Tendo is a sleepy rural town in Japan’s rural northern Yamagata Prefecture, famed for its production of shogi chess pieces, its fertile farmland fed by the pure waters flowing down from the Ou mountain range, and a Panasonic factory producing hi-tech camera lenses. It is also home to sake giant Dewasakura. However, it is to meet another local sake maker that the Foodies Go Local team takes the bullet train north. We are here to visit the Mitobe Shuzo brewery, and its innovative, free-thinking CEO, Toshinobu Mitobe.
“Our family started brewing sake here in Yamagata in 1898, the 31st year of the Meiji era,” Mitobe explains, “as well as other concerns such as soy sauce production and creating Japanese gardens. Except for the war years, we’ve been making sake ever since”.
Tradition is an intrinsic element in the Japanese sake industry, and Mitobe Shuzo clearly has plenty of that, but Tomonobu Mitobe is more concerned with looking to the future than the past, and the jovial forty-something is not afraid to take a different approach to his craft than his more conservative peers.
“I usually start describing our brewery’s ‘identity’ by pointing out the amount of sake we produce. We make 800 koku a year,” he explains, using the old school terminology of the trade. “That translates to 80,000 bottles a year. We make various sakes, but seven years ago we stopped adding distilled alcohol like many makers do. All our sakes are purely junmaishu”. By industry standards, this is rather small, but this scale has allowed them to focus on quality and innovation.
Mitobe has lived, studied and traveled overseas, and as he describes the work he clearly loves, he switches from Japanese to English and back, talking in a frank and open, casual manner that is rather far from the deadly serious, rather austere mien of many a kuramoto brewery boss.
“Some sake makers go on and on about the particular virtues of their sake, about their kodawari (unique) this and their tokucho (special quality) that, but frankly we can't be bothered to go in for all that. We like to keep it simple, and say "This is our sake, and we think it's delicious. We hope you think so too”. Of course, if someone asks us to go into detail, we are happy to explain, but basically our sake is, well, our sake”.
It’s a refreshingly straight approach. Rather than going into the technical details of production, Mitobe (pictured above, right) and his right-hand man, Jun Yuuki (above left), a former designer turned sake brewer, are keen to talk about their vision for Mitobe Shuzo, and those in the local Yamagata and larger community with whom they work.
“When we introduce ourselves,” says Mitobe, “we inevitably start by talking not about sake, but rather about agriculture. Back in 2004 we began to grow our own sakamai (rice for producing sake) in the Haramachi area of Tendo. It was the Yamadanishiki strain. We started with about 17 acres. Now we have started growing rice in the Tozenji and Tamugino districts of the city too, and we are up to about 550 acres”.
We jump into our rentacar, and drive a short distance through apple orchards towards the Ou Mountains in the distance. Soon we are in rice farmland. We turn down a narrow well-maintained asphalted road, and soon come to one of Mitobe’s fields. It’s a hot late-summer morning, and the shriek of cicadas fills the air.
In the distance there’s a loud boom that makes me jump. A crow scarer, I realize. Mitobe points to a neighboring field, greener, the rice more advanced, than his own. “That’s ordinary rice,” he tells us, “almost ready to harvest. Sakamai grows more slowly”. He scrutinizes the field with a mild frown. “This year we’ve got a lot of weeds in there. That’s going to be one large job for somebody.” And with that he let’s out a belly laugh. That somebody is quite likely Tomonobu Mitobe...
For more on the Master Sake Makers of Yamagata click here.