The narrow, winding road that leads to Senkin Shuzo, a small sake brewery in the tiny town of Iwaizumi, Iwate Prefecture, is icy and treacherous. The train lines that used to connect Iwaizumi to Morioka, the nearest major city, were closed after landslides dislodged the tracks last summer. Yuri Yaegashi, whose husband, Giichiro Yaegashi, is the brewery’s ninth-generation president, meets me at Morioka Station, and on the two-hour drive through the mountains along Route 455, she tells me that they’ve had an unusually high number of visitors in the past year.
“After the earthquake, we received many emails, and people came to see us. I’ve never experienced so much kindness from strangers,” she says.
Like a lot of sake producers in the Tohoku region, Senkin Shuzo and the Yaegashis, whose family has been making sake since 1854, have experienced several changes since last March. Many sake breweries were destroyed or damaged when the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami devastated large swathes of northeastern Japan. Of the 114 breweries in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, 93 were affected, according to the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association.
Situated in an inland area, Senkin was spared the crushing effects of the tsunami, but the earthquake crumbled a central wall in the brewery’s main building and damaged valuable pieces of sake-making equipment.
“The walls are made of clay, so it took about a month to repair and a couple of months for operations to return to normal,” president Giichiro Yaegashi explains.
The Yaegashis consider themselves lucky. Twenty minutes away, toward Iwate’s rocky coast, the destruction was profound. In the seaside town of Miyako, Hishiya Shuzo — the producer of Senryo Otokoyama sake — was reduced to rubble by waves that reached the second floor and washed away much of the company’s equipment. Since June, Hishiya Shuzo has managed a complete reconstruction of its building and has made 18 kl of sake this season.
“It’s about 90 percent of our usual volume,” says managing director Tetsuro Saito. “We still don’t have finished, bottled product, but we have a lot of orders and we are determined to get the sake to our customers.”
Providing sake for the local community this year is of extreme significance to Hishiya, the town’s only sake brewery. Last year, 10 of Hishiya’s 13 sake-filled tanks were lost in the tsunami. Amazingly, the sake in one of the remaining three tanks was unharmed, but the brewery had no way to bottle it. The Yaegashis offered to pasteurize and bottle the sake at Senkin, and the resulting brew was dubbedkiseki no sake, or “miracle sake.”
This spirit of cooperation has been widespread throughout the sake world, and the word kizuna (bonds) has come to define the industry since the tragedies of last spring. The Yaegashis say that they feel more connected to the sake community than ever before. Because most of the sake that Senkin produces — including its Ryusen Yaezakura Daiginjo, which won a gold medal in last year’s prestigious National New Sake Appraisal contest — is consumed locally and rarely sold outside of Iwate Prefecture, the brewery had little involvement with prefectural or national sake associations. Now, it participates alongside others in events across the country to support reconstruction efforts and promote Tohoku sake.
“Other industries are very competitive, but I’m quite happy with the response of the sake world,” says Yuri Yaegashi. “We have a tight bond, and I think this is a good chance to develop (the sake) business, to raise awareness about sake.”
While many had feared that the combined effects of the earthquake and tsunami and the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima would bring disastrous consequences to the sake industry — and to producers in the Tohoku region in particular — sales figures released by the Ministry of Finance point to the opposite. Although overall sales were down slightly, sake exports in 2011 reached a new high of 14,013 kl (up 243 kl from 2010). Industry insiders speculate that the rise in exports has been fueled by overseas consumers eager to help brewers in Tohoku.
“Even people who were not sake drinkers before want to drink sake to support Tohoku, and they are gradually realizing how good the sake is,” Giichiro Yaegashi tells me, as he hands me a fragrant cup of Ryusen Yaezakura Junmai Daiginjo to sample.
Enthusiasm for Tohoku’s brews hasn’t been limited to consumers abroad. According to a report in the Asahi Shimbun, a questionnaire conducted at a sake festival in Tokyo last autumn revealed that 44 percent of respondents were drinking more sake from Tohoku than before the March 11 disaster.
Though optimistic, Yuri Yaegashi hopes that the trend will not prove to be a passing fad and notes the importance of increasing tourism in the area.
“I’m trying to introduce the tourism aspect (at food and sake events) in Tokyo and western Japan, because we need people to come to Tohoku in order to (help)finance rebuilding,” she observes.
To provide direct aid to local communities in Tohoku, Senkin Shuzo created a limited-edition sake called Hi no Tori Ginjo-shu in August. The 2,000 bottles produced last year are nearly all sold out and Senkin is preparing to release this year’s vintage on March 15. The label features a painting of a phoenix in flight, which Yuri Yaegashi chose as a symbol of hope and rebirth, and a portion of the proceeds from sales will go toward helping children who were orphaned in the catastrophe.
“We have to continue to contribute to the long-term recovery,” she says. “The road to rebuilding is long, but we will do it.”