The Little-known History and Charms of Tokyo-made Sake
When people think of a sake brewery, they often envision a place out in the countryside, surrounded by natural scenery. But even Tokyo is home to its own breweries, and I set out to explore the history and defining characteristics of sake made locally in the nation's capital.
I visited all nine of Tokyo's sake breweries, and most told me that visitors say they had no idea Tokyo even had its own breweries, or even go so far as to claim that there's no way good sake could be made in Tokyo.
Sake is considered a beverage best brewed in the midst of Mother Nature, with verdant scenery abound and clean natural water sources— in other words, a far cry from the massive urban center that is Tokyo. This way of thinking, it turns out, is completely wrong, and based on that discovery I decided to explore the history of sake brewing in Tokyo.
Proliferation of Sake Culture in the Mid–Edo Period
Sake has long been a vital part of Shinto shrine ceremonies, festivals and other important events, and sake brewing culture developed primarily in the old capital of Kyoto. When the system of feudal domains under a central shogunate government was established in the early modern period (from the 17th century onward), major traffic hubs such as castle towns, temple towns, post towns, port towns and others became thriving centers of sake production. Although the roots of sake-making in Edo (present-day Tokyo) are unclear, evidence shows that small breweries existed in each region of Japan.
Culture, industry and other societal endeavors entered a period of great prosperity midway through the Edo Period (1600–1868). Meanwhile, the population grew in the capital city of Edo, and demand for food and drink grew right along with it. At the time, most sake came from the Kansai area, brewed in major production centers such as Nada and Fushimi. This was transported by ship to Edo where it won widespread popularity as kudari-zake, meaning sake brought into Edo from the outside.
In contrast, the Edo-based sake industry was much smaller in scale, and its products of such low quality that one would be hard-pressed to find words of praise to describe them. In fact, sake made in Edo and other parts of the surrounding Kanto region were often described disparagingly using the phrase jimawari akushu, which means "horrible local brews."
Sixty-four Breweries in Tokyo's Twenty-three Wards
In an effort to change these trends, Matsudaira Sadanobu, a high-ranking roju (elder) under the nation's ruling Tokugawa family, gathered together prominent local sake makers and ordered the milling of 2,205 tons of rice supplied by the shogunate and subsequent use of said rice to brew 30,000 barrels of sake.
The high-quality alcohol resulting from this project was sold directly to customers via shops established in Edo, without going through wholesalers. Records show that numerous sake breweries were established in what is now Tokyo's 23 wards, an area representing the country's largest consumption center and offering the advantage of well-developed transportation infrastructure via boat and other means.
According to a 1910 record, there were 64 breweries within the modern-day 23 wards; however, Tokyo Port Brewery is the only brewery that remains in Tokyo's 23-ward center today. Moreover, Tokyo Port Brewery had to discontinue their operations at one point, although they revived the business several years ago.
One likely reason for the temporary business failure was an unfavorable environment for sake production due to continuing urbanization. Despite the challenges, Tokyo Port Brewery employed unique innovations and approaches, and their efforts led to a new style of Tokyo sake.
High-quality Water and Rice Make Tama a Major Production Center
In the Tama region, adjacent to the urban core of Edo, numerous villages had been engaged in sake production since eras past. According to an old, 17th-century document, sake production in the area had already started much earlier in history.
Even though scarce water resources made rice production difficult in the nearby mountainous areas, the region located at the confluence of the Tama and Aki Rivers offered easy access to water, and the semi-hard water flowing through the Chichibu Paleozoic strata was well-suited to sake brewing.
Local village heads led sake-production efforts in regional villages, and even today eight breweries in the area make sake under their own company brand names.
With its abundant natural landscapes, high-quality water, and local traditions and climate conditions, the Tama region stands in stark contrast to modern-day, urban Tokyo. The favorable production environment, coupled with the passion and daring of its sake makers, continue to give rise to a range of unique, individualistic brews in Tama.
Tokyo is a center of diversity, and its sake brewing reflects this, preserving old traditions while continually evolving to create a rich variety of new local products.
(Author: Asako Nakatsumi)