Daiji Shimizu Spring in Iwate (photo courtesy of Asabiraki)
Iwate Prefecture is one of the northernmost prefectures on Honshu, just south of Aomori and east of Akita. It is the second largest prefecture and least inhabited after Hokkaido, with 5% of its land covered in National Parks. It is famous for hiking, onsen, beaches, and snow sports.
You can reach the capital, Morioka City, by riding the bullet train for a little over two hours, due north from Tokyo. I dream of going to Japan's newest national park Sanriku Fukko National Park, where some of the coastal views remind me of Baja rock formations or the rich green valleys of Kauai.
Morioka Castle Site Park in the fall. (photo courtesy of Asabiraki)
In addition to its dramatic natural beauty, Iwate is famous for its sake thanks to the Nanbu Toji Guild. Toji Guilds were established during the shogunate era in the late 1700s, where different regions formed unions for better access to raw materials and later to certify and standardize the role of the toji (brewmaster) by region. Eventually certain guilds developed their own brewing styles and techniques. For example, the Nanbu Toji Guild is known to brew sake that is simple but assertive (and I'd say a little on the sweet side), while the Echigo Toji Guild (in Niigata) is known for their tanrei karakuchi (clean and dry) sakes. Out of the most famous guilds (Nanbu, Echigo and Tanba), the Nanbu have managed to keep their toji numbers at a sustained level for the past two generations, while the others have seen a decrease in membership. Sakes made by the Nanbu Toji Guild are winning more awards and accolades in recent times, and is known to keep strict brewing standards, which may be the reason why it continues to attract and keep talent.
Iwate brewers are very proud of their local yeasts and rice strains. The most famous rice that is native to the prefecture is Ginginga – Level 1 members will get to try Nanbu Bijin's sake named simply after the rice, while Level 2 members will get the Oshu No Ryu Junmai Ginjo using this rice. With a greater occurance of shinpaku (starchy core) and better resistance to the cold weather in Iwate, Ginginga is primed for optimum sake-making in the region. The Nanbu Toji Guild also created two yeasts, the Giovanni No Shirabe (with a rich, fruity aroma) and the Yuko No Omoi (low acid for higher alcohol content). All the rice used in the sakes this month is grown in Iwate, utilizing the terroir of the region through soil, air, and water.
Rice fields at Iwate Meijo (photo courtesy of Richard Bischoff)
Similar to Hokkaido, which also has vast amounts of land for farming, Iwate is famous for growing wheat. Therefore, it is famous for some curious food items made from wheat. One in particular is called hittsumi which are pieces of dough shaped into a dumpling and served in dashi stock with other local vegetables in nabe (hot pot). There is also kakke, which is made from wheat flour and shaped into thin triangles. These pieces are boiled in dashi and seasoned with garlic miso. I can confirm that many of these sakes did pair very well with other wheat based foods like shumai dumplings and garlic bread. Iwate is also famous for buckwheat, and pairing their sakes with soba is consistently delicious.
Wanko Soba, an Iwate tradition, where small bowls of soba are served in quick succesion (photo courtesy of Asabiraki).
The great thing about trying sakes from different parts of Japan is to envision the landscapes and food culture while sipping. It is like traveling without having to deal with delays and lost baggage. But knowing that Iwate is close to Tokyo makes me feel like it is well within reach once I do make it to Japan again. I look forward to the day when I can try these sakes in the local Iwate lacquerware under the golden rooftops of the famous Chuson-ji Golden Hall (preferably sitting next to MLB player Shohei Ohtani, who was born in Oshu, Iwate).
Yoko, Co-Founder of Umami Mart and Kikizakeshi
Morioka Sansa Odori Festival held every year August 1-4 (photo courtesy of Asabiraki)
Gin Ginga Junmai Ginjo
Nanbu Bijin (Iwate, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 50% Ginginga, SMV: +1, Acidity: 1.4
Using locally grown, native rice Ginginga, yeast Giovanni No Shirabe, and subsoil water from Orizumebasenkyo in Iwate Prefectural Natural Park, this sake exhibits the terrior of Iwate. Enjoy this slightly sweet sake with notes of apple pie, peach, and cream, chilled in lacquerware, or in thin glassware. Nanbu Bijin celebrates their 120th anniversary this year. As a milestone, they are going to start making craft spirits and develop a new tasting bar and shop. We enjoyed this sweet sake with a clean ending at room temperature with hamachi collar and sauteed nagaimo. Exterior of Nanbu Bijin in Ninohe City (photo courtesy of Nanbu Bijin)
Oshu No Ryu Tokubetsu Junmai
Iwate Meijo (Iwate, Japan)
Seimaibuai: 60% Kamenoo, SMV: -3, Acidity: 1.8
Iwate Meijo Shuzo is located in Oshu City, home of Maesawa beef. The folks at the brewery proclaim, "We are pursuing sake brewing that goes well with meat dishes, so we would like you to enjoy it with meat." Indeed, this sake pairs deliciously with stronger flavors such as steak, pork, and onions. Balancing high acidity with sweetness, I enjoyed this sake slightly chilled to room temperature in a guinomi or wide mouth glass. Get notes of savory corn, caramel, acidic citrus while enjoying a weighty viscosity. Illustration of the exterior of Iwate Meijo (courtesy of Iwate Meijo)
This sake is brewed by Asabiraki, Iwate’s largest brewery. With a fruity aroma of orange blossoms and yellow peaches, this sake evokes the coolness and transparency of melted snow – just what we need during these hot summer weeks. Instead of using sake rice, Nanbu Toji Masahiko Fujio uses Hitomebore, a table rice of used for sushi, native to Iwate prefecture. He believes that "rice that tastes good when eaten is also good when brewed with sake." However, because Hitomebore is very soft and sticky thus making it is difficult for the koji mold to propagate well, Fujio-san revamped the brewing process developed a process just for Yumekari. Enjoy chilled in a flute or white wine glass with beef carpaccio or spinach gomaae. Entrance to Asabiraki (photo courtesy of Asabiraki)
Made with Iwate's own Ginginga rice, sweeter flavors such as melon, banana, and caramel take center stage, while hints of lemon and creme fraiche also show through. Iwate Meijo makes sure to emphasize that all of their sake is brewed with rice, water, and made by people from Iwate Prefecture, proclaiming their sakes as, "All Iwate sakes." Enjoy this sake chilled with lighter foods such as maguro sashimi and soba. Warm it up during the colder months and try with crab shumai!
Iwate Meijo tasting window (photo courtesy of Richard Bischoff)