The Legend of Kimibandai
The Tanaka sake brewery (“Tanaka Shuzo” 田中酒造) is a small brewery located in the small city of Toride at the very edge of Ibaraki prefecture, about a forty-minute train ride on the Joban line from Ueno station. Despite being a very small operation, this sake brewery or “sakagura” (酒蔵) has been around for over 350 years! Kurand Sake Market did a survey among its partner breweries, and found out that the average age of a “sakagura” was about 160 years, less than half the age of Tanaka Brewery!
Tanaka Brewery was founded in 1655 during the Edo period (1603-1868), when Toride was a post town (“shukuba” 宿場) on the Mito highway (“Mito kaido” 水戸街道) that linked Tokyo with Mito city. In those times, Mito was an important city since it was the home of the Mito-Tokugawa family (水戸徳川家), a branch of the Tokugawa shogun. As for any brewery, the source of its water is of vital importance, and here it’s obtained from the subsoil of the nearby Tone River, the second longest river in Japan, flowing from the mountains of Niigata prefecture, all the way to the Pacific Ocean in Chiba prefecture.
In 1884, the Emperor Meiji made a trip to Ibaraki. While crossing the Tone river, he happened to get thirsty and so was given some water to drink from the well of the nearby Tanaka Brewery. He liked the water so much that the brewery continued to provide it to him during his stay. In return, the Emperor bestowed the name “Kimibandai” (君萬代) on the brewery. The first part “kimi” is an old name for Japan; the second part “bandai” means “thousands of years”. Since then, Tanaka Brewery’s sake has been known under the brand name “Kimibandai”.
A Husband and Wife Team
It took us only a few minutes on foot to reach the brewery from Toride station on a pleasant September morning. I noticed the beautiful Japanese exterior of the building even before I was told we had arrived. It seems that the current building is 230 years old, and had survived the great kanto earthquake from 1923! Stepping inside, I found myself in the shop space where the seven kinds of sake made by the brewery are on display, including their “junmai ginjo” (a high-quality sake), which won a silver medal at the international wine challenge in 2019. Big-sized bottles (1.8 liters), regular-sized bottles (720ml) and small-sized bottles (330ml) of each are on sale.
I was greeted by Kiyoshi Ogawa, Managing Director, and his wife, Seiko, Tanaka Brewery’s President. They have only one employee, their sales manager, although every brewing season (mid-October to April) they hire two to four part-time workers to help with the more physical aspects of sake brewing, usually students from nearby universities. We sat down for a chat over some cold tea, and I wondered what happened to the name “Tanaka”. “I used to be Ms Tanaka before I got married” said Seiko “I am the youngest of four daughters of the 15th generation of the Tanaka family”. After her father, the former brewer, passed away, nobody really knew who would continue the family business, until her husband stepped in.
Kiyoshi met his future wife at university. He was studying to be an electrical engineer, something that has no connection at all with sake and sake brewing. “After I started working as an engineer, I was asked to transfer to their factory in Italy,” he said. However, at the same time, his wife’s family was looking for someone to take over the brewery, so he decided it was a good opportunity to try something new. He quit his job and, together with his wife studied sake brewing at the Sake Research Institute.
I thought that their story was similar to that of the manga and TV drama “Natsuko no Sake” but Seiko disagreed somewhat. “In that story, everybody is overly serious, trying to make the best sake in Japan. We just want to make sake we like”. She continued by saying that people have different tastes, so how can one say that this sake is the best. Kiyoshi admitted that “sales power” wasn’t their strong point. That is also the reason why “Kimibandai” is hard to obtain outside Toride and Ibaraki. “Even if I tried to sell my sake in Tokyo or other places, I would have to go there repeatedly in order to keep up sales…”
Visiting the Brewery
It was time to visit the brewery. We were joined by Mr Sudo, from the Toride city hall and responsible for promoting local tourism. Later on, he demonstrated a smartphone app called “furato 294” that can take you on a tour of interesting spots in Toride (including Tanaka brewery), as well as nearby Tsukuba and Joso cities. The app is named after the national road that passes nearby all three cities. The app uses animated characters to guide you, so if you like Japanese anime and pop culture, it’s worth checking out.
We left the street-side building, crossed a small courtyard and faced two smaller buildings on the other side, with solar panels on the roofs. I felt that it was an indication of how modern breweries are trying to reconnect with nature, and become more eco-friendly.
First, we entered the one-storey building on the left. This is where the rice is steamed to create the fermenting mash or “moromi”. In the center was a pit where a fire is lit, over which a big iron pot filled with water is placed. On top of that comes a large wooden tub or “koshiki” where the milled rice is steamed. I had read about this process and so it was interesting to see the brewing equipment with my own eyes, although since the brewing season hadn’t started yet, they were not being used.
Making the fermentation mash
We then entered the bigger two-storey building. Here were the fermentation tanks. There were about a dozen of these of various sizes for different brews. The exact volume of each was clearly labeled on the front, and Kiyoshi explained that this was so that they could know how much tax to pay, since sake is taxed by volume.
Moromi being placed in the fermentation vats
He briefly showed us the room for making mold or “koji”. This room must be kept 100% clean, so we were not allowed to enter, and the door was kept open for just a few seconds, just long enough for one picture, to prevent any dust from getting in. A contaminated koji room could completely ruin the taste of the sake.
Trying Kimibandai Sake
After the tour, I decided to buy a couple of small 330ml bottles so that I could taste and compare “Kimibandai” sake at home. I choose their “junmaishu” for 486 yen and a “junmai ginjoshu” for 864 yen. The former, with a rice milling rate of 70%, had a strong ricey taste, meaning it paired well with Japanese food like sashimi. The latter, with a rice milling rate of 60%, and winner of the award I mentioned earlier, had the sharp, dry taste, characteristic of a “ginjo” sake. By the way, this one also had a very interesting label. It is based on a painting made by Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Santo Kyozan from 1847 that uses cats to parody kabuki.
If you wish to visit the Tanaka Brewery, it’s recommended to make a reservation in advance. If you happen to be in the area, you can also drop by without one, but there is a risk that a visit may not be possible, for example if brewing is in process. The visit (in Japanese only) costs nothing, but it’s a good idea to buy some sake from their shop, since if you are visiting a sake brewery, surely you are interested in drinking their sake.
Finally, I asked about the Ogawa couple about their motivation for continuing the Tanaka family tradition of sake brewing. Seiko answered “Well, the brewery has such a long history…it would be great if thanks to us it could reach 400 years or even 450…”
Watch the full video of brewing a high-quality sake
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If you chose to visit this restaurant after reading this article, don’t hesitate to tell the staff you found out about them through the Tadaima Japan website.
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