Hakkaisan Company Cafeteria – Open to All

Hakkaisan Company Cafeteria.  Minna no Shain Shokudo.

Hakkaisan Company Cafeteria. Minna no Shain Shokudo.

One of the perks of living in Niigata Japan has been the food… the glorious food! After 6 months here, almost every single meal I’ve had here outside my own home has been really, really good. Japan values high quality food and gets it right.

One of my favorite styles of food here is Japanese homestyle cooking. This way of cooking is rustic with limited ingredients and is usually very balanced and healthy. The best place I have found to enjoy Japanese homestyle cooking is the Hakkaisan Company Cafeteria. This building is called Minna no Shain Shokudo or “Employee Cafeteria for All”. This cafeteria is “for all” because it is open to employees and guests or visitors from outside the company, too. Anybody can stop by for lunch!

Employees can order breakfast, lunch or dinner any day. For visitors, the cafeteria is open to the public for lunch every day from 11am – 3pm.

Most often, you can find me at Minna no Shain Shokudo for lunch.

Typical Employee Lunch Tray at Minna no Shain Shokudo.  Ham Katsu, Shredded Cabbage, Potato Salad, Koshihikari rice and Miso soup.

Typical Employee Lunch Tray at Minna no Shain Shokudo. Ham Katsu, Shredded Cabbage, Potato Salad, Koshihikari rice and Miso soup.

I sat down with Cafeteria Manager and Head Chef Mr. Sano to discuss the ins and outs of running a busy company cafeteria. Sano-san is tasked with a big challenge – for hungry brewers, he has to provide 3 meals a day, every day of the year (except New Years). During the brewing season, the sake mash does not take a rest, and neither do the brewers, so meals must be provided on weekends and holidays too. Every day sees as many 90 employees enjoy their breakfast, lunch or dinner at the cafeteria. Employees are served a simple buffet style meal that changes every day. Two constants every day are miso soup (with amazing in-house homemade miso) and delicious koshihikari rice (a prized local specialty). A word about Koshihikari rice – It is some of the best eating rice you’ll find anywhere and it grows all around this region. We are lucky to get to enjoy it every day with our meals. Please try it if you get the chance!

An example of the lunch set for guests visiting the Hakkaisan Company Cafeteria.

An example of the lunch set for guests visiting the Hakkaisan Company Cafeteria.

Guests visiting the Hakkaisan Company Cafeteria don’t eat the same lunch as the employees, but rather they enjoy a delicious set menu with a choice of meat or fish. This set for guests also includes the homemade miso soup and koshihikari rice. There are always a few seasonal sides along with salad and delicious homemade pickles, too. It is a fantastic home cooked lunch that draws people from far and wide. I see a lot of locals during the week and visitors from far and wide on the weekends. In the winter, I have also seen guests in their skiing gear grabbing lunch after a morning on the nearby slopes! If you visit us during lunchtime, you can enjoy lunch in the same room with the sake brewers! Please say hello!

Inside the cafeteria

Inside the cafeteria

So what’s on the menu for the brewers? Sample menus for employees include pork katsu with heaping sides of shredded cabbage and delicious salads on the side. Udon with homemade Tempura. Curry over rice with a side salad. And the employee’s favorite lunch? Sano-san tells me that is without a question karaage fried chicken tenderized with shiokoji, a salt and koji rice mixture. The karaage IS delicious but I’m team pork katsu when it comes to my favorite lunch.

Minna no Shain Shokudo Head Chef Mr. Sano.

Minna no Shain Shokudo Head Chef Mr. Sano.

You may be surprised to learn that there are some foods that are strictly off the menu at sake breweries. First is natto. For those who don’t know, natto is fermented soybeans with a slimey texture and strong smell that is much beloved by most Japanese. For sake brewers, eating this is forbidden as the microbes that ferment natto are powerful and could potentially interfere with the microbes of sake fermentation. Because of the strong odors, garlic is also avoided. Finally, Japanese mikan (kind of like a small orange) is also not allowed. The orange oil that is found in the mikan peel can get on your hands when peeling the mikan and it has antimicrobial properties which can inhibit fermentation.

Staying away from natto, garlic and mikan luckily leaves lots of leeway to have a great collection of dishes. If you are in Japan, a visit to the Hakkaisan Cafeteria is a wonderful way to spend a leisurely lunch – You’ll become a fan of Japanese homestyle cooking, too!

Koshihikari rice, a prized local specialty with Pickles!

Koshihikari rice, a prized local specialty with local mountain vegetable Pickles!

Sake Tasting: Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years

Hakkaisan Snow Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years

Hakkaisan Snow Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years

Some sakes are at their best when they are fresh and young. Most sakes taste best when they are stored for just a few months. And a rare few sakes really come to life when aged under special care for several years. I recently had the opportunity to taste just such an aged sake… a new product called “Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years”.

Aging sake can be a tricky business. If not done skillfully, sake can turn stale and bitter tasting with age. If done well, aging sake can concentrate flavors and enrich and deepen the best traits of a sake. Hakkaisan uses two ways to achieve richness and balance in their aged sake.

Snow Aging
First, Hakkaisan makes use of an abundant, local natural resource in aging their sake: snow! Hakkaisan Brewery is located in Minami Uonuma City, an area of Japan famous for heavy, deep snowfall in the winter months. Hakkaisan has harnessed the power of the snow by creating what is known as a “yuki muro” or snow storehouse. The Hakkaisan Yuki Muro is a large insulated room that contains a 1000 ton pile of snow placed next to 20 sake storage tanks. The sake is chilled in tank using the cold from the snow alone. No electricity at all is used for chilling the sake making this a very eco-friendly facility.

Inside the Yuki Muro Snow Storehouse.

Inside the Yuki Muro Snow Storehouse.

This snow storage concept is not a new one and has been used for generations in snowy regions in Japan to refrigerate foods before electricity. The snow in Hakkaisan’s Yuki Muro never melts completely, even after a full year, and it is re-filled with fresh snow every February or March. The temperature is a steady 2-5°C (37-41°F) throughout the year – an important point as too much temperature variation can adversely impact sake as it ages. Being able to chill sake at a steady temperature without electricity has another advantage. In the case of power outage or natural disaster, the sake will continue to age properly with no impact to the temperature.

No Dilution
blog-Lehmann-2-The other method used to create depth of flavor and richness is aging and bottling this sake as a genshu. Most sake is diluted with water after production to bring the alcohol percentage usually down to about 15.5%. By contrast, genshu is a style of sake that is undiluted with water, similar in concept to “cask strength” products in the world of whiskey. In the case of Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years, the alcohol percentage is 17%. What are the advantages of genshu? As genshu sakes are higher in alcohol, they offer more body, weight and structure to the sake. This translates into the ability to pair genshu sakes with non traditional foods. The keyword here is Umami! Richer foods with lots of savory characteristics pair beautifully with this genshu sake. Pairing ideas along this vein include beef tenderloin, Mediterranean seafood and even liver paté. This genshu sake also has the heft to stand up to mildly spicy dishes as well, so please try this sake with black pepper chicken or beef curry.

Tasting
Let’s look at the stats for Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years.

  • rice-polishing ratio: 50%
  • Alcohol: 17.0%
  • sake meter value: -1.0
  • acidity: 1.5
  • koji rice used: Yamadanishiki
  • brewing rice used: Gohyakumangoku , Yukinosei

Hakkaisan Snow-Aged sake displayed in Ice.

Hakkaisan Snow-Aged sake displayed in Ice.

This sake is sold as a junmai ginjo grade sake, but the milling rate is actually 50% – a super premium level of milling. Milling sake rice to this level gives sake a clean and smooth body with no hint of sharpness or harsh edge. The aroma is restrained and elegant with soft hints of rice – a hallmark of the Hakkaisan brewing style. The palate is full bodied and rich with the gentle aging process creating a rounded texture. Lovely and delicious rice notes accent the primary flavors of this sake. Despite the bold body, the finish remains crisp and cleansing – ideal for food pairing. I recommend a well chilled serving temperature to bring out the invigorating essence of this sake.

Going International
Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years was recently introduced to the USA with a a launch party at The Modern, the Michelin starred restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. The event was attended by about 100 guests from New York restaurants and wine shops as well as press and VIP guests. Appetizers were passed for the group to try pairing this Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo with non-Japanese cuisine. The President of Hakkaisan Brewery, Jiro Nagumo, was also on hand to introduce the sake to the attendees. It was noted that the beautiful all white bottle design is a reflection of the roots of snow storage used for this sake. You will soon see Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years appearing in your local sake shops and restaurants. Please try this sake that is new to the USA – you can get a taste of Japan’s Snow Country in your town!

President Jiro Nagumo introduces Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years to the guests at the sake launch Party at MoMA

President Jiro Nagumo introduces Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years to the guests at the sake launch Party at MoMA

Baumkuchen at Satoya Cafe

Satoya Cafe, Uonuma no Sato

Satoya Cafe, Uonuma no Sato

One of the great things about living here for one year is getting to know even more about Hakkaisan beyond the delicious sake. One place I spend a lot of time is Hakkaisan’s Uonuma no Sato. Clustered around Hakkaisan’s Daini Kowagura Brewery, where Hakkaisan Seishu and Tokubetsu Honjozo are produced, Uonuma no Sato is a group of shops, cafes and restaurants that beautifully illustrate the connection between Hakkaisan and the local culture and community. Over the next few weeks, I’ll profile some of these facilities to introduce you to even more of what Hakkaisan has to offer.

Last time I featured Uonuma no Sato’s Hachikura which specialized in traditional Japanese gift wrapping. This week, I’m thrilled to introduce you to Satoya Cafe! I often spend a lazy saturday here enjoying coffee and their signature cake! But this is not just any cake – of course it’s sake cake!

Hakkaisan "Satoya" Baumkuchen.  Sake Kasu is used in the batter!

Hakkaisan “Satoya” Baumkuchen. Sake Kasu is used in the batter!

"Hakkaibaum"  Hakkaisan Daiginjo sake is used in the glaze for this baumkuchen.

“Hakkaibaum” Hakkaisan Daiginjo sake is used in the glaze for this baumkuchen.

Satoya is the brainchild of pâtissier ### Sato. He worked with Hakkaisan to open Satoya and create a line of Hakkaisan sake-infused desserts and sweets. The centerpiece is several types of “baumkuchen”. This is a cake that originated in Germany and is baked in a very unique oven that uses a spit to cook the log shaped cake in many thin layers. When sliced open, the cake layers look like the rings of a tree! Satoya sells two Baumkuchen that use sake. The Hakkai-baum uses Hakkaisan Daiginjo sake in the sweet glaze on the cake. The Satoya-baum mixes in Hakkaisan sake kasu (the left over rice after pressing the sake mash) right into the batter, giving the sake a heavenly sake taste.

In addition to Baumkuchen, Satoya also makes other treats using Hakkaisan sake! You can enjoy Hakkaisan sake jelly or Hakkaisan Daifuku as well.

Once you’ve selected your sweets, you can go to the cafe seating upstairs to relax and enjoy the views of nature and the seasons from the large picture windows. It is incredibly relaxing to sip on coffee and watch the snow fall outside during a snowy afternoon at Uonuma no Sato! If you every have a chance to visit Uonuma no Sato, I highly recommend a visit to Satoya.

Cafe seating upstairs at Satoya.  Beautiful views of nature from these windows!

Cafe seating upstairs at Satoya. Beautiful views of nature from these windows!

Wrap it Up! Uonuma No Sato’s “Hachikura”

Hachi Kura Building

Hachi Kura Building

One of the great things about living here for one year is getting to know even more about Hakkaisan beyond the delicious sake. One place I spend a lot of time is Hakkaisan’s Uonuma no Sato. Clustered around Hakkaisan’s Daini Kowagura Brewery, where Hakkaisan Seishu and Tokubetsu Honjozo are produced, Uonuma no Sato is a group of shops, cafes and restaurants that beautifully illustrate the connection between Hakkaisan and the local culture and community. Over the next few weeks, I’ll profile some of these facilities to introduce you to even more of what Hakkaisan has to offer.

Inside Hachikura - Origata Gift wrapping central!

Inside Hachikura – Origata Gift wrapping central!

First off is Hakkaisan’s Hachikura. This is a beautiful gift shop housed in a old snow country house. Primarily, here you can buy all manner of Hakkaisan-produced goods… of course the full range of sake, but also fermented foods, sake cups and glassware, sake cosmetics and more. However, the Hachikura is not just your regular gift shop. They offer a service that is becoming more and more rare in Japan: Origata gift wrapping.

With Hachikura Manager and gift wrapping specialist, Jun Kitsu

With Hachikura Manager and gift wrapping specialist, Jun Kitsu

Origata is a type of beautiful Japanese gift wrapping that uses a single sheet of paper with folds to wrap a gift, highlighting it’s shape. To hold the paper in place, Mizuhiki cords tied into knots are used. Mizuhiki is a type of stiff washi paper cord and each type of knot has its own colors and symbolic meanings. For serious gift giving occasions such as New Year’s day, weddings, births or funerals, gifts can be purchased at Hachikura and then professionally wrapped using Origata methods featuring the beautiful Mizuhiki knots.

The options and meanings of the different knots are staggering, so I asked Hachikura Manager Ms. Kitsu to be my guide. She explained the process and some of the basic meanings to me. First, a base paper is selected and this paper is used to wrap the item using folds alone with no cutting of the paper. Interestingly, the paper wrapping itself is used to emphasize the shape of the item, not to hide the contents of the gift as we do in the west. The next option is to select a knot to secure the paper to the gift.

Awajimusubi.  Pulling on this knot brings the circles closer together symbolizing close relationships.

Awajimusubi. Pulling on this knot brings the circles closer together symbolizing close relationships.

The first knot I learned about was the “Awajimusubi”. This is a type of knot that can be used for both happy and sad occasions. It represents a close relationship that cannot easily be undone. When you pull on the ends of the strings, the knot is pulled tighter together symbolizing a closer relationship between the gift giver and receiver.

Hanamusubi.  A knot that can easily be untied - a symbol for happy events you hope to repeat many times.  The rice stalk is a hint to the contents inside.

Hanamusubi. A knot that can easily be untied – a symbol for happy events you hope to repeat many times. The rice stalk is a hint to the contents inside.

This hanamusubi allows one handed opening of the knot for round objects... like sake bottles (!)

This hanamusubi allows one handed opening of the knot for round objects… like sake bottles (!)

Next I learned about “Hanamusubi”. This is a type of knot that is used to tie gifts for a happy occasion you wish to repeat, such as the birth of a baby. This type of knot is tied in such a way that it is easy to open when pulled, allowing for that happy event to happen again. Based on the shape of the package there are two types of Hanamusubi – flat items have two ends of the knot to pull while round items, such as a bottle of sake(!) have a single end to pull, allowing you to hold the item while opening.

Kitsu-san showed me that Hakkaisan also has it’s own original knot – the “Figure 8 musubi”! This knot is shaped like the number 8 and is meant to represent Hakkaisan (8 peaked mountain) after which Hakkaisan sake is named. It is simple and beautiful!

Hakkaisan's Figure 8 Musubi. A decorative knot symbolizing 8 peaked Hakkaisan Mountian.

Hakkaisan’s Figure 8 Musubi. A decorative knot symbolizing 8 peaked Hakkaisan Mountian.

Gifts wrapped at the Hakkaisan Hachikura also often include a graceful stalk of rice grains slipped in behind the knot. This is a symbol of the gift’s origin – with sake and our fermented goods of course coming from rice!

The array of wrapping styles on display is beautiful. I can imagine if I received a gift wrapped in the Origata style, I would be very impressed. The simplicity and thoughtfulness of such gift wrapping is really beautiful. Going to these lengths to wrap a gift with such great attention to the paper, knots and colors is a sign of respect for the receiver of the gift.

When I think about some of the wrapping jobs I have done on Christmas or birthday gifts to friends and family in the past, I shudder to think about the amounts of scotch tape I used to hold the whole thing together. This visit to the Hachikura has inspired me to try Origata wrapping myself the next time I have to give a gift! And there is no better way than that to wrap up this blog post.

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Making Shimenawa – Sacred Rope

DSC02785Like so many things in Japanese culture, if you explore a little bit below the surface understanding of any topic, there is a whole world to discover… this is true for sushi, kimono and of course, sake, too.

I had this same feeling when I was recently invited by the local community here in Minami Uonuma to make “New Year’s decorations”. I was envisioning something like a christmas ornament crafting session at the local community center with ribbons and glue. I arrived at the community center however to find several bundles of rice straw outside and what we would really be making started to come into clearer focus.

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I soon understood we would be crafting our own Shimenawa (標縄) to decorate a local shinto shrine in preparation for New Years. Shimenawa is something I had seen dozens of times before, but never thought much about. It is a type of rope woven by hand out of rice straw. The ropes can range from thin to very think and they are used to delineate sacred or pure areas at a shinto shrine. These ropes are also used to signal a space that can house or enshrine a shinto deity, so you see these ropes adorning entrances to shrines and also wrapped around Yorishiro (依り代) or objects such as special trees or rocks that are capable of attracting and housing shinto gods. Our community would be working throughout the morning to create different types of Shimenawa for a small local shrine dedicated to Inari, the god of foxes, rice and sake.

31718624515_e19d6dffcc_oThe first step in making our own Shimenawa was to soften the rice straw to make it pliable. To this end, an an old fashioned press appeared from storage. this was a machine that looked like it had seen decades of Shimenawa production. A hand crank was turned and the rice fed through to crush it a bit and soften the fibers.

We all took turns running the crank and I even had a go. One of the farmers told me with out this machine we would be beating the rice with a stick to soften it. This seemed much better!

30876945634_f4ba6c0e37_oAfter softening, the rice was brought into the work room and everyone sat down and started working. I first just watched and was amazed to see ropes and other woven decorations begin to appear.

The method for making the rope boils down to rolling multiple bundles of rice straw between the palms of your hands to twist it in one direction, and then braiding the bundles in the other direction. This creates a strong rope that won’t come undone.

31692524986_50dd688a58_oAfter a quick lesson, I was trying to make my own Shimenawa. My first two tries were a failure with my rope immediately unraveling, but after a bit more instruction, I figured out the trick and soon had a two ply thin rope of my own creation! I tied the rope into a circle to make a wreath.

My next challenge was to make a kind of carrot-shaped woven decoration using a three ply rope that is hung on a shinto shrine doorframe. Working with three ply was more difficult, but I got it to work and made a smaller, messier version than the pros!

After a few hours of everyone twisting and weaving, it was time to bring all the finished products to the shrine. And the finished products were impressive. There was a large rope to hang over the entrance to the shrine and smaller ropes for the doorframe. Also, a rope was wrapped around a beautiful and huge yorishiro tree next to the shrine. The ropes were all adorned next with shide (紙垂), white zigzag paper streamers that are used to ward off evil spirits and that help demarcate a sacred space.

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All this was done in a few hours, but I felt I had learned so much in this short time. It was such a rare experience to learn this craft first hand from Niigata locals.

Fresh from the Source! Hakkaisan’s December Nama Sake

31685941321_393ea11cd5_oOne of my favorite Japanese words that I’ve learned so far is gentei (限定), which simply means limited, but is often applied to a seasonal product or limited release product. Gentei items are popular in Japan! Hakkaisan also has some seasonal products, one of which is sold only in December each year.

Hakkaisan’s once-a-year December release is Echigo de Soro Junmai Ginjo Shiboritate Nama Genshu. It is a long name so lets break down what it means!

  • Echigo de Soro : Echigo is the old name for the Niigata region and de soro is an old fashioned way to say desu or “this is”, so the name means basically “This is Niigata!”
  • Junmai Ginjo : Junmai Ginjo is the sake classification for this sake. To learn more, please visit our Sake Classifications page.
  • Shiboritate : Shiboritate means “just pressed” or fresh from the sake press.
  • Nama : Nama is a type of sake that is unpasteurized. Usually full bodied and juicy
  • Genshu : Genshu is sake that is undiluted with water. These sakes are higher in alcohol, 17.5% in this case.

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Drinking a shiboritate nama genshu is as close to drinking sake right from the press as you can get. And lucky for me, being at the brewery, I was able to get my hands on our Echigo de Soro Junmai Ginjo the day it was bottled! This is a sake to enjoy young and fresh. It does not get much younger or fresher than this! The taste is bright with soft hints of melon and slightly rich with clean finish that doesn’t linger. You can feel the full bodied weight of the higher alcohol but the sake overall has excellent balance. I recommend you drink this sake chilled to bring out the crisp flavors and finish.

Unfortunately, this sake is very limited and not yet sold in the U.S., but if you ever make it to Japan in December, please be sure to try one of my favorite gentei sakes!

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Trying my Hand as an “Okanban”

IMG_0673Almost every sake party or event I’ve been to in chilly Niigata has had someone assigned to be the Okanban. In short, the Okanban is the person in charge of warming sake. They make sure the sake is at the right temperature and ready when needed. At a busy event, it can be a lot to juggle, but a good Okanban keeps the sake and the party flowing!

I recently had my first chance to be the Okanban at fun sake event. Hakkaisan was included in a sake tasting at the beautiful Ryugon Hotel in Muikamachi, Niigata. This beautiful onsen hotel includes a structure that is a 200 year old samurai house. The sake was set up in one of the hotel room suites so that guests could walk around the hotel and sample food and sake along the way.

IMG_0664The main tool of the okanban is the shukanki. This is a metal-lined wooden box that allows you to create a hot water bath inside for the sake carafes. A dial on the outside allows you to set the water temperature. This along with a good sake thermometer are what you need to get started.

I was using smaller size (180ml) sake carafes to serve Hakkaisan Uonuma de Soro junmai sake. My first challenge was pouring from the large 1.8 liter size isshobin bottle into the small carafes! Go slowly and don’t overflow! After filling the carafes are set in the warmed water bath. Slowly the sake will come up to temperature. The thermometer is used to keep an eye on the temperatures to make sure nothing gets overheated. Here is an overview of sake heating temperatures you can aim for.

Japanese Name Celsius Fahrenheit English Name
Tobikirikan 55° C 133° F Very Hot Sake
Atsukan 50° C 122° F Hot Sake
Jokan 45° C 113° F Slightly Hot Sake
Nurukan 40° C 104° F Warm Sake
Hitohadakan 35° C 95° F Body Temperature
Hinatakan 30° C 86° F Sunbathing in Summer

For my sake warming, I was targeting a Jokan temperature! I found that using four carafes in rotation I could keep a steady supply of sake ready to go for our guests. Soon we had a room full of guests enjoying Hakkaisan sake. Each guest was issued their own cup and could enjoy sake from many different breweries. Since the day was rainy and chilly, warm sake was a popular option! I stayed on top of refilling the carafes as soon as they were empty and got more sake heating up. Pouring sake can be tough on your fingers if the carafe gets too warm, so i kept a small towel handy not only to catch the drips but to use to handle the carafe.

Once I got in the swing of things, this experience was really fun. I really enjoyed my experience being an Okanban!

Ryugon Japanese Style Hotel

Ryugon Japanese Style Hotel

Walking on Fire at Hakkaisan’s Hiwatari Festival

shintoAfter my arrival in Niigata, I was invited to visit the nearby Hakkaisan Son Jinja Shrine to join in a festival. The god of Hakkaisan Mountain is enshrined there and worshiped by locals. It sounded like a wonderful way to spend a fall afternoon. However, I started to worry a bit when I learned the festival was called “Hiwatari taisai “ or “walking on fire” festival.

After a bit of research, learned the festival has been going on yearly for over 200 years and that walking on the hot coals is an act to pray for wellbeing, protection and health in the coming year. I decided firmly that I would enjoy watching the action but would not be walking on hot coals myself. There was a large crowd gathered at the festival when I arrived.

feetI saw many festival goers walking around barefoot in preparation for the big event. After a beautiful procession of shinto priests, dignitaries and even an ogre (oni), the fire was lit. The flames were soon so high and the heat so intense that the crowd had to move back from the fence. When I saw the huge fire and billowing smoke, I began to question the sanity of the people lining up to walk on the coals, and I took a moment to re-confirm with myself that I would not be walking. When the fire died down, two paths were raked through the coals and sprinkled with salt to temper the heat.

fire

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Then it began – people, lots of people, started walking in two lines though what remained of the fire. Senior citizens, children and everyone in between was walking across a path through the hot embers. After a few minutes, a colleague simply took me by the arm and led me to a place in a long line of people. Before I could protest, my shoes were off and I knew there was no going back.

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Soon I found myself face to face with the glowing embers. As we approached, each participant received a purification blessing above their head from an officiant waving an onusa (a paper streamer wand used in shinto ceremonies). Before I knew it, I was across and other than my toasty soles getting covered in ash, I was no worse for wear.

Even though I firmly decided just to observe, sometimes circumstances conspire to get you involved, and hopefully a year of wellbeing and health will be my reward!

Winter is Coming! Prepping for Snow at Hakkaisan

Hakkaisan Sake Brewery is located in Minami Uonuma, Niigata – one of the snowiest places in Japan. The snow can pile up to 8 feet or more during the depths of winter. As such, they take winter very seriously here. One sure sign that winter is coming is the appearance of “Yuki Gakoi” (雪囲い). Loosely translated as snow enclosure, Yuki Gakoi is mostly seen around trees and bushes. Using rope and stakes, support structures are built to protect branches and whole trees from being crushed or damaged from the weight of heavy snow.

The finished Yuki Gakoi enclosures have a sculptural quality to them and a beauty in their own right. The attention to aesthetic details for work-a-day objects is something you see often in traditional Japanese culture, and Yuki Gakoi is not different. Check out these pictures below to get an idea of traditional Yuki Gakoi here is snow country.

Now, all we need is a little snow…

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A Very Good Place to Start: Rice Milling at Hakkaisan

Vertical Rice Milling machine.

Vertical Rice Milling machine.

When you learn something as complex as sake brewing as I am, it’s good to start at the very beginning. For me, that means my time with Hakkaisan starts with sake rice milling. To understand why sake rice is milled at all, it is important to know that sake rice is somewhat different from eating rice. The outer layers of the sake rice grain contain more of the fats and proteins, while the starch is more concentrated in the core of the grain. The starch is what can be converted to sugars and subsequently to delicious sake. Rice milling or polishing allows us to isolate the starch. This starchy core of the rice grain is called shinpaku, which means “white heart”.

The percentage to which the rice is milled is called seimaibuai and this percentage is also a factor in the sake classification system. More milling to a smaller size can qualify as a more premium grade of sake. Rice is milled in the “Seimaikoujo” or Rice Milling Facility. Hakkaisan has 6 rice milling machines which run pretty much 24/7 and each machine holds just under 2 tons of genmai (whole grain sake rice).

Before and after rice milling.

Before and after rice milling.

How does it work? Fed by gravity from above, the sake rice grains cascade over the sides of the spinning wheel where the friction scrapes a bit of the outer rice layer away. The rice grains are transported back to the top and cascade over the wheel again and again until the desired rice milling rate is achieved.

One of the most striking things about our rice milling machines is how tall they are… about 3 stories high! The constant hum of the machines can be heard in the background. Rice arrives from the farmers to the milling facility in heavy 30 kilo (66lbs bags). These bags are untied and poured into the milling machine grain feeder. The rice is then processed in the mill for various lengths of time depending on the desired final milling rate. For example, a milling rate of 50% rice grain remaining takes approximately 48 hours.

After milling rice is bagged up, stacked and is ready for resting.

After milling rice is bagged up, stacked and is ready for resting.

When the rice is milled to a smaller size, it naturally takes a longer time, but one reason for this is that the milling wheel is changed to a lower speed. As the rice grain gets smaller and smaller, it becomes more fragile and more prone to cracking, so it must be handled more delicately.

Immediately after milling, the rice is re-bagged into 30 kilo bags and allowed to rest and cool slowly. The friction from the milling process leaves rice noticeably warm to the touch. From this point on, cooling the rice slowly is very important as rapid chilling at this stage can crack the rice. After up to two weeks of resting, the milled rice is ready to head into the kura for processing. Last but not least, each batch of rice is always tested for rice grain moisture content and individual rice grain average weight both before and after milling.

My big takeaway is that although the actual milling is done by a machine, there is a lot of testing and hands-on attention to detail and coordination that is needed to successfully manage this process and produce the best milled sake rice!

30339051502_53dc4e8eb3_oTimothy Sullivan, Hakkaisan Brand Ambassador