While the rice that we harvested in Niigata prefecture in the morning sampled as amazing onigiri, it could not have been used for the focus of our afternoon activity: sake brewing. Our fleet of vans arrived at Hakkaisan Sake Brewery, also located in Niigata, the third largest sake-producing prefecture in Japan. Like the members of the Minami Uonuma Farm who pride themselves on growing koshihikari rice with fresh spring water from the Hakkaisan Mountain, the Hakkaisan Brewery focuses on using the highest quality ingredients in order to make the highest quality sake. Broadly speaking, there are two different kinds of rice in Japan, the kind you eat and the kind you don’t eat. We were fortunate enough to delve into both in a single day.

Photo by Kelly Ishikawa.

After a quick lecture and video presentation by the brewery’s production manager (or Sake Master), Shigemitsu Nagumo, we were able to actually see where this process takes place. Slipping on white coats and hairnets, we entered the brewing facilities with sake on our minds.

Photo by Kelly Ishikawa

Photo by Melissa Wong.

Photo by Kelly Ishikawa.

Rice, pristine water, and koji (the main bacterial agent for sake fermentation)—these are the fundamental ingredients for good sake making. The rice for sake making, shuzo kotekimai, is larger and stronger than the rice that we eat and contains more protein.

Bags of shuzo kotekimai, rice for sake. Photo by Kelly Ishikawa.

Examining polished rice. Photo by Kelly Ishikawa.

Photo by Kayoko Akabori.

The rice is polished to remove the bran, allowed to rest, and then steamed. This process requires one’s utmost attention, for if the rice is allowed to steam for too long it will ferment too quickly. Part of the rice is then brought to a culture room to be turned into koji, steamed rice that has koji mold spores cultivated into it.

Sake master Shigemitsu Nagumo in front of the cedar room to make koji. Photo by Sasha Wizansky.

Vessel for letting sake rest a few days before transferring to the culture room. Photo by Melissa Wong.

Fermenting sake. Photo by Kelly Ishikawa.

The steamed rice, koji, and water are mixed together to create a mash that will be left to ferment for several weeks before it is pressed, carbon-filtered, and pasteurized.

Photo by Melissa Wong.

Sake master Shigemitsu Nagumo, who has been working at Hakkaisan Brewery for 30 years. Photo by Kelly Ishikawa.

Photo by Melissa Wong.

The tour confirmed our suspicions that making sake is a very complicated process. We also learned that the sake market is monopolized by a few big companies and that competition is exacerbated by the fact that sake consumption is declining. For this reason, the Hakkaisan brewery aims to produce high-quality, affordable sakes for casual consumption hoping that if sake remains accessible their craft will not become obsolete.

Towards the end of the tour, we were brought to the foot of a trail so that we could hike to the source of the spring water and taste the purity of the water used for Hakkaisan sake.

Photo by Kelly Ishikawa.

A great feast awaited us when we returned from our venture to the mountain spring. We eagerly stuck our chopsticks in every little bowl in front of us as we lapped up the never-ending sake from our glasses and participated in many rounds of toasts. Kampai! Photo by Kelly Ishikawa.

Hakkaisan “Tokubetsu Daiginjo” sake. A special small-batch sake that is not released to the public. Photo by Kelly Ishikawa.

Photo by Kelly Ishikawa.

Many people, both American and Japanese, stood up to give speeches throughout the dinner, all trying the best they could to thank one another for making this exchange possible and for taking an active interest in one another.

Charlie Hallowell. Photo by Kelly Ishigawa.

After a tour like the Hakkaisan Brewery tour it is easy to make the connection between the Japanese philosophy of how one should eat and drink and the current push in California for more sustainable living. Like the participants and proponents of the current food movement in California, Japanese artisans rely on the quality of locally produced ingredients for a healthy and happy life. Concepts such as sustainability and terroir have been practiced in Japan for many centuries and still persist today.

I think it is for this reason that, although I know I am in a foreign place, one where I cannot speak or read the language, where the land and streets are unfamiliar, it is easy to feel at home here.

Everyone slowly scooped themselves up to leave the table that night feeling warmed by the sake and the night.