The Japan Times Original Plan
Sep 17, 2020
The Moment is a gift for the future.
Join us to support people who take on the challenge of passing traditions along to future generations.
The Moment by The Japan Times has chosen the Obata Sake Brewery in Sado, Niigata Prefecture, as its first project to support.
The Obata Sake Brewery was awarded the Grand Prize in the second Japan Times Satoyama & ESG Awards 2020 in the category of Satoyama (rural forests and mountains maintained by local residents) for its extensive contributions to society. This award was established by The Japan Times to make its own contribution by highlighting companies, organizations and individuals who have taken outstanding initiatives in satoyama and ESG (environmental, social and governance) activities and by widely sharing these successful cases in Japan and abroad.
The Obata Sake Brewery, known for its Manotsuru sake, was founded in 1892. In addition to brewing, it produces rice, cultivates people, creates communities and has been developing overseas markets in recent years. We would like to shed light on the connection between sake brewing and the Japanese communities centering on sake, which represents traditional Japanese culture, and join hands with readers to support the unique satoyama landscape, sake culture and lifestyle of Japan that we would like to preserve for the future.
The Obata Sake Brewery has a long history, brewing craft-style sake using a traditional handmade method for the 128 years since its founding. The motto of the brewery is “Shihowajo,” meaning the harmony of four treasures: rice, water and people (brewers) — the crucial elements of sake brewing — along with the terroir of Sado Island itself. The motto reflects the importance of sake brewing in which the four elements work together. It is also symbolized in the brewery’s family crest of four diamonds.
Sado Island is the best rice-growing area in Niigata Prefecture, along with the Uonuma area.
The Obata Sake Brewery mainly uses high-quality sake rice grown on Sado Island using fresh cold mountain water and a farming method that is friendly to both people and the environment.
Winds from the continent bring snow every winter across the Sea of Japan to Sado Island, blessed with both sea and mountains. Rising in springs at the foot of the mountains is naturally filtered water containing abundant minerals. The brewery’s signature product, Manotsuru, taps water from a spring 70 meters below ground.
Kenya Kudo, who became a toji (sake brewer) at the Obata Sake Brewery in 2000, stays overnight at the brewery during the winter in order to prepare the brew in the early morning, when the air is coldest. Most other breweries have abandoned this practice to increase efficiency. This shows the commitment of Kudo and other craftsmen at the Obata Sake Brewery to produce quality sake and stay faithful to the brewery’s handmade methods.
Their efforts are highly appreciated in Japan as well as overseas. The brewery has been awarded the Gold Prize at the Annual Japan Sake Awards, Japan’s most prestigious, 13 times since 2001 and has won many other awards, including the gold medal for sake at the International Wine Challenge London, the world’s biggest wine competition, and the top platinum prize in the Junmai Daiginjo category at the Kura Master, a sake competition held in France.
Nature on Sado Island nurtures rice, water and people to produce exquisite sake. The island is surrounded by beautiful clear seas and has high mountains in the north and south and abundant agricultural lands. Because of the surrounding ocean currents, the island is cooler than the rest of Niigata Prefecture in summer but does not get extremely cold in winter. Especially in winter — the season for brewing sake — the uniquely cloudy climate of the Sea of Japan keeps air temperatures consistently low both day and night, creating an ideal environment for sake brewing.
Such blessings are symbolized by the famous Toki (crested ibis), an endangered species, gliding in the skies over Sado.
About 450 toki currently live on Sado, and the birds have become a symbol of the island's superb natural environment. To protect that environment, island farmers have adopted nature-friendly methods such as reducing the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Rice cultivated according to a certain set of rules is certified as Toki to Kurasu Sato (villages living with toki) rice. Sado Aida Rice Farming, which grows a sake rice called Koshitanrei that is used by the Obata Sake Brewery, not only cultivates in accordance with this certification standard, but also uses oyster shells from the brackish Lake Kamo to filter the water in the paddies. The combined minerals of the marine shells and mountain water are absorbed by the rice plants to produce nutritious, high-quality sake rice. Manotsuru sake is born from this web of natural resources.
Sado was the first place in Japan to be certified by the U.N. as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System — a place where traditional rural culture coexists with rich ecosystems — in recognition of its efforts on farming methods that foster agricultural biodiversity, such as the toki-friendly rice certification system. The Obata Sake Brewery, as one of its efforts, is working on brewing with terraced premium Koshihikari rice to support Sado's agricultural heritage and preserve the rice terraces.
Southeastern Sado Island cradles stunning scenery of terraced rice paddies. Rising on the satoyama slopes above a village called Iwakubi are almost 500 paddies of various sizes, called Shoryu Tanada (Rising Dragon Terraces) because it is said that the winding pathway among the ascending paddies looks like a dragon taking off into the sky.
However, these beautiful but oddly shaped terraces require a lot of work to maintain and will likely face a shortage of manpower in the future. The Obata Sake Brewery recognized this and decided to purchase this rice in order to preserve the terraced rice culture and its landscape for posterity. This year Obata Sake Brewery bought 1,200 kilograms of the terraced rice. If purchasing a certain amount every year can achieve sustainable management of the paddies, this is expected to encourage young people to become farmers.
One sake made from Koshihikari terraced rice, called Ryu no Megumi, is brewed in a former school.
Nishimikawa Elementary School stands on a hill overlooking Mano Bay on Sado. The school closed in 2010 after the declining birthrate led to a lack of students. The Obata Sake Brewery decided to redevelop the school as a second brewery and began making sake there in 2014, hoping to preserve the structure and appearance of the old wooden school building, with its 136 years of history and memories. This place is now named Gakkogura, meaning school brewery. From May to September, after sake brewing at the main brewery has finished, a winter climate is maintained at Gakkogura to allow brewing to continue. The brewery uses only locally produced ingredients. To be fully self-sustainable, the brewery has installed solar panels and also uses other forms of renewable energy.
In some ways, Gakkogura is still a school — the Obata Sake Brewery also uses it as a place for education and social interaction.
Gakkogura accepts applicants who want to learn sake brewing in a one-week course, the Sake Brewing Experience Program. Besides helping to popularize the Obata brand and sake in general, the program teaches about Sado life and culture, and the island itself. Over the week, teams of three to four people per sake tank focus on the essentials of the three stages of sake preparation. Participants not only experience sake brewing, but also learn the connection between sake and the community by visiting rice paddies. Through tasting, they also learn the characteristics of various sakes.
Gakkogura also brews sake in collaboration with various other companies in Japan. Thanks to sake, the number of people and organizations that have a relationship with Sado is increasing.
In addition to the regular one-week course, a one-day class for people of all ages, called Gakkogura Special Class, has been held every June since 2014, although it was canceled this year due to the pandemic.
Among the lecturers attracting many participants every year are the following specialists:
The primary theme common to all classes is “The future of the island country of Japan, from the perspective of Sado.”
Sado Island is said to be a microcosm of Japan because of the diversity of its nature, culture and history.
It is also considered a microcosm of Japan because issues facing the nation today, such as the aging population and declining birthrate, have already been encountered on the island, and so others can learn from Sado and contemplate the future of the country.
Participants in the special class range from Sado residents to high school students, office workers, university students and seniors from Tokyo and elsewhere across Japan. This diversity helps participants clarify their goals and gain motivation for their future. The classes are gaining popularity due to the beautiful location and the philosophy taught. In 2019, about 120 people participated.
The Obata Sake Brewery contributes to the development of the community and human resources through sake brewing, harmonizing with the environment and providing learning opportunities and exchange activities.
The Japan Times Satoyama & ESG Awards 2020 gave the Obata Sake Brewery the Grand Prize in the satoyama category, and the business is the first that our crowdfunding initiative The Moment has introduced with high expectations and support.
Upon receiving the prize at this year's awards, the second, fifth-generation brewery owner Rumiko Obata said, “Sake is made from the blessings of satoyama. It is a storyteller that speaks about satoyama. We want to connect Sado and the world through sake.”
We at The Japan Times look forward to enjoying sake made by the winner of this year's Satoyama & ESG Awards. We hope you do too, and also look forward to your participation in the initiative.
Koshitanrei, a toki-friendly certified rice cultivated by Sado Aida Rice Farming using oyster shells in the paddies, is used to make this Junmai Daiginjo, the highest grade of sake. Junmai Daiginjo requires rice that normally is polished to remove more than 50 percent of the husk in order to remove protein and fats and achieve a clearer taste, and contains no added alcohol. For this limited-edition sake, 65 percent of the husk was removed and the sake was bottled unprocessed. It has a characteristic rich flavor of honey, cinnamon and matured fruits. The limited edition also comes with a special label that depicts Aida’s rice paddies with flying toki.
Yamadanishiki is regarded as the top-quality rice for sake brewing but is difficult to grow. The Obata Sake Brewery and its contracted farmers are carrying out the only project on Sado to cultivate Yamadanishiki. The precious Sado Yamadanishiki is polished down to 35 percent to make this Daiginjo sake. Its flavor is elegant, clear and mellow with soft sweetness of peach and orange. The limited edition also comes with a special label that depicts the rice paddies of Nagahara, one of the Obata Sake Brewery’s contracted farmers.
Junmai Ginjo-shu is made of Koshitanrei rice from Sado Aida Rice Farming. The rice is polished to 55 percent and is certified as toki-friendly. It is characterized by an aromatic scent of rice fields and herbal freshness.
This version of Yamahai-Junmai-shu, served warm, is brewed in Gakkogura, formerly an elementary school. The fresh acidity of apple and umami of rice are well balanced.
This Junmai-shu, served warm, is brewed in Gakkogura. It offers fresh citrus scents reminiscent of lemongrass.