Countryside towns in Japan, while short on residents, never seem to be lacking in folklore or legends. Some are so outlandish, one wonders if sake may have been a major influence in their creation. The small town of Agamachi in Niigata, home to some 11,000 or so residents, has one of the more interesting legends that has morphed into a rather curious yearly ritual.
That ritual is depicted in Sunshine Through the Rain, the first sequence of the Akira Kurosawa film Dreams (“Yume” in Japanese). Defying warnings of a concerned woman, a boy plays in the forest during the rain and witnesses a secret wedding procession of foxes that have taken human form. It needs to be explained that in Japanese folklore, the fox is a shapeshifting creature with magical powers which are generally used to create mischief and deceive mankind.
Some of that mischief apparently takes place at Agamachi’s centerpiece, Mount Kirinzan. Situated at the confluence of the Agano and Tokonami rivers, it’s more of a hill than a mountain, with a prominent rocky ridge jutting out of the surrounding woods. Villagers have long related tales of seeing strange lights resembling lanterns flickering up the mountainside. As it is virtually a cliff, it was believed that humans would not be able to climb it, so of course, it had to be the mystical foxes.
Every year on May 3rd, the town holds the Kitsune no Yome-iri Gyoretsu (the wedding procession of foxes). The majority of the town participates, with face-painted whiskers and makeup, while one lucky engaged couple gets to play the part of fox bride and groom. At dusk the couple boards a small boat and is shuttled across the river to disappear into the misty darkness of Kirinzan.
Tiny Agamachi is also the home of two world-class nihonshu breweries, which brings us back around to the question of whether sake may have played a role in the creation of tales of fox weddings and the like. The two breweries are Kirinzan and the subject of this article, Kaetsu Shuzo, which also makes a line of sake called Kirin. Neither should be confused with the beer giant, Kirin, which rolled out its first eponymous-branded beers in 1888, eight years after Kaetsu’s founding. Briefly returning to folklore, the kirin is a mythical beast resembling something of a cross between a dragon and a unicorn, and is a common creature in Japanese and Chinese legends, hence the pervasiveness of the name.
Kaetsu Shuzo, originally named Kanbaraya after the name of the county, was founded in 1880 by Eitaro Sato, current president Shunichi Sato’s great grandfather. Shunichi’s mother was also a kuramoto in Aizu-Wakamatsu, just across the border in neighboring Fukushima. His wife and Director of International Business, Yoshiko Sato, is similarly from sakagura lineage. Her mother descends from kuramoto in Shiga Prefecture and her father was president of Nishiokahonten, brewers of Hananoi in Ibaraki Prefecture. Like her husband, she grew up around brewing and has fond memories of playing hide-and-seek in her family’s sakagura.
While it’s no shock to anyone that two people with such an extensive involvement in the sake world would marry, Yoshiko says she originally had no plans of being in the business. “I surely never expected to end up the wife of a kuramoto,” she says with a laugh. In her youth she had an infatuation with foreign cultures and studied English literature at her university. After graduating from high school she lived in cosmopolitan Tokyo and relocation to a rural hamlet in Niigata was not even a remote consideration.
Shunichi spent seventeen years working as an assessor for the National Tax Administration Agency in Tokyo in their alcoholic beverages subdivision, the National Research Institute of Brewing (NRIB). He acted as an adviser to sake breweries, providing his assistance and expertise so that they could produce quality product and, consequently, generate tax revenue. As the eldest brother of his family it was always expected that he would return to Agamachi to take over the business from his father. He eventually returned in 1993 to manage the sake brewing operations and moved into the role of president in 2000. Over the course of his time working for the tax agency he appraised countless brands and types of sake, the best of which drove him even further to improve on his own family’s product.
Shunichi and Yoshiko’s paths inevitably crossed as his father, who had also worked for the tax office, had been an adviser to Hananoi. With a little cheerleading from their sake families, the couple wed. Yoshiko remained in Tokyo with the couple’s daughter to see her through to college before following her husband back to Niigata’s countryside in 1996 and immersing herself fully in the family business. Her English studies coupled with experience working in sales for pearl company Tasaki Shinju made handling of the company’s international business the right fit. While different products, she says both positions revolve around presenting traditional Japanese craft to the foreign market.
Shunichi exudes an aura akin to Christopher Lloyd’s endearing character Doc in the Back to the Future movies. There seem to be experiments going on throughout the property: bottles aging at room temp in the warehouse, some random crates with assorted brewing years gathering dust in the corner until he deems the time appropriate, garages out back with sake aging in refrigerators set at varying temps. He exuberantly leads us around the sakagura excited to show how certain things work. Each question is not only answered verbally, but is accompanied by a demonstration.
At one point Shunichi takes us to the attic of the old wooden building of the original kura. Hidden among the rafters is a collection of wine, another passion of his. In addition to acting as a storage area for fine wine, the attic is also an antique collector’s dream. Scattered about one finds an old sake vending machine advertising ¥50/cup, a pair of old wooden boots, metal brands used to sear the company logo into casks or equipment, and other random, old-school tools of the trade.
Finding someone more involved in sake than Shunichi may be an impossibility. As a child of a sake family, in sixth grade he wrote his “What I did during summer vacation” report about researching yeast. At university he studied agricultural chemistry and then took the aforementioned job of government assessor for the sake industry. He has been a judge for the Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyoukai (Japan Sake Awards) and an official evaluator of sake grades for the NRIB. Presently, he is involved in a number of committees, and acts as chairman for the Niigata Original Control and director for the Association for Long Term Aged Sake. Many in the industry simply call him “Sensei” in deference to his immense body of work in the sake world.
Including the Satos, the brewery has eighteen employees and a yearly output of around 270kl. Brewery operations are spearheaded by toji and Agamachi local Etsuo Ino, employed by the company since 1991 when he graduated from high school. He learned the ropes from his superiors as he rose through the ranks and also completed the three-year program at Niigata’s special Seishu Gakko. Literally called “Sake School”, it was “founded by a group of sake brewers in Niigata to foster young artisans” according to the Niigata Sake Brewers Association. Having taken over the toji duties in the latter half of 2015, he is still relatively young for a master brewer.
In line with the president’s character, the team at Kaetsu produces some rather unique sake to complement the standards. The snowmelt that filters down through the forests from the high peaks of Niigata provides the soft water that the prefecture’s many breweries convert into that tanreikarakuchi (crisp, light and dry) style of sake for which Niigata is well-known. The majority of Kaetsu’s Kirin and Homare Kirin brands share that taste profile. Kirin is the brewery’s original brand and the Homare Kirin line was created in 1998 to provide reasonably priced premium sake with an easily recognizable labeling system–all are basically the same except for the color.
Introduced in 2005, the Kanbara brand (taken from the company’s original name) breaks with traditional Niigata flavor. Full-bodied and rich, the exquisite Kanbara Bride of the Fox is a junmai ginjo made with Gohyakumangoku rice. The alcohol content comes in at 16.5%. The flavor profile is streamlined and clean, yet assertive in its crisp, nut-tinged flavors. Mildly fruity, the complex aromas are suggestively flora. It has become their most popular sake abroad, especially in the US. A second gem is the Kanbara Wings of Fortune, also a junmai ginjo, but made with Yamada Nishiki rice. The aroma is clean and fresh with hints of anise and sweet rice. This sake has a silky texture on the tongue with flavors of honeydew and anise, and a hint of pineapple.
Kirin Hizoushu is another hit both abroad and in Japan. It’s a daiginjo brewed using Yamada Nishiki and aged as genshu (in undiluted form) for five years at 0°C. It exhibits a slight sherry touch, yet an overall light character with well-rounded and elegant flavor. Kaetsu produces a number of aged sake, maturing them at varying controlled temperatures and also the naturally changing ambient temperature. Their Jijoshu is an aged yamahai junmai genshu that anyone interested in aged sake should be sure to try.
If you find your way out to the countryside of Niigata, cue up Kurosawa on your screen, sit back with some Kanbara at a nice riverside ryokan at the foot of Kirinzan, and see where the night takes you. If you find yourself seeing visions of foxes parading through the evening mists, you might assume it’s time to put down your glass of sake. In this case though, you need not worry. It’s all completely normal in Agamachi.