New Sake Combining Classic and Modern Styles
When people think of a sake brewery, they often envision a place out in the countryside, surrounded by natural scenery. However, even Tokyo is home to its own breweries. I headed to nine different facilities including sake breweries, wholesaler shops and others in search of local Tokyo brews. Let's take a look at OZAWA SHUZO CO., LTD., the brewery that makes the sake "Sawanoi."
As I stepped off the train at Sawai Station on the JR Ome Line, I saw before me a wide expanse of rich greenery. Taking in the fresh air, I strolled down the hill from the station, where I came across the entrance gate of the Ozawa Shuzo brewery.
The brewery's president, Mikio Ozawa, explains, "According to an old historic record, sake was already being made here in 1702, midway through the Edo Period [1600–1868]."
The Ozawa family has lived on this land since long ago and worked in forestry and various other trades. One of these pursuits was the brewing of sake. Water quality has remained virtually unchanged here for more than 300 years. The area's name, Sawai ("mountain stream well"), was chosen due to the large quantities of good water that flows through here in mountain streams, and Ozawa Shuzo's "Sawanoi" sake brand of name is inspired by the same waters and means roughly the same thing as Sawai. Says President Ozawa, "Our sake's terroir [land and climate factors], as they say in the wine world, is definitely rooted in our local water."
The brewery uses water from two wells to produce their product: One is the brewery's well, which is located deep in a cave that continues through the rock face to the Chichibu Paleozoic strata and provides semi-hard water. The other is the mountain well, from which soft water is brought up from within the mountainous terrain. President Ozawa elaborates:
"Mineral-rich, semi-hard water is ideal for the traditional kimoto yeast-mash starter we employ—a tradition dating back to the Edo Period. In contrast, soft water is optimal for producing the aromatic, flowery, gentle-tasting sake that is popular today. Thanks to the two types of water sources at our disposal, we can create both traditional- and modern-style sake for our customers."
Creating New Brews While Respecting Sake-making Roots
Introducing "Tokyo Kurabito," a kimoto-brewed junmai ginjo sake whose name cites its Tokyo roots. It is a fusion of classic and modern styles—an entirely new type of sake. "We went back to our roots, and brewed it using a traditional kimoto yeast-mash starter to reflect this. Whatever you think of the final results, it's undeniable that kimoto expresses its flavor boldly. We took consideration contemporary ginjo-focused trends in this product's quality characteristics and flavor."
As Ozawa talked to me about his sake, I tasted some for myself. It had a strong body of flavor, as is typical of kimoto brews, as well as a pleasant tartness accompanied by rich aromatic properties and a refined flavor. It seemed like it would go well with both Japanese and Western cuisine.
Ozawa Shuzo is pursuing another interesting project as well: the revival of wooden-vat sake brewing. They discovered what was believed to be a 300-year-old Japanese cedar tree which had toppled over in the hills near the brewery. "We wanted to make use of this tree in some way. It had been around as long as our brewery, and was raised on the very same water," says Ozawa. However, there are very few wooden-vat artisans left in Japan today, which is why Ozawa Shuzo had the lumber transported to Osaka where an expert crafted it into vats. This was the origin of brewery's sake "Iroha" (Iro means "color" or "vividness"), a wooden-vat-brewed product. They used the same kimoto approach to achieve a solid brew brimming with life.
According to President Ozawa, "The traditional has evolved into the contemporary, resulting in something entirely new. This product makes one reflect back on the last 300 years of history."
Pioneers in Sake Tourism: Visitors to the Brewery from Japan and Beyond
After touring the brewery facilities, I proceeded to "Sawanoien," a garden located on the bank of the Tama River. Here visitors can enjoy Sawanoi sake along with manju steamed buns containing sake, wasabi picked with sake lees, and other snacks.
Although it is common for breweries today to offer facility tours, install adjoining restaurants, and make other such efforts to attract tourists, Ozawa Shuzo was one of the first. They opened their brewery to public visits in the mid-1960s. "That was a golden era for the sake market. Many breweries were even putting out TV commercials," explains President Ozawa. "My grandfather, the brewery head two generations ago, thought that it would be a good idea to have people come in and see the actual brewery so we could directly promote our products."
Ozawa Shuzo has a restaurant where visitors can sample tofu dishes made using sake-brewing water, as well as sweets and other selections. There is also a museum and other facilities. Many visitors drop in for a look after walking or bicycle ride along the Tama riverfront, or following leisure activities in the river itself. Moreover, many come back for repeat visits, and in recent years visitors from outside of Japan, young couples on dates, groups of women, and a diverse range of other new visitor types are showing up.
"Everyone is surprised to discover that sake is being made right here in Tokyo, and that Tokyo is home to this kind of lush natural scenery. We hope that more people will visit the Okutama region and taste our sake in order to see and experience the various charms of Tokyo for themselves." So says Mikio Ozawa, the brewery's 23rd president as of January.
Every time a new, young president steps up, everyone expects something new and exciting to happen with the brewery and its sake—a dramatic change of some sort. To this, President Ozawa simply responds with a smile and states, "I don't plan to do any of that." He elaborates: "The last 22 generations of presidents have built up numerous traditions, and as the 23rd president I plan to add my contributions alongside theirs. I believe it's important to build further upon what has already been established by past generations."
Nevertheless, Ozawa detects major changes taking place in the current age. "Due to the spread of social media, there is now much less distance separating sake makers and consumers. Our products have even become popular overseas, and many foreign visitors come to visit us, so the world feels a lot smaller these days. My goal is to convey clearly to everyone the brewery's 300 years of history and our intent to build on that past. That's my job as president."
(Author: Asako Nakatsumi)
A 5-minute walk from Sawai Station on the JR Ome Line
2-770 Sawai, Ome City, Tokyo 198-0172
Brewery tours available. Reservation required. Four tours per day (starting at 11:00, 13:00, 14:00, and 15:00). No more than 30 participants per tour.
No tours on Mondays (Tuesday if Monday is a holiday) and during the New Year’s holiday season.