless fall of Edo Castle may have been held at the shop,” says Shunichi Saito, the 61-year-old seventh-generation president of the brewery company Wakamatsuya, which was founded in 1812.

Takamori, sometimes referred to as the real “Last Samurai,” sometimes didn't have enough cash on him to fund his drinking session, so he would leave notes at the store in lieu of payment. The notes can be seen there now.

Saigo Takamori, known as "The Last Samurai" was played by Ken Watanabe (below) in the 2003 American film of the same name.

Wakamatsuya shut down in 1909 because it was unable to keep its business afloat due to hefty hikes in sake taxes during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

A century later, Saito was running a fashion accessories shop, but he wanted to try something new while respecting the legacy of the old family business. His eldest son, 32-year-old Kenkichi, trained for two years at a sake brewery in Nagano Prefecture where he met Yoshimi Terasawa, 54, the current chief brewer, and in 2011, they joined up to resurrect the business as Tokyo Port Brewery Wakamatsuya.

Unrefined sake Edokaizyo and liqueur Go, made in the Shiba district (Taeko Hiraoka)

This autumn it will work on brewing its first unrefined “junmai daiginjo” (pure rice, very special brew) sake in preparation for making a new local specialty in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The sake is fermented in a small building in Shiba, an area near Tokyo Tower where the streets are lined with office buildings.

Terasawa cultures yeast in beakers installed in a machine on the second floor. The temperature is set to 30 degrees. He checks out the sake’s “nihonshudo” (the measure of sweetness and dryness) in the office kitchen, which resembles a science lab. And seven sake brewing tanks line the back of the first-floor storefront.

Terasawa made sake for 20 years for a major brewer in Kyoto’s Fushimi district. He says that producing it in a small location in Tokyo means “everything is in my hands, and that motivates me. Even if I don’t produce a lot of volume, I can maintain the quality.”

The water is from Tokyo and resembles that from Fushimi, a major sake-producing area, because it contains no manganese or iron, which is not suited to making the beverage. Terasawa further purifies the water with filters. He had only used rice from Hachioji on the outskirts of Tokyo, but due to increased production volume, he now also procures it from Okayama Prefecture.

The brewery currently sells Edokaizyo, an unrefined sake, and Go, a pink-colored liqueur in honor of Oeyo, the wife of Tokugawa Hidetada (1579-1632), the second Tokugawa shogun who lies in rest at nearby Zojoji temple. Unrefined sake is popular among young women for being a healthy, light alcoholic beverage--part of the current boom in fermented food and drink.

This year’s unrefined junmai daiginjo, which Wakamatsuya has never produced before, can be made by production equipment with an annual output of 6,000 liters. For refined sake, a brewer cannot obtain a production permit unless it makes more than 60,000 liters a year. Wakamatsuya plans to fully renovate its four-story building to increase production volume.

Saito said with enthusiasm: “We are finally making progress toward being able to make refined sake. I want to make it happen by the Tokyo Olympics. I want the people of the world to imbibe sake made in Tokyo.”