This month for Sake Gumi, I'm featuring four women in the sake world. As usual, you can find the notes to the club sakes here. In the process of writing this month's notes, I interviewed four of the women who either own the brewery, are the toji (head brewmaster) of it, or are both owner and toji. I found their responses to be enlightening and inspiring – here they are below.
How do you think being a woman helps you make a more unique sake?
Eriko Terada of Asahi Brewery (Shiga, Japan)
I think that being flexibility with ideas is important to bring out the fun and possibilities of fermentation. Since women are not locked into stereotypes in the sake-making world, they are likely to confront new challenges and ideas.
Rikako Kanehira of Aiyu Shuzo (Ibaraki, Japan)
Having women involved in sake-making brightens up the mood of the brewery with positive energy. Everybody imagines sake-making as grueling, hard work relegated to men. I want to change that impression and show that sake-making is fun, stylish, and fashionable for all genders and ages.
Rumiko Moriki of Moriki Shuzo (Mie, Japan)
I think that sake reflects the mindset and character of the person who makes it. My husband and I work closely with our toji Rie Toyomoto (before that my husband and I were the tojis of Moriki Shuzo). Toyomoto-san started out as a kurabito (sake maker) 20 years ago and eventually became our toji a few years ago. Her sakes are very unique. Sake-brewing used to be a male-only world, and makers were forced to follow strict standards in order to keep uniform quality. Women were excluded for a long time, and for that reason, when they started sake-making they weren’t boxed into methods and ideas, and were more free to express unconventional ideas.
Miho Imada of Imada Brewery (Hiroshima, Japan)
As a woman, the collaborations and connections I have made in the sake world has quite literally created a unique sake.
Last year, I had the opportunity to appear in a documentary film called “Kanpai! Sisters.” I collaborated with Marie Chiba, who also stars in the film to create a sake called Kusa Kusa (kusa means grass in Japanese). Chiba owns a restaurant in Tokyo - and is very active in the restaurant and bar scene there.
The concept for the sake was to celebrate women’s creativity and growth - hence the name “grass.” This sake pairs with vegetables, especially fresh leafy vegetables in the field.
To celebrate the release of this year’s Kusa Kusa, Chiba and her chef Fukatsu-san (who is also a woman), at Gem by Moto created a potato salad that pairs with this sake. The recipe was posted for the public so anyone can make it at home.
This kind of connection with other devoted women is a source of great power and inspiration for me. Above all, I am encouraged by the strength of information sharing in the community.
How do you see the future role of women in sake changing? How do you see yourself evolving?
ET With the production of manufacturing equipment that not only improves quality but also saves labor, it has become possible for women, who generally have less physical strength than men, to make sake. From texture, aroma, and smell, they can also instill a certain sensitivity and delicateness that is valuable in the brewing process.
RK Along with cultivating and polishing my palate, I would like to continue to create high-quality sake that is being made from the heart. I choose to listen to others' opinions and learn new things. I take special care not to copy anyone, but instead, make sakes that are unique to Aiyu Brewery and staying true to my vision.
RM As successors to sake-brewing continues to decline, people who used to be on the margins of sake-making are entering the playing field – that includes women and other members of the community who volunteer to keep the tradition alive. Because of the labor-intensive work involved in sake-making, it was a big hurdle for women to participate. But now due to the mechanization of certain tasks, the working environment is more forgiving for all types of people. Because of these advancements, I think that the percentage of women who make sake is on the rise.
MI There is a lot of potential for women in sake-making. It is very important to have a female staff member who is not conservative and tries new things. Accepting new tastes and trying out new techniques will broaden the enjoyment of the world of sake.
Who is a woman that inspired you? Why?
ET I have been impressed by women of all walks of life – both in an out of the sake world.
I still remember a woman I encountered on the bus when I was in college. She had striking eyes, was clear, bright, and full of compassion. She seemed to be a children’s caretaker, I didn’t exchange any words with her, but I will never for get her eyes. I strive to be a person with clear eyes like hers, sincerely facing people – even inanimate object. Even now, when I make sake, I think of her, and confront rice and microbes as living things with clear eyes.
RK My mother came to the strange town (where Aiyu Shuzo is located) when she married my father. She presided over Aiyu Shuzo, for 40 years! I don’t get along with my mother that much, but I’ve always appreciated her and respected her and her work ethic at the brewery. We quarrel very often but I still have a deep love for her. My grandmother also inspired me. Through her sacrifices, she opened doors for both my mom and myself.
RM I’m inspired by the following women for their strength and bravery: Lady Nou, wife of Lord Oda Nobunaga (16th century), author Ayako Miura, female tojis Kuniko Mukai, Shigeri Shiraki, and Rie Toyomoto.
MI There are many junior high school teachers and important friends, but when I was little I loved Pippi Longstocking. I learned that just being a good girl is boring!
How has the coronavirus affected the brewery?
ET The restaurants and sake stores, who are our partners, are in trouble because they cannot do their normal work. There is almost no shipping of sake to these businesses. I don’t know how I can make sake next season if things continue like this. Rice has already been planted, but there is a possibility that there will not be enough tanks to stock with rice harvested in autumn. I'm worried that I will not be able to ask kurabito to make sake in the fall. No one knows when when it will end, and it is difficult to make future plans. Despite all of this we need to keep the sake brewery alive and protect people's lives who are involved.
RK All reservations of tourists have been canceled, in addition to events, festivals, and meetings – with no end in sight. Because sake is very important to these local events, our sales are very low. We are unsure of the impact of this crisis, but I think it’s a good opportunity to think and figure out what is important and what is not after this crisis. I want to be positive and be in good spirits during this time.
RM It was really serious in April. Sake isn't moving. I'm worried about the outlook for the next sake-making season in the fall. I just pray that the virus will be quiet.
MI Izakayas, which are important places to enjoy sake, have been closed. Sales in all sectors have also dropped significantly. We all put in our best effort to make and release great sake this past season. I can't wait to restart.
Thank you to all of these women for taking time out of their busy schedules to share their thoughts with us. With these insights, their sakes taste even better.