June 12, 2012
By Shizuka Wakashita
One day I had to run errands near a local wine shop and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe this shop has some jizake (sake produced by smaller breweries, or as with beer, “micro breweries”). If they are passionate about wines they must be for sake as well, at least to some extent, right? So I stepped in to find out that I was right. Turns out that most of the sake that they carry, if not all, were jizake and many were new to me. The shop owner gave me flavor profiles of each of them and told me a little bit about the breweries.
I purchased four kinds of sake to take home and I was very pleased. They were all great sake but I really liked the one called Kinpou. It had pleasant sweetness and fruity aromas, almost like a banana. I once served the sake at my place and my friend yelled, “Nani kore?!” (“What is this?!”). Several months later she told me, “Ano osake ga wasurerarenai!” (“I can’t stop thinking about that sake!”). If you want to know what umami tastes like, you have to try this sake, Kinpou. It is that good.
The wine shop owner had told me that this brewery uses no pesticide or chemical fertilizers and grows their own rice as well. I could certainly tell that a lot of hard work and care went into their sake.
I came to like Kinpou not just because it tastes good but also because it is from Fukushima. Fukushima actually means a lot to me, as my mother is originally from Fukushima, and I was born there. I lived in Chiba prefecture throughout my childhood, but would go visit Fukushima every year to stay with my grandparents with a bunch of my cousins. My parents purchased a piece of land 10 years ago to build a house to enjoy after their retirement. Although Fukushima is not as fashionable or exciting as other bigger and more famous cities in northern Japan, it has great local food and interesting food culture.
It was about two years ago when I first had Kinpou, then there was the earthquake disaster a year later. I started checking how Kinpou is doing after a few months and found out that they were measuring the radiation levels of various elements, including the water used to make sake, the soil from the rice fields, and even the air inside and outside of the brewery! Then, they posted the results up on their blog. Their attitudes and willingness to cope with the radiation issue deserve great respect. Thinking about their long 300 year history, and the hard work they put into natural farming and production methods, it’s really heartbreaking to think that their efforts might go down the drain because of the nuclear disaster.
Then one day I found that Kinpou was having an in-store tasting at a department store in Tokyo! I immediately started talking to Mr. Baba, the sales rep. He was extremely kind to offer me tastings of all of their sakes, and told me about hardships they were enduring.
First of all, their biggest problem are the harmful rumors, or fuuhyouhigai (風評被害).
Thanks to the mountains between the nuclear plant and the brewery, the radiation level hasn’t been as high as some of the other areas in Fukushima. They check the radiation level of their sake and have detected none. Even though they communicate the results to consumers people tend to refrain from purchasing their sake just because it’s from Fukushima. That is the sad reality.
“What kinds of measures are you taking to cope with this radiation issue? I heard the radiation level would go down if you scrape the soil surface of about 5cm. Could this be a possibility?” I asked.
I heard about this solution on the radio and it was exactly what I had done for my own tiny garden. Mr. Baba’s reply was shocking. He said “we would need 500,000 yen ($6,100) to do that for 10a of rice field (about 1195 yards or 1/4 acres). If we were to do this for just the rice fields alone, which is about 500a (12 acres), we would need 25,000,000 yen ($300,000) according to the estimate provided by the prefecture.” As they purchase rice from contract rice farmers nearby, the necessary amount would be astronomical. These numbers sobered me up in an instant. That is just too much for one brewery to bear.
Even if they suddenly get money from the clouds, there is another issue with the scraped soil. It’s been an on-going debate about where to dispose all the rubble from the affected areas. It’s almost impossible to find a place or people who are willing to take the soil that might be contaminated when we haven’t decided what to do with the rubble.
Furthermore, there is another issue of losing nutritional components of soil. If you scrape the surface of soil you would take out the power and the rice plants wouldn’t be as strong.
Some research has shown that organic agriculture reduces the chance of cesium to adhere to unmilled rice. Therefore they will keep measuring radiation level of soil and ingredients, and continue their organic farming and production as they have been doing. They will also keep researching and considering the best course of action.
Lastly, I asked Mr. Baba what he asks from the consumers right now.
“I want people to come to Fukushima and visit our brewery and see what we do,” he said.
Not just visit Mr. Baba, but all of the people at the brewery live there with their families. His answer made me think.
I do not know if I can find a way to help them or solve this issue, but I would like to visit the brewery in the near future. I know I have to start somewhere. In the meantime, I will keep buying, and drinking Kinpou sake.
*Shizuka Wakashita is based in Tokyo. She enjoys sake, sweets, and healthy Japanese cooking.