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Release | Kentaro Kimura

Otokoyama: the leading company of sake brewing industry in Hokkaido carries on the traditional technologies from the Edo period - Hokkaido sake brewery series (6)

“Otokoyama brand” brewed by Otokoyama Co., Ltd. in Asahikawa City must be one of the most known sake breweries not only in Hokkaido but also in all Japan and to the world. 

When I went back to their history, I learned that it was a long-established brewery with approximately 350 years of history. There are many labels called “something Otokoyama” all around Japan. However, only Asahikawa’s Otokoyama has nothing before the name Otokoyama! 

I visited there to learn about the story behind the name, their history, the technique of the brewery which made Otokoyama known to the world, and their pride, etc.! 
 
 
▲The picture from the brewery opening day on February 10, 2019. 12,000 Otokoyama fans visit the brewery to participate in this annual event!  (The picture is provided by Otokoyama Co., Ltd.) 
 
 

Table of Contents

- The story behind the name “Otokoyama” and its history
- The sake brewing in Otokoyama: there is no compromise to luxury labels and regular labels either
- The pride of legitimate Otokoyama: carrying on the traditional Kimoto-zukuri


 

The story behind the name “Otokoyama” and its history

As I have written, there are many labels with the name “Otokoyama” in it. I can name a few from what I remember: “Nechi Otokoyama” (Niigata Prefecture), “Senryo Otokoyama” (Iwate Prefecture), “Mutsu Otokoyama” (Aomori Prefecture), “Uyou Otokoyama” (Yamagata Prefecture), etc. It is one of the most common names of Japanese sake. However, Asahikawa’s Otokoyama is the only one without anything before the name Otokoyama! Why is it?
 
 
▲Many people outside of Hokkaido would imagine “Otokoyama” if they were told to think of sake from Hokkaido.
 
 
Let’s find out the history of Otokoyama. Sake brewing in Japan started at Settsu-Itami (current Itami City in Hyogo Prefecture) by Shoan Yamanaka in 1600. Itami becomes the three biggest sake brewery town with Nada (current Nada-Ku Kobe City in Hyogo Prefecture), and Fushimi in Kyoto Prefecture. 
 
The first generation Sanemon Yamamoto established the sake label “Otokoyama” first around 1661 to 1673 with under the business name “Momenya.” He started brewing “Otokoyama” and “Nanatsu-Ume.” The name “Otokoyama” came from a shrine called “Otokoyama Hachimangu” (current Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine). He took the name from this shrine because the shrine had a divided deity of Minamoto family and his forefather was connected to Minamoto family. Their sake becomes famous as it was designated as the sake for civil servants in 1697 then designated as sake for Yoshimune Tokugawa, the 8th generation general of Tokugawa Family in 1733. Their sake was one of the most famous sake in the city of Edo. 
 
 
▲You can learn the history of Otokoyama at “Otokoyama Sake Brewery Museum” built together with the main brewery. They exhibit some rare resources and documents about the history of Otokoyama from the Edo Period. 
 
 
The name appeared in Ukiyo-e works of Utamaro Kitagawa and Kuniyoshi Utagawa. Also, it is said that forty-seven Ronin drank after their revenge (Ako incident or commonly called Chushingura). However, it gradually declined because of the loss of successor from the 19th Century. They almost had to close the business in the mid-Meiji Period. This is the brief history of the Otokoyama head family. After that, many sake breweries all around Japan started brewing sake with the name “something Otokoyama.”
 
 
▲They also exhibit old equipment for sake brewing at the museum, and you can learn the process of sake brewing in the past days. The number of visitors from abroad has increased, and there was an audio description with five languages. 
 
 
▲The shop on the first floor offers a variety of samplings including brewery limited labels. Tourists from abroad enjoy the sampling. 
 
 
Otokoyama was established by Okiyoshi Yamazaki, who came to Sapporo from Niigata Prefecture after he finished training on sake brewing in 1887. The brewery moved to Asahikawa City in 1899 as the 7th division of the former Imperial Japanese Army was established. The company name of that time was “Yamazaki Sake Brewery.” They included the name Otokoyama in 1933. They made the label “Hokkai Otokoyama.” 
 
 
The turning point was 1965 to 1975 when the third generation Okiyoshi Yamazaki was leading the brewery. He analyzed that the weak point of sake breweries in Hokkaido compared to those in the mainland, which most consumers in Hokkaido preferred at that time, was that there was no proof of history. He started to research about the history of Otokoyama, and he found Ryoko Yamamoto, the 31st generation of “Momenya,” established by Sanemon Yamamoto and who first used the name Otokoyama as a sake label, and built a relationship. Then, he became the legitimate successor of the name “Otokoyama” by succeeding the process, stamp, trademark, etc., in 1968. 
 
 
▲The brewery exhibits stamps, etc., Otokoyama succeeded from the Sanemon Yamamoto family in the museum. This is the proof of the legitimate successor of Otokoyama. 
 
 
In the same year, the brewery moved to the current location Nagayama District in Asahikawa City and changed the company name to “Otokoyama Co., Ltd.” However, “Otokoyama” itself is a customarily used mark, and there are no legal problems when other breweries use the name “Otokoyama” for sake labels. The brewery is not considering suing them as well. 
 
 
▲They will celebrate the 51st anniversary of the establishment of the main brewery in the current location. It has become one of the major tourist destinations in Asahikawa.  
 
 
Otokoyama started to expand the business as they become the legitimate successor of Otokoyama not only Japan but also to the world. In 1977, they won the first gold prize by the Monde Selection as Japanese sake. They started exporting to the U.S. in 1984, and now Otokoyama is exported to over 20 countries. It has become the world’s best-known sake, Otokoyama. 

 

The sake brewing in Otokoyama: there is no compromise to luxury labels and regular labels either

The amount of production at Otokoyama is approximately 7,000-Goku (700,000 of 1.8 liters bottle). This is definitely the biggest amount in Hokkaido’s sake brewing industry. They produced 25,000-Goku at its peak so we can see that they shifted to quality over quantity although the amount is still much. 
 
 
▲You can watch their brewing process from the window on the second floor of Otokoyama Sake Brewery Museum.  
 
 
Otokoyama uses 12,000 barrels of rice (approximately 60 kilograms per barrel) in a year. Among them, 2,500 barrels are Hokkaido produced sake for rice including Ginpu, Suisei, and Kitashizuku. They try to use rice produced in Hokkaido for labels which they intend to distribute mainly in Hokkaido. 
 
They use “Yamada Nishiki” from Hyogo Prefecture, the king of rice for sake, and “Miyama Nishiki” which has been the common breed until recently in breweries in Hokkaido, for the flagship labels such as Daiginjo and representative sake for exhibitions. The production amount of sake for rice in Hokkaido is still not enough. They cannot use rice produced in Hokkaido for all sake they brew at the moment, as they are the biggest brewery in Hokkaido. 
 
 
▲Hidefumi Kitamura, the director of manufacturing of Otokoyama, has been working in Otokoyama for 13 years. He was working at “Kita No Homare” in Otaru before that.  
 
 
“The method of brewing with rice for sake produced in Hokkaido is different from Yamada Nishiki, what we have been using. We are still in the process of experimentation. However, the quality of rice produced in Hokkaido is surely raising so I would like to try brewing delicious sake with its characteristics.” The chief brewer Kitamura told. 
 
 
▲They make “Kita No Inaho” series by with rice for sake produced in Hokkaido 100%. Tokubetsu-Junmai and Tokubetsu-Honjozo are limited in Hokkaido. The right one in the picture is Daiginjo brewed with Suisei, and it’s sold all over Japan.
 

Although they produce much amount, there is no compromise in their sake brewing. For the luxurious sake (such as Junmai-Ginjo, Gin, Daiginjo, etc.), they carefully wash rice, steam rice, make koji by hand, which is called “Ko-Jikomi.” This process requires delicate works different from regular labels. 

“We have to carefully wash, water, and steam rice in small batches, especially for Dai-Ginjo, etc.” The chief brewer Kitamura told. Although we are in the technological era, sake brewing requires human senses.
Their sake brewing technique is guaranteed as they won the gold prize at the “the National New Sake Appraising and Deliberating Fair” in 2018. 
 


▲I thought it was a traditional steamer, but they were disinfecting the koji lid. 
 
 
▲They are cooling down the steamed rice before sprinkling Daiginjo koji. The Koji room is also separated from regular labels. 


▲This is the fermentation mash for the representative sake for exhibitions. It’s made with 35% polished Yamada Nishiki. I could feel a delicate and sweet smell. 
 
 
Of course, they do not compromise at all for regular labels for daily drinks. They don’t add any sugar for non-premium sake (sake which adds distilled alcohol) which are sold in supermarkets, etc. “If you are looking for something to drink daily, try our ‘Josen Otokoyama.’ It’s really good.” The chief brewer Kitamura told me with his pride. 


▲“Josen Otokoyama” is recommended for daily drinks. It’s very light although it’s a non-premium sake. Older generations would like this one. 

 

The pride of legitimate Otokoyama: carrying on the traditional Kimoto-zukuri

Otokoyama values “Kimoto-zukuri” traditionally and their “Kimoto Junmai” is one of the flagship products. “We have involved into Kimoto-zukuri for a long time, and we will continue to do so. How to develop from the tradition matters.” The chief brewer Kitamura told.  
 
 
▲“Otokoyama Kimoto-Junmai” lets you enjoy unique sourness and umami flavors of rice. This is popular as a sake to drink with a meal in all over Japan. 
 
 
Kimoto-zukuri might not be familiar except Japanese sake fans. It is the most traditional method of brewing sake which was popular from the Edo Period to mid-Meiji Period. 
 
When we make fermentation mash, we cultivate yeast by making fermentation starter with koji, steamed rice, and water. It is inevitable to mix bacterias and wild yeasts in the air to yeast tanks, so we add lactic acids which would eat those unnecessary bacterias, etc. 
 
“Kimoto-zukuri” adds natural lactic acids that live in the brewery instead of adding artificial lactic acids. This process intends to produce sake more naturally. Most sake in recent days is made by adding lactic acids, which is called Sokujou-Moto, developed in 1910.  
 
 
▲This picture is not a Kimoto-zukuri, but you can see the fermentation mash of Ginpu Junmai is bubbling. Lactic acids and yeasts are fighting to survive! 
 
 
The characteristics of Kimoto-zukuri is that the vital power of yeasts becomes stronger from the more severe struggle for survival between lactic acids and yeasts in fermentation mash. As a result, it ferments well and produces different sake with sourness and refreshing flavor from lactic acids and delicate yet strong flavors of rice. 
 
However, Sokujou-Moto became the primary sake brewing methods because the risk of spoilage of fermentation mash increases as it uses natural ingredients, and Kimoto-zukuri requires hard works for brewers as it requires “Yamaoroshi,” the process to make yeast which brewers rub together steamed rice, water, and koji. 
 
 
▲They were pressing Kimoto-Junmai when I visited the brewery! This is the raw, undiluted sake before filtering or pasteurizing. I tried a sip, and it was sweet and sour like white wine! 
 
 
▲They sell “Kesa No Sake,” freshly pressed sake in the morning, limitedly sold for the day. This is indeed a rare sake! 
 
 
Otokoyama is willing to continue carrying on the techniques and traditions from the head family. The head brewer Kitamura recommended their flagship sake “Kimoto-Junmai.”: “This sake matches various dishes. You can strongly feel the umami flavor with Nurukan, the temperature of 30 to 35 degrees.”
 
Kimoto-Zukuri was like a patent of Otokoyama in Hokkaido. Some breweries started to challenge this traditional method, but it takes time to gain enough skill and knowledge to make a product. Otokoyama can produce sake in Kimoto-Zukuri because they had been carrying on the tradition. 
 
To explain the flavor of Kimoto-Zukuri, I would say it has lactic acid’s sourness like “Katsugen,” the famous drink in Hokkaido. Otokoyama changes the quality of sake according to the preferences of current consumers little by little. Some people might like, and some people might not, but give a try! 
 
▲They pump up the underground water of Mt. Taisetsu, and carbon filter, chlorine disinfection so there are no problems with hygiene! It becomes water for sake making after passing the investigations by health centers and extracting chlorine. 
 
 
▲Citizens visit the brewery every day for the water. This is the same as water for sake making after the above process.  
 
 
“I would like to implement the techniques we use for luxurious sake to regular sake more than now.” The chief brewer Kitamura is planning to raise the quality of sake as the whole brewery. I imagine that the world’s most known sake Otokoyama will continue to be the classic brewery to produce local sake of Hokkaido. 
 
  • Otokoyama: the leading company of sake brewing industry in Hokkaido carries on the traditional technologies from the Edo period - Hokkaido sake brewery series (6)
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