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Sake of Hyogo Prefecture; Sake Sizes

# 59

Sept. 2004

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter

Issue #59
September 1, 2004

-- The Sake of Hyogo Prefecture
-- Traditional Measurements of the Sake World
-- Good Sake to Look For
-- Sake Events/Announcements

The Sake of Hyogo Prefecture
Last May in this newsletter, I broached the dubious topic of regionality in the sake world with an article entitled "Quantum Physics and Sake Regionality," which is archived here for those who missed it:

Following that, I covered the sake of Niigata Prefecture in the June issue. This month, let us look at the sake of Hyogo and what regionality exists there. Since almost one third of all the sake in the Universe comes from Hyogo, it is certainly worthy of proper attention. If there were one place that could be referred to as the heartland of sake in Japan, it would be Hyogo Prefecture. For the last 500 years, more sake - and sake brewing technology - has come from Hyogo than from any other region in Japan. While most of the sake-related history there has been concentrated in two places within Hyogo, all of the prefecture is steeped in sake-brewing significance.

Hyogo is the prefecture in which sits the city of Kobe, relatively close to both Osaka and Kobe. And, within Kobe is nestled an area called Nada. If you remember one place name from this newsletter, let that be Nada. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. At the end of the 17th century, Edo (as Tokyo was known back then) already had a population of about one million. Then, as now, the residents were a thirsty lot, and almost all of the sake consumed there came from 12 villages in western Japan, most of them in Hyogo.

A combination of plenty of great rice, good water, and the ability to easily ship by sea to Edo quickly made Hyogo the leader in providing "kudari-zake," as sake destined for the parched and hedonistic upper classes of the capital was nicknamed. The city of Itami, although not directly on the water, soon stood out as the village supplying the best sake. Much of this was due to their technical prowess in brewing; it was in Itami that sake was first filtered enough to make it clear, back in 1578. It soon after became the Shogun's choice of tipple.

In 1804, five percent of Itami's 2200 households were sake brewers. Include all the craftsmen needed to make the wooden tanks, casks, and tools, and the merchants and shippers, and it is clear that the entire town's economy was focused on sake. At their peak in 1804, brewers in Itami shipped more than 20 million liters to Edo. Several of today's largest brewers can trace their history back to Itami, including Kenbishi, Otokoyama, and Shirayuki.

However, Itami began to rest on its laurels, and things began to decline from there. The focus began to shift to a strip of five fishing villages in the Nada ward of Kobe. Outstanding water for brewing, modernized brewing techniques, and immediate access to the sea helped pass the torch.

Nada sits on the ocean coast and has six rivers running through it, that flow down from nearby Mt. Rokko. These were employed to drive waterwheels used to mill the rice. This allowed Nada brewers to mill more than ten times the rice per day compared to the brewers in Itami, where workers crudely milled the rice by stomping on it. And, with less cracking and breakage, the waterwheel-milled rice made better sake. Other changes to the brewing process were effected by Nada brewers that drastically increased both sake quality and yields.

Also, Nada has some of the best sake brewing water in Japan, the famous "Miyamizu," which rises up in wells after filtering through down through the aforementioned Mt. Rokko. This point in particular enticed many well known brewers to move operations from Itami and other places into Nada. And, finally, it was much easier to load the sake onto the Edo-bound ships from Nada than it was from land-locked Itami.

Today, while almost nothing remains of the Itami legacy, Hyogo prefecture, led by Nada, produces more than 30 percent of all sake in Japan. There are presently about 130 breweries in Hyogo, more than any other prefecture in Japan, with about 50 of them centered in Nada. While many of these are large mass production facilities (which nonetheless produce some excellent sake), many smaller breweries remain as well. Outside of Nada, such smaller breweries are speckled all over the prefecture.

Hyogo sake, and especially that from Nada, has an easily recognizable style, due in part to the region's clean and distinctively hard water. Generally, aromas are demure and self-effacing rather than prominent, and decidedly not flowery or fruity. Much Hyogo sake is settled and full, crisp and solid, yet with plenty of subtleties. Kobe sake has long been referred to as being "danseiteki," or masculine.

Readers may recall that I like to compare sake regionality to quantum mechanics, in that there are "waves" of regional style, but "particles" of exceptions to those styles amongst them. It is all a matter of focus. Well, Hyogo is definitely more wave than particle. In other words, a major portion of the kura from Hyogo conform to the representative Hyogo style of staid, dry, mild in aromatics, and "masculine." While there are several "particles" of diversity, the region overall has a wonderfully coherent identity.

One more important factor that has long contributed to the sterling quality of Hyogo sake is the top-grade sake rice that grows there. Yamada Nishiki, easily the best overall sake rice, was developed in Hyogo and grows better there than anywhere else in the country. Several other sake rice varieties also thrive in this prefecture, giving local brewers outstanding raw materials with which to begin.

However, Hyogo sake has had its share of suffering and heartbreak as well. The Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 took a tremendous toll on the sake industry, and in particular in Nada. Some setbacks were temporary, others were permanent. There were cases of brewers actually lending part of their facilities to competitors until they could get back on their feet. After all that could heal had healed, about 10 percent of the breweries in Kobe were gone for good.

Also, Hyogo sake production overall has been quite adversely affected by consumer trends. Sake consumption in Japan has been declining since 1973, and more than anything else it is lower priced sake being shunned. (Premium sake consumption is actually somewhat stable.) Hyogo has been hit hard precisely because so much inexpensive sake is produced by the larger brewers there.

However, despite the challenges facing the industry, the fine traditions and regional style of Hyogo sake continue, and the historical contributions of the region have helped make sake all that it is today.

Traditional Measurements of the Sake World
As sake becomes more visible outside of Japan, certainly more and more consumers are apt to wonder about the size of the bottles. Most premium sake these days comes in 720 milliliter bottles. What's up wi'dat? Why don't they use 750 milliliters like the rest of the world? And then there are the large versions, the awkwardly-sized 1.8 liter bottles. Why not 1.5 liters, or even 2 liters like everyone else? The answer lies in the traditional measurements of Japan.

It all starts with the masu, a small cedar box that sake is occasionally served in, particularly in ceremonies and around the new year. It was originally a measurement for rice, with rice being a currency of sorts in Shogunate-run Japan centuries ago. Both taxes and stipends for retainers were often paid with rice, and the masu was the basic unit of measure. As such, originally the size of the masu was standardized and official.

In the early part of the 20th century, folks began using these masu wooden boxes to drink sake. They were plentiful, of uniform size, and cheap. Also, sake back then was both brewed and stored in vessels of the same wood - sugi (Japanese Cedar, or Cryptomeria to be more precise) - used to make masu.

One masu holds just about 180 milliliters, and this became the standard size of single serving. This volume of liquid is known as one "go,"and sake is still priced in pubs in terms of "ichi go" (one go), or "ni go" (two go) flagons.

As a natural extension of this, the 1.8 liter bottles came into being as they are exactly ten go. The 720 milliliter bottles, known as yongo (four go) bottles, being four servings - two glasses each amongst two people - also start to make sense: two glasses each between two people.

If we continue to go up in size, we see an extension of this standard. The 1.8 liter bottles are known as issho-bin (one "sho" bottles) and ten sho equal one "to" (pronounce toe). The large glass container holding this 18 liter volume is known as an itto-bin, and are used today when pressing sake in one of the traditional methods, to help separate the very best from the best.

On an even larger scale, ten "to" are known as one "koku." One "koku" is therefore 180 liters, which would also be equal in volume to 100 of the 1.8 liter bottles. The number of "koku" brewed is the traditional basic unit of production output of a sake brewery.

In fact, almost all sake brewers themselves speak of how many koku they brew, not how many kiloliters. Taxes, of course, are calculated based on kiloliters. However, the tax man is no fun and has no sense of tradition, so this should not be surprising. But I digress.

Once one gets a feel for evaluating the size and capacity of a kura in terms of koku, it becomes hard to go back to thinking in terms of kiloliters. Knowing the scale of a kura can add to the sense of romanticism - or detract from it, as the case may be. As a vague point of reference, a kura making less than one thousand koku is quite small (although there are countless kura of this scale). One thousand koku would be 180 kiloliters. Another way to look at it, perhaps easier to grasp, is this: if wine in 750 ml bottles comes in 12-bottle cases, one case is nine liters. One koku, at 180 liters, is then 20 cases. So in that parlance, 1000 koku is 20,000 cases. There you have it.

Also, for what it is worth, the 180 milliliter "go" measurement is comprised of ten 18 milliliter "shaku" units, rarely used except perhaps in sake pubs that serve in smaller units, such as eight-tenths of a glass, or eight "shaku," to make expensive sake more economically feasible.

Going back for a moment to the wooden masu that are the basis for all of this: keep in mind that while these have their roots in history and culture, they are rarely the best choice for drinking implements these days. Modern sake is much more delicate, subtle and complex than sake of the days of olde, and wood would overpower most premium sake today, whereas it would have jibed well with that of yore. 

While masu and go, sho and to, koku and shaku may not be the most convenient measures, they are certainly at least interesting as a vestige of centuries past, and the long and rich history of the world of sake. There are those that say history, schmistory and culture, schmulture. But much of the sake industry in Japan likes and continues to hang on to them, so at least a rudimentary working knowledge of them is surely worth having.

Good Sake to Look For
This month, let us look at a range of sake from Hyogo Prefecture.

Kenbishi "Tokusen" Honjozo
One of the grand old players of the sake brewing world. Kenbishi has been a household name, famous among sake, for hundreds of years. Kenbishi has its origins in the abovementioned town of Itami, although they moved to Nada long, long ago. Their symbol, two black diamond-like shapes, one on top of the other, is one of the most recognized sake marks in the country.

They are a very curious, secretive company. Kenbishi maintains a minimal staff, including no salesmen whatsoever, in maintaining their position as one of the largest twelve brewers in the country. They sell on reputation alone. Their brewing is spread out across several smaller breweries, and old, hand-crafted techniques are the rule.

The sake itself has a unique distinction, somewhat peculiar but appealing at the same time. A bit rich, with a gentle tartness and even a mild suffusing sweetness in the recesses. The fragrance is fairly subdued. Kenbishi is wonderful lightly warmed as well as slightly cool. Despite their very large size, it seems as though Kenbishi is not available in the US. I don't know if it is part of the mystique, or just more work than the deliberately minimal staff is willing to handle.

Taki no Koi, Junmai Ginjo
A classic, old, beautiful kura right in the heart of the Nada brewing center. A "David" amongst "Goliaths," this traditional and fairly small brewery sits surrounded by large sake "factories." The name refers to an old myth in which a carp swims up a waterfall, and is turned into a dragon as a reward. Taki no Koi has a fairly subdued nose, as is typical for a sake from Nada. Yet, the impact is lively and layered, with a well rounded and multi-faceted flavor profile overall. In the owner Mr. Kimura's words, "we want to make sake that is Nada-esque but just a little livelier and fruitier." Note, this sake is one of those gems that is tasty both chilled as well as gently warmed. Available in the US.

Kotsuzumi, "Koden"Junmaishu, Hyogo Prefecture
The name Kotsuzumi refers to a small drum used in a form of traditional Japanese dancing. The grandfather of the current president was a haiku poetry student of a famous haiku poet, and the name Kotsuzumi was given by that famous poet. He was so into his haiku writing that the sake brewery almost went under, I was told, and in fact the current owner and his father are also poets.

The labels are all created in a funky, hard-lined and colorful style that make products from this sake brewery immediate recognizable. The connections within the arts world suffuse everyone and everything about this brewery.

Yet it is somewhat different from the typical sake from this region. A very unobtrusive and subtle flavor, gorgeously intuitive. You don' realize how good it is until about three seconds after you taste it, and are just about to think about something else; its yumminess sneaks up on you. It also presents fairly different faces at chilled, room temperature, and warmed manifestations.

Kotsuzumi has at least two products that are exported: Kotsuzumi Junmai Ginjo and Kotsuzumi "Rojou Hana-ari" Junmai Daiginjo. Their Junmai Ginjo is simple and dry at first, but that almost hidden subtleness comes back with slightly citrus, slightly nutty, slightly berry touch. Very unobtrusive, yet with wonderfully rewarding complexity if you take your time to notice. Rojou Hana-ari, or "flowers on the path," is very complex and light, with subtle touches of chestnuts, pear, and citrus mixing it up in the aromas and flavors. Suffice it to say that Kotsuzumi is one of my favorite kura.

Fukuju Daiginjo-shu
Fukuju was one of the Nada breweries hit the hardest during the earthquake in 1995. No one expected nor imagined an earthquake of such devastating magnitude, and so brewers like Fukuju were caught unaware. As such, none of their tanks were anchored, and every single one of them was overturned. The kura was hit with massive damage. "I thought for sure we were done," explains the president, Mr. Yasufuku, who can smile about it now. But they were not. Disaster relief allowed them to rebuild a brand new kura, and take what remained of the  old classic kura and turn it into a museum and restaurant, beautifying the neighborhood significantly, and giving Nada one more attraction for sake visitors. The characters for Fukuju represent "good fortune" and "long life." In the end, it looks like Fukuju has them both.

Fukuju Daiginjo-shu is perhaps not so typical of Nada in aroma, but plenty so in the flavor.  Nuts and cinnamon lace a tart citrus touch that suffuses the aromatics. While being solid and staid in flavor, its rice-like flavors are also imbued with a light, aromatic-inducing acidity that adds a nice liveliness to the profile. While Fukuju has a junmai-shu going overseas, I believe this daiginjo is only available at home.

Kikumasamune Ginjo-shu
I actually just reviewed this sake two months ago, but am including it here again as this is obviously where it belongs. Kikumasamune is the seventh largest brewer in Japan, and this is an excellent example of the traditional sake style of Nada. Solid, tight, with a slightly tart acidity and a reigned-in aroma, Kikumasamune is enjoyable chilled, but at room temperature it opens up even more. This is a great reminder of how important it is to "drink the sake, not the label." It is all too easy to write off the large brewers without really, really tasting their sake.

Yaegaki, "Mu" Junmai-ginjo-shu
"Mu," or "nothingness," is a wonderfully settled and calm sake. A faint, well rounded nose with pear notes and a bit of peach, perhaps a bit of greenery in their as well. Fundamentally a dry sake, but there is a smooth and refined rice-like flavor on top of this dry undercurrent that is robust and full. It presents a fairly low acidity, which allows the flavor to maintain its center-heavy richness. Available in the US, along with several other Yaegaki products. 

In fact, Yaegaki just last year bought the sake brewery formerly known as American Pacific Rim, located in Los Angeles. At present I am not sure how many sake, nor what types, are being brewed at that kura. I do know that they will also be brewing mirin, a form of cooking sake, as well. Certainly Yaegaki will become a more familiar name in the sake world in the US soon.

Sake Events and Announcements
Sake Seminar, Saturday, September 18, 2004
On Saturday, September 18, I will hold a sake seminar at Takara in Yurakucho. The topic will sake rice: what makes it unique, what the main varieties are, and how they influence the final profile of the sake. The cost for the evening - half a dozen sake, ample food, a lecture and printed material - will be 7000 yen. Those interested can reserve a spot by sending me an email through my web page at No deposit is required. Takara is located on the B1 level of the Tokyo Forum, the convention center just outside Yurakucho Station. More detailed instructions for getting there will follow with the confirmation email.

Sake Event at Japan Society, New York City, Tuesday September 28
On the evening of Tuesday, September 28, 2004, there will be a lecture by John Gauntner on "Regionality in the Sake World" followed by a tasting, with sake poured by the brewers of The Sake Export Association, at the Japan Society in New York. Please check with the Japan Society of New York for details. The presentation, which does not have a formal name yet, will be about sake and regionality: a tentative link.

The Joy of Sake Events, $65 per person
Sponsored by: The International Sake Association and Japan Airlines
In San Francisco, September 9, 2004, from 6:00 PM - 9:00 PM
Hotel Nikko San Francisco, 222 Mason Street

In New York City: September 30, 2004, from 6:00 PM - 9:00 PM
The Puck Building, 275 Lafayette Street, $75 per person

Join visiting brewers from Japan and sake enthusiasts from New York and Japan to sample this year's newly released fall sakes. Over 150 sakes, including gold and silver award winners from this year's U.S. National Sake Appraisal will be featured. The Joy of Sake is the largest sake tasting held outside of Japan, and a rare opportunity to experience great sakes in peak condition.

Good food and fine sake are made to be enjoyed together. A splendid array of sake appetizers prepared by 13 outstanding restaurants provides an ideal accompaniment to the many fine daiginjo, ginjo and junmai sakes available for sampling.

Enjoy traditional and contemporary dishes from these fine restaurants: In San Francisco: Anzu, Betelnut, Dining Room at Ritz Carlton, Grasshopper, Hana, Memphis Minnie's, Kiku of Tokyo, Kirala, Kyo-ya, Ozumo, Roy's, Sushi Ran; in New York City: Asiate, BAO III, Bond Street, Bouley, Geisha, Hasaki, Kai, Riingo, Sakagura, Sushi Samba, Tocqueville, Woo Lae Oak and wd-50. For tickets and much more information, go to:

Home-Brewing Sake
If you have even a passing interest in brewing sake at home, you must check out The Sake Digest, a mailing list on sake home brewing maintained by Jim Liddil at On this list, issues both stylistic and technical, detailed and general, are discussed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable home brewers. Fred Eckhardt, easily the most experienced sake home-brewer in North America, regularly generously imparts his experience and wisdom to readers. A message is generated perhaps twice a week, so one in not inundated with information and countless emails. It is quite interesting to follow along with the apparently successful efforts of these home brewers from a cyber-distance. Most recently, several brewers are experimenting with koji obtained from SakeOne Corporation in Oregon, with apparently significantly improved results. This koji can be purchased from F.H. Steinbarts for about $8.00 for a 2.5 lb. Batch. For more information call Steinbarts, at 503-232-8793. Also, koji spores (as opposed to completed koji) are also available from Vision Brewing in Australia. According to proprietor Brendan Tibbs, the product  is available online for anyone, and is particularly suitable to the home brewer. Contact


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