“We want to create great sake that will still be a hit in 100 years’ time.”
Inspired by this sentiment, the UNESCO World Heritage site Kohfukuji Temple (Nara Prefecture) released its “special sake” at the temple on October 9, having completed it in late September.
In order to perfect the recipe, Kohfukuji enlisted the help of Hakkaisan Brewery Co. in Minami Uonuma, Niigata Prefecture – known for its refined sake, “Hakkaisan.”
I was fortunate to taste the sake before it went on sale.
Water from Raiden Sama, God of Thunder
Eishun Moriya, 71, chief abbot of the temple, gave the sake its name, Konoma – which alludes to a monk doing his training in silence inside a forest.
The abbot wrote Konoma in brushstrokes, and these characters appear in white on a black label on the bottle.
After taking a sip of the chilled Konoma, I could fully taste the mellow flavor of the junmai sake. Its fruity ginjo scent formed a pleasant balance with an aroma that was reminiscent of being in a forest.
It would pair well with both Japanese and Western cuisine. Konoma is a sophisticated sake that would complement just about any meal well.
In May this year, I had the pleasure of visiting the Hakkaisan Brewery Co. in Niigata with Myoshun Tsuji, 43, a monk and butler at Kohfukuji and someone who was involved in the project of creating this special sake.
After receiving confirmation that my COVID-19 test result was negative, I was taken to the water source of Hakkaisan sake, known as “Raiden sama” or the God of Thunder.
We proceeded through paddy fields, and then up a narrow mountain road for about five minutes. At the water source at the dead end of the road, there were densely overgrown cedar and chestnut trees, and the ground was covered with green moss.
The locals make an effort to come here to collect the famous water as it descends down the slope ー they believe it helps you live longer. I collected a few drops myself and tried some, and it tasted sweet.
Konoma was born from this special forest nectar.
Aged in a Snow Cellar
Another special feature of the production process is a huge snow cellar in Uonuma-no-sato, where there are Hakkaisan sake breweries, beer breweries, and soba restaurants.
Uonuma is known in Japan for its heavy snowfall, and the city has a tradition of storing food such as vegetables in snow cellars for long periods of time.
About a thousand tons of snow are placed into this natural refrigerator early every spring. The snow stays there until the next year, keeping the temperatures in midsummer between 2C and 5C, and at about 90% humidity.
“As the sake ages gently and slowly in the snow cellar, it becomes a mellow drink,” explains 70-year-old Shigemistu Nagumo cheerfully. He is a former production manager and adviser at Hakkaisan Brewery Co.
This is undoubtedly why the finished article tastes even more mellow and richer than the sample I tried in May.
“Uonuma, which is blessed with famous water, is a place the gods have chosen for sake brewing. The previous company president used to say that if we made peculiar sake, we would be punished. We are extremely honored that the globally-renowned Kohfukuji, which has a 1,300-year history, has chosen us (Hakkaisan),” said Kazuo Yuzawa, 79, who is a senior executive and adviser at the company.
Linked by Destiny
A temple is a place for prayer, but it can also be a cradle that influences Japanese cuisine and entertainment. In recent years, Kohfukuji has teamed up with Mishima Foods, based in Hiroshima, to create a furikake (rice seasoning) without using any meat or fish. The condiment has since won a prestigious seasoning award in Europe.
The temple has also worked with a JR Tokai subsidiary to create an ekiben (railway lunchbox) that revolves around Kohfukuji’s style of Shojin ーor vegetarian ーcuisine.
“Sake is also an important part of Japanese culture,” explained Tsuji. “Recently, other countries have started making sake as well, but we want to set a high standard, creating tastes, traditions, and techniques that will last for the next 100 or 200 years, and spread the word across the world.”
Kohfukuji and other nearby temples started making refined sake during the Muromachi era (mid 1330s to late 1570s), and it subsequently spread across Japan. It seems that Kohfukuji has a sense of responsibility as the “starting point of refined sake.”
But why did Kohfukuji select Hakkaisan? Tsuji told us:
“We were fascinated by the spiritual features and culture of the land there.”
The two organizations were brought together through cultural events, as though it was destiny. Listening to Tsuji, who has gone to Uonuma many times, I sensed that he has grown very fond of Hakkaisan and the way it values both tradition and new techniques such as its snow cellar.
Konoma went on sale on October 9, to coincide with the reopening of the five-story pagoda (a national treasure) at the temple. A limited number of bottles – 2,000 in total – went on sale, priced at ￥1,700 JPY ($15 USD) including tax per bottle.
What will the future hold for this collaboration between Kohfukuji and Hakkaisan based on a love of sake? We’re interested and will be watching.
(Read the Sankei Shimbun report in Japanese at this link.)
Author: Yasuo Naito, Editor in Chief, JAPAN Forward