Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Fukushima Sake Diary: Five Years after 3.11, Spreading the Gospel of Natural and Organic Sake

Yasuhiko Niida

In March 2011, preparations were underway for the 300th anniversary celebration of Kinpou Niida Honke sake brewery in Tamura village, Fukushima Prefecture. Located in an inland hamlet of gently rolling hills covered in rice fields, the brewery, headed by 18th generation president Yasuhiko Niida, had planned an open house for the community and a series of other events, big and small. There was a lot to celebrate: that year Niida Honke had become the first brewery in Japan to brew exclusively with organic rice, some of it grown on Niida’s own fields, some by local farmers.

But Niida’s celebratory plans were violently disrupted on March 11 when the largest earthquake ever recorded, registering 9 on the Richter scale, shattered the day’s peace. Centered 180 kilometers east of the Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture and 70 kilometers off the Tohoku coast, the massive temblor was followed moments later by a 33-foot high tsunami approaching speeds of 800 kilometers per hour. Crashing to shore, it flooded even parts of Sendai, sweeping away ships, buildings, roads, bridges, vehicles and people. All told, over 19,000 people lost their lives in the quake and tsunami.

Then the third phase of the disaster hit: Three nuclear power plants in the region automatically shut down after the earthquake. When the backup generator at the Fukushima Daiichi plant failed, it took down with it the plant’s cooling system, causing a partial meltdown of the fuel rods in three reactors, and ultimately, the release of a significant amount of radiation into the atmosphere.

Seventy-two kilometers southwest of the coastal Daiichi nuclear power plant, Niida was at that moment working in the koji-muro of his brewery, where freshly steamed rice is seeded with a type of mold to trigger the fermentation process. “At first I told my employees to stay in the kura (brewing warehouse) because I thought it was safer there,” he recalls. But as the shaking went on and on, big machines began to slide about and one wall began to collapse, he evacuated the building.

The worst, Niida thought, was yet to come. “I felt the fragility of life, and I feared that we would lose everything, never be able to grow rice in our fields, never be able to brew in our kura. Even if we could, no one would ever buy our sake.” Sitting in a sunny, tatami-matted room on the second floor of his brewery’s main building, Niida recalls the moment when he heard news of the nuclear disaster. He is a tall, handsome man who exudes a winning openness and idealism at odds with the grim events he is recounting.

As it turned out, he was, in one sense, lucky. At the moment of the nuclear meltdown, the south wind blew the released radiation to the north, away from Niida Honke, Tamura village and the larger Koriyama city where the village lies. The day of the nuclear disaster, worrying over the safety of his pregnant wife, unborn child and his toddler daughter, Niida and his family fled Fukushima by car to Tokyo, where his wife’s sister lives. Later he returned to Fukushima by himself and monitored the radiation level. When the monitoring posts showed levels of under 1 micro Sievert in August, he called for the rest of his family. “The half year I spent alone in Koriyama was very depressing,” he recalls.

Back at the brewery, Niida bought a Geiger counter to measure radiation levels in the water he used for sake production. Unwilling to depend just on his own apparatus, Niida even brought samples to the Dotai Kenkyusho (Isotope Research Institute) in Yokohama, which is able to measure micro-levels of radiation. “Not even a becquerel of radiation was detected in our water, sake and rice, including that of our contracted farmers,” he says. He duly posted these findings on the brewery’s website, but it didn’t help much. The nuclear disaster cast a pall over sales that has lasted for five years. Harmful rumors and misinformation hit local rice farmers, too, he says, noting that organic rice planting fell 32 percent after the disaster.

The owner/brewer breathed a sigh of relief when in September his second daughter was born in good health. However, Niida adds sadly that “for two years after the earthquake, there were no outside activities” for the kindergarten class of his older daughter. “Children suffered from a lack of exercise.”

Looking back at the disaster, Niida says, “If it hadn’t happened things would be totally different today.” Even though liquor shops all over Japan wanted to help Tohoku breweries by selling their products, he says that “customers didn’t want to buy.” The backlash against Tohoku products was especially severe in Japan’s western Kansai region. At his small, artisanal brewery, which produces 1,300 koku, or 130,000 1.8 liter bottles of sake a year, total sales fell 20 percent after 3.11, while in Kansai sales plummeted by half. “They live far from Fukushima,” Niida says of Kansai buyers. “In the Kanto area, there are many people from Tohoku, including Fukushima, but not as many in Kansai. Historically, there is not a close connection between the two areas.”

After the Disaster, Purifying the Sake-Making Process

As his brewery and the Tohoku region recovered from immediate aftermath of the disaster, Niida thought about the kind of future he wanted for his brewery and his family. “At first, I resented the gods for giving me such challenge in our 300th anniversary year,” he says. But then he began to focus on the fact that he was at least still alive, and to think about the 300 preceding years. There is no doubt, he thinks, there had been harsher trials for his family.

Once he adopted a more positive outlook, his direction was clear. He would do his best to move beyond the crisis and “leave as many healthy rice fields as possible for our children.” His father had already begun blazing a trail before him, taking the brewery in the direction of natural brewing. Now it was his turn to tread that same path and continue to innovate.

Niida’s grandfather Yasusada had been the local mayor, and when it came to running the brewery, was happy to leave the actual brewing to the artisans. Niida’s father Yasumitsu was a keen businessman. He developed many of the shops and restaurants in front of nearby Koriyama Station, but he also had a vision for the brewery. In the late 1960s, he learned of the work of Mokichi Okada (1882-1955) a tradesman who evolved into a cult figure in the peace-loving, utopian, back-to-nature mode. Starting as a member of a Shinto off-shoot, Okada went on to create his own “new religion” of the kind Japan generates like the green moss lining Niida Honke’s koi-filled drinking water basin. Okada’s sect involved channeling the healing power of light to strengthen body and spirit. But it was his system of “ natural agriculture,” (自然農法)—which eschewed chemical fertilizers and additives to grow produce of superior taste and health-giving properties—that captivated Niida senior.

Determined to try to grow shizen mai, or natural rice, he launched his first attempt in 1967. His early natural sake were intended to be used only as omiki, the sacred sake that is offered to the Shinto gods on the small, elevated shrines found in every Japanese sake brewery. Eventually, as word spread of his unusual and delicious natural sake, Niida senior scaled up production.

The Next Generation: A New Vision for a Sustainable Future

Yasuhiko took over the brewery in 1994, convinced that chemical-free was the way of the future. Following the Mokichi Okada method, the only fertilizer he uses on his shizenmai (natural rice) fields is shell and straw, no animal fertilizer. In the 12 years since then, he has gradually put his mark on and raised the national profile of the brewery’s sake.

Unlike most sake brewery presidents, who leave the brewing to a toji, or master brewer, Niida is among a current subset of president/toji that is interested in doing both jobs. A 1988 graduate of the brewing and fermentation department of Tokyo University of Agriculture, a sort of finishing school for scions of the country’s top brewers, Niida downplays the “basic textbook learning” that he picked up at university. His true education as a brewer, he says, came from working on the job and from his mentor, a member of the esteemed Nanbu master brewer’s guild named Shouhichi Sasaki, who filled the role of master brewer at Niida Honke for 40 years before handing the reins over to Niida himself.

Two years after switching to using only organic rice, in 2013 Niida continued his quest to make the most natural sake possible by producing only junmai sake (meaning it has no added distilled alcohol, a frequent traditional addition), eliminating artificial lactic acid bacteria (a way to speed up the fermenting process and ensure uniform quality), and moving to a 100 percent yeast starter. His Shizenshu line is made in the old-fashioned, “kimoto” method, involving laborious mixing and stirring with long paddles. In 2014 he raised the bar even higher, eliminating sediment removers such as persimmon juice tannin, making his arguably the purest and most natural sake in the country.

When he developed his Odayaka label in 1994, says Niida, “I had an ideal in my mind that would reflect this place, Tamura.” Engaging in the kind of creative brewing experimentation that sake geeks love to dissect, Niida swapped the traditional yellow koji-kin (a type of mold used to convert the starch of rice into sugars that will ferment) for a white koji-kin used for distilling Japan’s other national alcoholic beverage, shochu. The white version generates so much citric acid that it mimics lactic acid fermentation and imparts a clean, sharp, sophisticated character that makes Odayaka especially food friendly.

In 2015, the brewery for the first time entered the International Wine Challenge, taking home two gold and one silver medals for its Shizenshu junmai ginjo, its Shizenshu kan-atsurae junmai (designed to be consumed warmed) and its Hyakunen kijoshu (a sweet, concentrated, aged sake). The medals were a validation for the direction Niida has taken, and gave Niida Honke new cachet, he admits. “Being organic doesn’t make sake good, but winning this competition gives you the right to talk out loud about it, and in that way it’s valuable,” he says. Another residual benefit: “After that, the motivation of the brewery workers really rose.”

Five Years Later, Seeing the Silver Lining

The post-disaster recovery was hard, and it’s still going on in Fukushima. China has continued to ban sales of sake imports from Fukushima and South Korea hasn’t returned as a customer, either. Sales of Niida’s sake have remained depressed by 20 percent for five years since the disaster, although he is hopeful that this brewing year may see an uptick in sales.

Yet with the benefit of time, Niida has come to see the good that has come from the crisis as well. “If we hadn’t had that hardship,” he says, “Fukushima organic rice growers would not have grown as a group. Before, they were on their own path, and frankly, it was a group with a lot of eccentrics in it, the ‘going-my-own-way’ type. But after the earthquake, there was a new movement of cooperation, and we’ve made progress.”

As part of the brewery’s post-disaster rebirth, Niida drafted a four-point promise to his customers, a mission statement of sorts. His first promise, he explains, “Is to protect Japan’s healthy rice fields.” Fukushima Prefecture, traditionally an agricultural region, ranked first in the country for having the largest area of unused agricultural land in 2000. Niida is working toward putting that land back to use as organic rice fields for the next generation.

Next, he promises to protect and never deplete the two sources of water used for his sake, soft spring water and hard mountain water from the family’s 605-acre mountain. Used for everything from rice polishing, washing and steaming, to the cleaning of the brewing tanks, Niida says of the second source: “By saving the water, we save the mountain.”

His next goal is to take care of his employees year round, instead of sticking to the traditional seasonal work schedule of sake brewing, and to cultivate expertise in them. The idea is to have each of his 22 employees master every step of the sake-brewing process and “become a team of all-round sake professionals.” He and his team now spend winters brewing sake together, and the summers, still as a team, cultivating rice.

And finally, Niida says, he is creating a thriving rural community, a gathering place where locals and visitors from afar can take part in events such as hands-on organic rice-growing and sake-making workshops, annual festivals and a “sweets day,” when the staff makes confections from Niida Honke’s own agricultural products.

Niida’s final and most ambitious goal, and one that sprang directly from his experience of 3/11, he says, is to become energy self-sufficient. “I don’t want to buy nuclear electricity,” he says. “I want to grow vegetables and wheat in our fields, and take care of our guests. When we celebrate our 400th anniversary, I hope my offspring will be living happy lives and they and our visitors will be enjoying sake brewing.” In working toward his goals, Niida adds, “I try not to be impatient, but do the best I can.”

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