Nanbutoji

First we need to get our terms straight. Sake as we say in English just means liquor in Japanese. If you ask for sake, depending on where you are you might get shochu instead. So for clarity let’s refer to sake as nihonshu (literally Japanese liquor). A toji is the head brewer in charge of making nihonshu. And Nanbu is the old name for what is now Iwate Prefecture.

Nanbu Toji (Iwate master brewers) are currently among the three largest and highest respected regional groups of brewers in Japan. Despite Iwate’s remote location, nihonshu has a long history there. Brewing techniques for mass production were first brought up from Osaka around the beginning of the 17th century.  (Previously nihonshu was only made on a family-level.) These techniques became so widespread among local farmers that by the early Meiji era, around 1870, it was quite common for farmer-brewers to spend the winters in other areas of Japan teaching brewing methods and helping to establish new breweries in the south. According to John Gauntner, arguably the leading non-Japanese nihonshu expert, has written an excellent article on the toji system in which he mentions Nanbu Toji as among the most rigorous and strict in their brewing techniques. Nihonshu made by various Nanbu Toji are winning increasing acclaim.

Sadly most nihonshu made in Iwate (with a few notable exceptions) is only available locally. That said, if you’re in central Iwate the Ishidoriya Michi no Eki is worth a visit. There you can not only tour a nihonshu museum of sorts, but also can sample about six varieties of jizake, or microbrewed nihonshu, for free. Then you can choose to purchase from a wide variety of local brands, and even indulge in gelato made from nihonshu. They also sell a mind-blowing sponge cake soaked in nihonshu; it’s one of their most popular souvenir gifts. It’s pretty much nihonshu heaven…

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