The Shiman Torocco one-man-car that brought us into Kochi Prefecture from Ehime Prefecture
I hightailed it out of Oakland the day after Christmas 2022 to travel in Kyushu and Shikoku alongside my husband, and another week with Kayoko in Tokyo. Three weeks later, I am back in front of my computer ready to rock for 2023. The theme for this month’s Sake Gumi is Kochi Prefecture, and I am very lucky to have spent four days there, visiting all the breweries I’m featuring this month. Here is my report from the prefecture along the south-eastern side of Shikoku Island.
We rode into Kubokawa in Kochi Prefecture from Uwajima in Ehime (the west side of Shikoku). It was a three hour train ride in a one-man car (a hybrid between a street car and a very tiny regular train, with only a single conductor) that seemed to have a top speed of about 30mph. We made our way through rugged landscapes lined with cedar forests and dotted with tangerine orchards. The terrain was raw and stunning, as you travel along the glistening Shimanto River.
The traincar was very retro – and a few toriteshu (train enthusisasts) with very long lenses were amongst us taking photos of the front of the train as we stopped along the way.
This was taken in Shiga later in my trip, but it gives you an idea of the dedicated passion toritetsu have to get just the right shot of incoming trains.
The main industry in Kochi is fishing and they are known for their meaty cuts of katsuo tataki (bonito) seared in flames of burning straw. Accompanied by slices of garlic and wasabi, the flavor is juicy, smoky and full of meaty umami – reminding me of beef carpaccio.
Katsuo sashimi at Irori in Kubokawa, Kochi
We were also served salty fresh shirasu (baby anchovies), or dorome in the local dialect. Pour these little fish on a bowl of fresh steamed rice for a nutritious breakfast.
Citrus stand in Kubokawa, Kochi, where I learned about buntan (in the forefront, which reminded me of pomelo, but smaller)
Kochi is known for their nomiyasui (easy-to-drink, dry) sakes, and many in Japan know the prefecture consumes a lot of sake per capita. Historically, this is because of their appetite for fish (which pairs so well with sake), but also because the towns are mostly made up of working class people who weren’t looking for fancy aromas and textures – just classic, thirst quenching futsushus that tasted good after a long day out at sea.
However, it was in the mid 2010s that they noticed that their sakes were not being recognized nationally, and none of their sakes were winning any awards. Enter Haruhiko Uegashi, whose mission was to create Kochi specific yeasts that would yield sakes that boasted ginjo and daiginjo aromas. He noticed that most Kochi sakes were using yeasts high in isoamyl acetate but sakes that were being recognized nationally were using yeasts that produced ethyl caporate. So that led him to create the CEL yeasts that clocked in off the charts with ethyl caporate. These sakes tend to be very aromatic with bouquets of green apple and melon, with high glucose levels (whereas isoamyl acetate produces banana and pear aromas with restrained sweetness). By 2017, Kochi sakes using CEL yeasts were winning awards.
CEL yeasts at Kameizumi Brewery in Tosa, Kochi
It was interesting to go to Kochi thinking I’d be having a bunch of dry and easy-to-drink sakes reminiscent of Suigei’s Tokubetsu Junmai or Hamakawa’s Shintaro, but instead many of the sakes I had were very aromatic and viscous. Kochi sakes seem to sit on two sides of the spectrum 1.) dry, easy-to-drink and high in isoamyl acetate and 2.) fruity, creamy, show-worthy, and high in ethyl caporate. I pleased to introduce a sake from each side in both levels this month.
I experienced these sakes alongside regional dishes with local people who love the dramatic landscapes that hug the Pacific coast. People in Kochi were super friendly and willing to recommend all of the treasures their region has to offer in their charming south-eastern drawl. I also loved that all the breweries were tight-knit. In fact, when I was having dinner with Hamakawa Shoten, they called up Suigei’s team and we met up for some oden afterwards.
From the rocky west side of the prefecture to the north-eastern side where Kochi City is located, the prefecture felt vast but united by the bounty of its rivers and the Pacific Ocean. Kochi City reminded me a bit of Oakland as it is a port town close to the Pacific, and a little rough around the edges (in the best way). I can’t wait to go back!
As a huge added bonus, Kochi is the home of cartoonist Takashi Yanase, creator of the popular Anpanman series (which was my favorite as a child). They are clearly very proud that Yanase is from Kochi and Anpanman is plastered all of over the prefecture – on trains, streetcars, and all over the stations. Here I am posing with one of the many statues of Anpanman in Kochi City.
And here I am entering an Anpanman JR traincar!
You're never too old in Japan to feel like a kid again!
Yoko, Co-Founder + Sake Director
Bijofu “The Gentleman” Tokubetsu Junmai
Hamakawa Shoten (Kochi, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Matsuyama Mii 60%, SMV: +4, Yeast: AA-41
I am excited that we are featuring more classical Kochi style sakes in each level from Hamakawa Shoten. In fact, it was meeting Kitaoka-san of Hamakawa Shoten at a show in San Francisco last year that made me want to visit Kochi. His warm and inviting personality embodies the Kochi vibe. It was this bottle, the Bijofu Tokubetsu Junmai that made me want to try local sakes with their local foods. Crisp with notes of green apple and lime, this sake is a great pairing with katsuo tataki, maguro, and avocados. Try this fresh sake chilled or slightly warm.
Toji Akira Ohara of Hamakawa Shoten
Suigei Harmony Blend Junmai Daiginjo
Suigei Brewery (Kochi, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Yamada Nishiki 50%, SMV: +3, Yeast: KA-1, 1801
The big dog brewery in Kochi was clearly Suigei. They have two facilities, the original location near Kochi City in Nagahama and the new state-of-the-art location in the more inland western city of Tosa. Miura-san of the brewery told me that the Tosa location was built knowing that one day, when a tsunami arrives, the Nagahama location will be washed away. At Umami Mart, Suigei’s Tokubetsu Junmai is our best seller. It’s a drinkable brew that isn’t fussy or fruity at a fair price – akin to what Kochi sakes are known for. This bottle is a contrast and reflects Kochi’s intention to be recognized globally. It’s an aromatic junmai daiginjo that is released only in the U.S. using Yamada Nishiki rice and Yeast 9, with aromatics of jasmine and peaches. The toji at the Tosa facility, Myoujin-san had a calm, zen-like personality which was reflected in the spotless, uber-modern facility. He is in charge of the ginjos and daiginjos, which are brewed in Tosa, while the junmais and honjozos are brewed in Nagahama. Myoujin-san’s interests lie in fermentation and has recently been obsessed with cheese. Try this sake chilled in a wine glass with squid (fried or raw) or roasted vegetables.
L-R: Miura-san, me, and Toji Myoujin-san of Suigei Brewery
Bijofu Junrei Tama “Cat Label” Junmai Ginjo
Hamakawa Shoten (Kochi, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Matsuyama Mii 55%, SMV: +4, Yeast: AC-95
Hamakawa Shoten is located east of Kochi City alongside the ocean. The drive from the city to the brewery boasts beautiful views of the ocean that reminded me of views along Highway 1. The difference is that there are tsunami escape towers every quarter mile or so. Kitaoka-san of the brewery explained the harsh reality that they are expecting a large earthquake any day now, and these towers will be the townspeople’s only hope. In fact, there is a tower right next to the brewery as well, serving as a reminder that it is just a waiting game. This sake is the best example of a classically Kochi-style sake. The dry finish is satisfying and the tart acidity is perfect for pairing with richer foods like salmon, pork, and fried potatoes. Try this sake chilled or slightly warm. Fun fact: Tama is the name of owner Naoki Hamakawa’s cat that he had as a boy.
Washing rice at Hamakawa Shoten
Kameizumi CEL-24 “Eternal Spring” Junmai Ginjo Nama Genshu
Kameizumi Shuzo (Kochi, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Hattan Nishiki + Matsuyama Mii 50%, SMV: -14, Yeast: CEL-24
Kameizumi sets itself apart from other breweries in Kochi by using all four types of Kochi rice and local yeasts. For CEL-24, however, they use Matsuyama Mii (from nearby Ehime) and Hattan Nishiki (Hiroshima). Ogasawara-san, who makes the sake along with his team mates, emphasizes that most of their sakes are small batch experiments – trying out all the combinations of local rice and yeast. Because they only product a tank of each seasonal “experiment”, kuramoto (owner) Saibara-san said that CEL-24 makes up 90% of what they make. Saibara-san was a master host with a wide smile and soft voice – not only did he let us try all the seasonal brews, but he also let us try the CEL-24 moromi! Pour a glass of CEL-24 chilled into a wide-bowled wine glass and you’ll get melon and pineapples for aromatics and a basketful of strawberries for flavor. Enjoy this fruity sake with a lower ABV of 14% alongside ankimo, chicken liver paste, or cream cheese.