Every year, Takaaki Yamauchi, a seventh-generation sake brewer, organizes the planting and harvesting of Watari Bune, a prized but temperamental sake rice varietal. Yamauchi, who is the president of Huchu Homare, one of Japan’s most highly regarded microbreweries, enlists the help of more than 200 volunteers. He brought the Watari Bune tradition back from near extinction 21 years ago.
But this year, the 46-year-old Yamauchi opted not to hold the seasonal events. He was too busy repairing the damage done to his 150-year-old brewery by the March earthquake, and he couldn’t get enough planting experts to manage the volunteers who’d signed up to help with the harvest.
A visit to Huchu Homare found the brewery surrounded with scaffolding. Roof tiles had fallen and walls were cracked. The magnitude of the quake was not as severe as in the Tohoku region to the north, but Ibaragi prefecture, where the brewery is located in the Kanto region, was hard hit. Yamauchi was driving when the earthquake struck and almost flipped his car. He estimates that the brewery repairs will take at least two years, with costs exceeding the insurance coverage. Nonetheless he feels lucky; thanks to its skilled carpentry, the interior structure remained intact. Only 10 of 25,000 bottles were broken.
Radiation tests proved rice was safe
The five farmers Yamauchi contracts to grow rice for his sake on 8.5 acres of land were lucky too. While many farmers in the Ibaragi region had to deal with broken irrigation pipes and seawater that had seeped into their paddies, Huchu Homare’s growers planted the Watari Bune rice seedlings without delay. The irrigation water in their fields was tested for radiation several times prior to and during the growing season, and passed safety standards. Readings must be below 500 becquerels per kilogram to qualify as safe for eating. One hundred kilos of rice was harvested in the fall, and the grains were tested for radiation at the Univesrsity of Ibaragi. Tests for health hazardous Iodine 131, Caesium 134 and Caesium 137 were all negative. Huchu Homare was able to produce sake using native rice varietal Watari Bune without any interruption. This was a great relief to Yamauchi, who cares about remaining local.
The practice of making sake with Watari Bune sake rice started in the late 1980s, when Yamauchi took over his family’s business. Back then, not one of the 65 regional breweries in Ibaragi, including his own, were using native rice varietals. Wanting to forge a stronger regional identity and make sake the traditional way, he began looking for a local rice. One elderly farmer remembered a varietal called Watari Bune that was popular in the 1930s and made excellent sake. The grains were low in protein, high in starch. They were absorbent and retained good flavor — ideal qualities for brewing sake. Watari Bune was not an easy rice to cultivate. The leaves grew too tall, fell over easily. The plants were susceptible to diseases, bugs loved them and they took longer to grow than other rice –- 60 days instead of 40. The rice grew less and less popular with the Ibaragi farmers, until eventually they stopped growing it. As decades passed, some thought the varietal had gone extinct.
Lost and forgotten seedlings
Yamauchi found the frozen seedlings of Watari Bune in the gene bank of an agricultural research center in Tsukuba, Ibaragi. He asked the lab to give him seeds for research purposes. The research center gave him 14 grams, a mere tablespoonful. With the help of Toju Hotta, the research center’s agricultural advisor, Yamauchi cultivated the sake rice. While there was some trouble finding a rice farmer who would collaborate with the experiment, Yamauchi eventually found a local farmer who lent him 3.3 square meters of rice paddy to plant the seeds. With trial and error, Yamauchi and Hotta managed to produce the first 300 bottles of Watari Bune sake in 1990. Watari Bune is often referred to as the “miracle sake rice.”
Within a few years, the sake won several gold medals at the National Sake Competition. Watari Bune has earned rave reviews and maintains a cult status in the sake community for its lively, aromatic and balanced fruit flavor, one which Yamauchi characterizes as green apple. The sake is best chilled to about 5 to 10 degrees C (41 to 50 F), but it can also be enjoyed at room temperature. Decanting for a few minutes heightens its fragrance.
Whenever Yamauchi visits the rice fields of Watari Bune, he stops at the soba shop that stands adjacent to the paddies. Hotta, the now-retired agricultural advisor, is the noodle maker and proprietor. Everyone still calls him sensei, which means teacher. Yamauchi has a slurp of Hotta’s delicious artisanal soba and tofu, both made from hand-milling locally grown buckwheat and soy beans. On his last visit, Hotta apologized for not having the time to replace the bowls and dishes, which had been chipped during the earthquake, then brought out a jug full of Watari Bune. The two men made a toast to health and happiness, and to the prized native rice they took such pains to revive, and then let the smooth sake slide down their throats.
Zester Daily contributor Sonoko Sakai is a food writer and film producer, and blogs about Japanese home cooking and making soba noodles by hand. Her most recent film is “Blindness.” She lives in Los Angeles and Tehachapi, Calif.
Top photo: A bottle of Watari Bune sake.
Photo and slideshow credit: Sonoko Sakai