Kumamoto Survival, Success and Soy: A Day with Hamada Shoyu
We've always had a soft spot for Kyushu in general, and Kumamoto in particular, for the generosity and kindness of its people, the spectacular scenery of Mount Aso, Kumamoto's fabulous castle, and of course, its excellent local cuisine. Thus when we were invited to visit Kumamoto's premier shoyu soy sauce maker for a 'tasting and tour', we jumped at the chance. And jumped on the bullet train. Three and a half hours out of Kyoto, we were there, greeted by images of Kumamoto's now world-famous mascot, Kumamon.
Nestled between the Shirakawa and Tsuboigawa rivers in the historical district of Oshima, Hamadaya (now Hamada Shoyu) was founded in 1818, around the same time that Mary Shelley was anonymously publishing Frankenstein, the British East India Company was rapidly acquiring great swathes of the Indian sub-continent, and a certain Karl Marx came into being.
Right off the bat, Hamada Shoyu started to prosper. Its key location between the two major rivers meant that it could easily ship in raw materials - the soy beans and wheat needed for production - and distribute its finished product to its growing customer base across Kyushu. Its early owners also levied a 'tribute' from the locals who used its ferry boats to cross the rivers, a handy source of revenue in what was, and still is, a capital-intensive business. Equally importantly there was an abundant, essential ingredient free of charge: the clear, pure waters flowing from Mount Aso.
This year Hamada Shoyu celebrates its 200th anniversary in robust health, not least due to the steadying hand of its chief shareholders and experts in sauce production and retailing in China, the Fung Group of Hong Kong. However, it is only by good fortune that this milestone was reached at all.
At 01.25 am on the morning of April 16th, 2016, the Magnitude 7 Kumamoto Earthquake shook the prefecture with merciless violence and terrifying power. It was the largest quake ever to strike Kyushu, and came on top of a pre-tremor two days earlier which had killed nine. The city's beautiful, 15th century stone-walled castle was severely damaged, neighborhoods were leveled, and at least fifty citizens lost their lives. 44,000 people were evacuated from their homes, and reconstruction is still continuing today, not least in the gravely damaged, iconic castle.
Indeed not, but the Fung Group investment has provided a vital lifeline in preserving this ancient, historical company, as its Honorary Chairman Yasunari Hamada explains. “Handing over a 200 year old company to overseas investors is never easy, but the reality is that we are an ancient company trying to survive in modern times. It's the age of Artificial Intelligence and self-driving automobiles, and we must look forward as well as back. We had always been susceptible to the whims of the banks that could decide at any time to withdraw the finance that we need to develop, and to repay our investors. The Fungs have given us that stability, and for that we are extremely grateful".
The Company produces a range of Gourmet-quality Sauces and Seasonings
Grateful too are the citizens of Kyushu, and beyond, who get to enjoy their fabulous sauces. We were treated to a kikijoyu 'shoyu tasting' session in Hamada Shoyu's excellent Kura Cafe, housed in the beautifully renovated shoyu warehouse.
The company makes a range of soy sauces and other condiments, it's prestige line being the Hamada Ⅶ Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce, the Japanese Kyushu Soy Sauce, the Japanese seasoning Soy sauce and the Dai Aso (Oaso, domestically) Sweet Soy Sauce. These are all subtly different, and recommended to be paired with washoku - in order - white sashimi, red sashimi, cooked dishes or as a table-top seasoning and with sushi, sashimi and shellfish. The Dai Aso was my personal favorite, deep, flavorful and umami-packed, with the distinctive sweetness characteristic of Kyushu sakes.
"What makes our soy sauce so special is its mellow, rounded flavorful nature," explains company President Tadashi Kashihara, "and the way that when it is exposed to heat, in the cooking process, the most wonderful aroma is released".
Two hundred years on from its founding, Hamada Shoyu still produces fabulous soy sauces and condiments. With plans to expand its business, and create a beautiful, renovated 'Take no Hiroba' ('Bamboo Square') Visitor's Center, designed by globally-renowned architect Kengo Kuma, the future looks as bright as the crystal clear waters that flow down from Mount Aso and brought the company into existence.
To arrange a visit or view their products, head to the company's English Website. A map to their location is here. We wish to thank Hamada Shoyu for their kind cooperation and collaboration in the production of this article.