As I sat listening to Hyogo Kitahara, the 12th generation operator of Shichiken Sake Brewery, I couldn’t help noticing his demeanour. He had the air of someone who has worked hard to get to where he is, and I felt privileged to be a guest in his Edo-period office. As I was not the only guest in his office, I managed to take a photo through the glass window separating the office from the rest of the brewery.
After drinking an ice-cold smoothie made from powdered mulberry leaves and sweet rice koji (a by-product of sake production), Mr. Kitahara’s son, Tsushima, took us on a tour of the Kitahara family’s former residence. I say former because they had to vacate the house abruptly in 1880 for a very specific reason. The reason the family had to leave was that the Meiji Emperor stayed in their home for one night while travelling through Yamanashi (then known as Kai or Kōshū). As the Emperor was considered to be a living God, the family left without question. For their trouble, they received 50 yen to build a new home. Clearly inflation has greatly diminished the purchasing power of the Japanese Yen as 50 yen would only buy a pack of gum in 2016.
After the house tour, we went to see the factory. As this is a family business with just 30 employees, I was not surprised to find out that Tsushima’s brother, Ryogo, is the brewmaster at Shichiken.
At this stage of sake production, the rice grains are polished to about 50% of their original size to maximize their sweetness. The polished rice in the picture above is being soaked in water to prepare it for the next stage of the process.
At the end of our tour I asked Tsushima, who speaks excellent English, if his family had any special traditions or stories he could share with me. He answered my question with a resounding, “Yes”. He said that his family has always avoided political affiliations and other distractions over the centuries in order to maintain their focus on producing top-quality sake. It is not uncommon for a Japanese family to adopt a son when their isn’t an heir to the family business. However, Tsushima was proud to tell me that he and his brother, Ryogo, are the true 13th-generation operators of Shichiken. I hope the Kitahara family can keep producing sake for many more generations to come.
Diners Club Young Brewers’ Encouragement Award (2017)
This prize goes in support of young brewers – those who are 35 years or younger. In 2017 the prize went to Ryogo Kitahara from Yamanashi Meijo Brewery in Yamanashi Prefecture, whose Shichiken Junmai Daiginjo won the top prize in the Super Premium category. Congratulations to my favourite sake brewery in Yamanashi!
You can access Shichiken Sake Brewery from JR Shinjuku Station in 2.5 hours by taking an express train to JR Kofu Station on the JR Chuo Line. Once you arrive in Kofu, take the JR Chuo Line local train to JR Nagasaka Station. From Nagasaka Station, take the Shimokyōraishi bus and get off at Daigahara (30 minutes). The sake brewery is a 5-minute walk from the bus stop. Alternatively, you can take a taxi from JR Nagasaka Station (15 Minutes).