As a child, Rumiko Obata loved to play in the family kura on Sado Island off northern Japan’s west coast. “I was comfortable being in that dark, silent space,” she recalls, “a kind of micro universe” where invisible wild yeasts and other magical, sake-related chemical compounds floated in the air and where the brewery kamidana, or Shinto shrine—lined with offerings to the god of sake—offered protection. “There was something sacred about it,” says Obata.
She grew up to become the fifth-generation head of Obata Shuzo, the brewery founded in 1892 by her great-great grandfather Yososaku Obata. Along with her husband Takeshi Hirashima, she has ushered the company into the age of foreign exportation, winning it international renown for its premium products: gold-medal winning, pear-scented Manotsuru Maho daiginjo; elegant, super-premium “shizuku” drip-pressed Nishiki no Manotsuru daiginjo; Manotsuru “Four Diamonds” junmai ginjo, and Manotsuru Sado Kinzan Hizou Kosyu Daiginjo, a sherry-like sake that is secreted away to mellow in the tunnel of a former Sado gold mine, where the brewery has rented space for the past twenty-two years just for this purpose.
Like every small, premium brewer in Japan, though, what’s most interesting about Obata Shuzo goes beyond competition medals and rice polishing ratios: it is about family history, geography, passion for the craft of brewing and the sometimes tricky issue of succession.
For one thing, it was hardly preordained that Rumiko, the second of two daughters, would take over the brewery. As she grew into a teen, she dreamed of a life beyond her small island. She was fascinated by movies and television travel shows, anything that introduced her to the cultures of other countries. When her older sister Mika married, Mika’s new husband joined the family’s brewery as mukoyoushi (“married son-in-law”), taking on the Obata family name and becoming its de facto successor. That left Rumiko free to claim the bright lights of Tokyo. “I decided to find work in Tokyo and never come back to the inaka (countryside), she says.
After graduating with a degree in law from Keio University in 1988, she went to work for a film distribution company, planning national publicity campaigns for popular foreign movies debuting in Japan. Then two things changed the course of her life. Her brother in-in-law exited the brewery over differences with Obata’s father, Shunichi. Then the president was hospitalized, and Rumiko says, “I realized he wasn’t going to live forever.”
Remembering her early days playing in the kura, she began thinking that as much as she loved her job, her future might lie right back where her life began, on Sado Island. She returned in 1995 with her husband, who left his job in publishing to take on the title of president of the brewery to her role of executive vice president. Together over the last twenty-one years, they have engineered the brewery’s rise to the top tier of premium export sake. Determined to make it a sustainable business for future generations of Obatas, the couple has given free reign to master brewer Kenya Kudo, now forty-five, who was promoted to master brewer at twenty-nine, becoming one of the youngest in the country. Kudo went on to develop multiple award-winning Manotsuru “Maho” daiginjo, named after his mentor and Obata’s previous brewer, Maho Matsui. Obata and Hirashima have also helped contribute to Sado Island’s efforts to revive the island’s once-extinct species of Japanese crested Ibis. Two years ago they built a second brewery that accepts and trains apprentice sake makers.
It’s an impressive two decades worth of work but, as with all such sake success stories, one built on hard work and sheer dogged persistence. Navigating relations with Rumiko’s strong-willed father, learning their way around the very old and entrenched sake business world, “all of it was hard,” Obata admits.
From her visits to Hollywood on business with the film company, she had noticed that there was no jizake, or local artisanal sake, available even at authentic Japanese restaurants. So one of her first goals was to make Obata Shuzo’s sake an import. She just had no idea how to go about it. The major Japanese trading companies, which handled all sake exports at the time, wouldn’t take her calls. An American who was living in Niigata and had an interest in sake responded to an English-language page she had put up on the brewery’s website. This was her big break. After a trying year of testing, drawing up complicated paperwork, and making all the necessary preparations, he finally began to export Obata sake in 2003. Soon after, Obata negotiated a deal with Air France to serve Obata sake on with inflight meals.
By 2007, the year the brewery’s Manotsuru Maho Daiginjo took home the gold medal at the International Wine Challenge in London, Obata was exporting to Korea, Singapore and Taiwan as well. It was at the awards ceremony where she got a close up look at other brands’ marketing campaigns that Obata began to understand that selling sake was really about storytelling. “I started to tell the story of Sado Island,” she says, “and everything started to change.”
Part of that Sado story is the work Obata and her husband are doing, along with the local Sado City government. In order to to encourage the regeneration of the once-extinct crested ibis population, they've created a rice brand certification for“Toki” rice, grown with lowered used of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The farmers who grow Toki rice must also be certified eco-farmers. The island’s nature restoration and conservation efforts have paid off: the crested ibis, highly dependent on wetland agricultural land, was reintroduced from China to the island in 2008, and the population has grown to about 150 today.
Toki rice is an eco-friendly version of the Koshitanrei rice strain. A hybrid, Koshitanrei is the result of crossbreeding the long-time Niigata favorite Gohyakumangoku and the premium sake rice stalwart, Yamada Nishiki. Obata brewery entrusts the growing of this rice to contract farmer Tadaaki Aida and his company Sado Aida Rice Farming. Aiada has developed his own methods of farming to further enhance his product’s quality. For over twenty years, he has used the crushed shells from the island’s famous oysters to fertilize his rice paddies, and employed his father’s method of filtering the soft mountain water through oyster shell-filled tanks to enhance the clear, mineral quality of the water.
All of these efforts are part of attempts by the Obata Brewery, and on a larger scale, Niigata Prefecture, to create a truly distinct regional sake. In an essay on the concept of “terroir,” Obata mused on whether the term can be applied to sake. Because the saka-mai, or sake rice, “undergoes a complex fermentation process, heavily altering its nature,” she explained, the unique characteristic of the rice doesn’t have as great an impact on the final product as the grape varietal does on the finished wine product. Yet she argued that Niigata sake has come to better express terroir, more so than ever before, due to the fifteen-year process of developing Koshitanrei and the establishment in 1997 of an organization called Niigata Original Control, which is charged with maintaining certain brewing standards and establishing the regional identity its products (comparable to the governing body of France’s appellation d'origine contrôlée). have allowed Niigata sake to become a better expression terroir than ever before.
In 2014, the brewery launched Gakko-gura, or “school brewery,” where sake is brewed during the summer months and a small number of apprentices rotate through in groups of two or three to learn the craft. The idea for it came to Hirashima when he heard that an over wood-constructed elementary school over a century old on the island was closing. Sited for views of gorgeous sunsets, the school-turned brewery showcases the natural beauty of Sado Island and serves as a lab for sustainability. The kura is forty percent solar powered, with plans to make it completely sustainable, Obata says, and all the ingredients that go into Gakko-gura sake are one hundred percent locally sourced. The school brewery’s apprentices have come from abroad as well as from other Japanese breweries or the sake and restaurant industries. Once a year in June, a special class featuring renowned experts is convened. This year, School Brewery brewed four tanks (about 7,200 720 ml bottles) and within 10 years aims to make 40 tanks per year.
Reflecting on the unpredictability of life and how hers has unfolded, Obata, in her typically direct manner, recalls her first, difficult years at the brewery: “At times, I wanted to return to Tokyo, and my old company told me there was a desk waiting for me,” she says. “Ultimately I didn’t go back--it was a good thing.”