“For 120 years, us women were not allowed past this point.” says Yoko, casually.
She points at the entrance of the main body of the brewery, where the vats are stored and the Koji room is located, next to the small shrine that they offer prayers and offerings to every morning to ensure a good brew.
“It was just tradition. In our family, sons are the ones who become the Toji (Master Brewers).”
It’s not hard to see why. The days are gruelling and the hours are long. It takes a physical toll on your body, carrying heavy loads of rice around. Waking up before sunrise each morning, the brewing team meticulously prepares the rice for the day’s brew. After washing the rice in the clear, crisp water that Shimane prefecture, the legendary birthplace of sake itself, is famous for, they are cooked in gigantic steamers, or koshiki.
It’s the moments that follow that becomes a blur of activity and chaotic energy.
“Watch out!” I hear from behind me, as huge bags of freshly cooked rice are transported to a table to spread out and stabilise their temperature.
But today, and in this era, the world is a different place. In 2020, it is Rika Asano, Yoko’s daughter, that is calling the shots as the Master Brewer, the first female Master Brewer Ichinomiya Shuzuo (Brewery)
has ever had at its helm.
A small, family-operated business, Rika and her team of three brewing assistants begin to load freshly cooked rice onto linen sheets ready to transport to the next step. In doing so, I see Rika step past the invisible barrier that her mother had to face, without hesitation or thought. I wonder if she herself understood the significance of this.
“That’s her husband, Reiki.” Yoko says, pointing at a rosy-cheeked man being barked around and hurrying with his duties.
“Yoroshiku! Nice to meet you.” he says, giving a curt side-bow, laughing and walking away, carrying a huge linen bag of cooked rice up a steep set of stairs to the mezzanine floor. Rika does the same. I instinctively think to offer to help.
“I’m very proud of her.” Yoko says, interrupting my thought, almost preempting my reaction as if to make a point. “She’s also six months pregnant, you know.”
I let that last piece of information slowly sink in.
I poke my head into the Koji room - perhaps the most important room and the most vital step in the production of this 1,000+ year old product. Here, the Master Brewer lays out the cooked rice in a thin, even layer. There is clearly a science to this - how thick the rice can be, how ‘separated’ the grains are to each other, the texture, and most importantly, the temperature - it felt like a sauna in there, and when we arrived, it was 2 degrees celsius outside.
Here, timing is everything. There is a certain time of day, given the sun’s position in the sky and ambient temperature at ground level where the koji seeds do their best work. One is reminded that there are little monitoring tools about, save a few thermometers here and there. Here in Japan, sake brewing comes down to experience, to feel, and to one’s connection to nature.
Rika, as the Master Brewer, is entrusted with the task of dusting the koji seeds - spores, which begins the fermentation process to turn the rice into koji, the most vital ingredient in sake brewing. She dusts the koji seeds over the rice like a fine art, knowing exactly where to distribute it. This is where the master’s work comes to play. The others watch in silence, respectfully.
At lunch, they invite us to see their family area. This is where Rika’s full character comes to light. She’s on the phone texting a supplier, cradling her two year old son Akito for his nap, and when she’s out of her brewing clothes, the baby bump is obvious now. The modern day Wonder Woman.
“I was born in a family of three girls. In a way, I felt like it was my destiny to become a female Master Brewer.” Rika says, as she points out a few old family portraits with her father Koji on the shelves, fading away like the memories they encapsulate. “I’ve never liked the attitude that if you are a female, you can’t do certain things.”
Three generations of a brewing family.
She shows us some of her brewery’s premium bottles, a Junmai Daiginjo premium sake named “Rika”
by her family in her honour. This particular sake is brewed using an edible rice named Tsuyahime
, her favourite rice she devoured daily as a child. She tells me it is best paired with Italian cuisine - and a fuse momentarily snaps in my head. Italian food, you say? She nods. They offer us a special soup they make using some of the leftover rice from the morning's brew. There's a sweet tinge of sake flavour to the broth, and it's a warm treat after spending all morning inside a cold brewery environment.
As lunch finishes, she prepares herself for the afternoon shift and begins to put her work clothes back on. I ask her if she has had any thoughts about what she represents, being one of a handful of female licensed Master Brewers in Japan. She takes pause to think about it.
“As a female, I have strengths in other areas; my attention to detail, sensitivity, and so on.” she says, matter-of-factly, thinking about this question quite literally. As I struggle to explain to her my true meaning, she continues, unprompted.
“Of course, I may not have as much physical strength (as a man), but when I think of these strengths and what I can bring as a woman, I believe me becoming a Master Brewer... it really means something.”
And with that, she smiles and goes back to work.
Rika Asano. Mother, Wife, Daughter, Master Brewer, Renaissance Woman.