Discover Washinoo, a Hidden Gem in the Traditional Heartland of Sake Brewing


2024.05.07

NAVITIME TRAVEL EDITOR

Discover Washinoo, a Hidden Gem in the Traditional Heartland of Sake Brewing

In Japan, master sake brewers, or toji, belong to three main schools – Echigo which originated in Niigata prefecture, Tanba in Hyogo prefecture and Nanbu in Iwate prefecture. As sake brewing gained popularity across Japan, toji from these three schools slowly spread across the country, setting up and working at breweries in all corners of the land. Nanbu toji remain the only school that hasn’t experienced a reduction in numbers during recent decades.

Considering the ever-increasing popularity of Japanese sakes both domestically and overseas, it’s unfortunate that less than 2% of tourists visiting Japan ever set foot in Iwate, a prefecture with an abundance of traditional breweries, many of which even offer tours to visitors! We visited one such brewery in Hachimantai City with almost 200 years of history, Washinoo Brewery, and spoke with Tomo Kudo, the 8th generation owner.

  • 01

    Making sake in snowy Hachimantai since 1829

    At 2038m, Mt. Iwate, a stunning volcano with a gentle eastern slope reminiscent of the shape of Mt. Fuji towers above Hachimantai, a city famed for its heavy snowfall during the winter months. Mt Iwate’s fertile volcanic soil and pristine spring waters have long continued to bless communities and various industries across the region.

    Until the end of the feudal era in Japan, Mt. Iwate was called Ganju, or stone eagle, due to the shape of the melting snow on the mountain as seen from the south during early summer, which is said to resemble an eagle with outstretched wings. Washinoo, which translates as eagle’s tail in English, is a clear reference to this.

    Mt Iwate is a stunning volcano with a height of 2038 meters just south of Hachimantai City

    Mt Iwate is a stunning volcano with a height of 2038 meters just south of Hachimantai City

    The Washinoo brewing facility is a tight cluster of buildings from various periods, the oldest of which was built in the 1780s. Sake production started in 1829, and has continued as a family business ever since. The rooms that once served as the family home are now used as a reception area for guests, where events are held and sake-tastings are offered.

    The rooms that were once the living quarters for the family that established the Washinoo Brewery are now used to welcome guests and host events including sake-tasting

    The rooms that were once the living quarters for the family that established the Washinoo Brewery are now used to welcome guests and host events including sake-tasting

    The interior has lots of nice touches reminiscent of its early years of production

    The interior has lots of nice touches reminiscent of its early years of production

    The brewing area features a mix of the traditional and the modern. There is a modern laboratory for analyzing the minutiae of the brewing process, as well as a Shinto altar to Matsuo, the god of sake, to bless the entire brewing process.

  • 02

    Bringing an engineer’s sense to sake-making

    Tomo Kudo, the 8th generation owner of Washinoo, left Hachimantai after high school to study engineering at Tokyo University. His grandfather passed away while he was away studying, which prompted him to make the decision to return home and take the helm of his ancestral family business, becoming the 8th generation kuramoto, or brewery owner.

    Tomo Kudo is the 8th generation kuramoto, or brewery owner, at Washinoo

    Tomo Kudo is the 8th generation kuramoto, or brewery owner, at Washinoo

    He told us that he approaches brewing as an engineer’s mind when tackling the eternal question of how best to express the flavor of rice through the sake brewing process. Like grapes in wine making, there are dramatic differences in flavor based on the type of rice. Even the amount of rainfall or temperatures during a given year can influence the consistency of that year’s rice crop and thus affect the sake’s flavor. These variations can be compensated for by adjusting parts of the brewing process like the amount of water or time spent steaming the rice. Kudo is keen to discover and adopt new methods to preserve his sake’s quality and consistency.

  • 03

    A sake for the people

    When asked what kind of sake he drinks at home, Kudo immediately replied Kinjirushi. This is actually the least expensive sake made at the brewery, the bottom of their line. He elaborated that he thought people should be able to appreciate the flavor of even the cheapest sake they produce. He described the flavor as smooth and welcoming. Something to relax with over dinner at night.

    Of course Washinoo makes a full line of premium specialty sakes, and their devotion to the farming community around the brewery is reciprocated. Nearly 99% of Washinoo sake is consumed within Iwate prefecture, where it is considered a firm favorite. They also make a few lines of “all Iwate” sake that exclusively uses locally sourced ingredients.

    Kudo likes to relax with a glass of Kinjirushi  (right hand bottle with green label) at home, the least expensive sake made at the brewery, stating that he believes people should be able to appreciate the flavor of even the cheapest sake they produce

    Kudo likes to relax with a glass of Kinjirushi (right hand bottle with green label) at home, the least expensive sake made at the brewery, stating that he believes people should be able to appreciate the flavor of even the cheapest sake they produce

  • 04

    Learning about the brewing process while discovering your favorite sake

    Tomo Kudo guides tours around the brewery himself and having studied at Japan’s most esteemed university he is also proficient in English, meaning these tours are open to overseas visitors. Starting with the washing and steaming of the rice, Kudo will show you all the steps involved in the intricate process of sake brewing.

    Kudo’s guided tours help visitors understand the entire process of turning freshly cropped rice to bottles of sake that are ready drink

    Kudo’s guided tours help visitors understand the entire process of turning freshly cropped rice to bottles of sake that are ready drink

    All the rice needs to be carefully washed before the sake brewing process can begin

    All the rice needs to be carefully washed before the sake brewing process can begin

    Sake production commences each year in October and draws to a halt in early April. This is partially because cooler ambient temperatures make cooling steamed rice faster and easier, while reducing the number of potential contaminants during the cold season. Additionally, sake brewery workers in this region were traditionally farmers, who would be busy with their fields until September, but then have time to work until the planting season began again in late April. These farmer-brewers do still exist, though they are fewer in number than before. If you visit the brewery during the warmer months from April through September, no work will be going on, so you won’t be able to see actual sake being made. It is also worth considering that during the brewing season, there may be days when they are too busy to give tours based on their production schedule. Making a reservation a week or more in advance for the guided tours is generally a safe bet. Details of how to make reservations are below.

    During a tour of the brewery visitors can see the various stages of sake brewing up close including the steaming of the rice as seen here

    During a tour of the brewery visitors can see the various stages of sake brewing up close including the steaming of the rice as seen here

    Every little detail counts and all stages must be closely monitored, like the temperature of the fermentation stage

    Every little detail counts and all stages must be closely monitored, like the temperature of the fermentation stage

    The brewery is constantly busy during the sake making process with different people completing different tasks at the same time

    The brewery is constantly busy during the sake making process with different people completing different tasks at the same time

    Brewery owner Kudo inspects the koji, which is used to convert starch to sugar prior to fermentation

    Brewery owner Kudo inspects the koji, which is used to convert starch to sugar prior to fermentation

    After a tour of the facility, you’ll return with Kudo to the beautiful traditional Japanese style tatami-mat rooms of the original house for the tasting. Having gained a rough grasp of the brewing procedure and the differences between the main styles of specialty sake, you’ll have a chance to make that understanding experiential with a tasting. Kudo teaches about the subtle differences in flavor, color, aroma, and more, both as an engineer and as someone with the benefit of generations of inherited insider knowledge. He loves to demonstrate how the material and shape of the drinking implement impacts the drinking experience and even the flavor. If you’re lucky you might be able to come during one of the regular events where you can taste sake from locally made lacquered wood cups too and compare them with ceramic cups and wine glasses.

    After a tour of the facility you’ll return with Kudo to the beautiful traditional Japanese style tatami-mat rooms of the original house for some sake tasting

    After a tour of the facility you’ll return with Kudo to the beautiful traditional Japanese style tatami-mat rooms of the original house for some sake tasting

    An example of one of  the beautiful traditional Japanese style tatami-mat rooms of the original house

    An example of one of the beautiful traditional Japanese style tatami-mat rooms of the original house

    This section of the facility is filled with beautiful details that reflect the sensibilities and aesthetics or traditional Japanese buildings

    This section of the facility is filled with beautiful details that reflect the sensibilities and aesthetics or traditional Japanese buildings

    This section of the facility is filled with beautiful details that reflect the sensibilities and aesthetics or traditional Japanese buildings

    This section of the facility is filled with beautiful details that reflect the sensibilities and aesthetics or traditional Japanese buildings

  • 05

    Want to take some home?

    If you’re visiting Iwate Prefecture, many izakaya in Morioka City, and certainly all in Hachimantai City serve sake from the Washinoo Brewery. Many local liquor stores also stock it. Sawaguchi Saketen, a sake store just a hundred meters from the Washinoo Brewery, carries their full line, including limited and seasonal releases.

    Sawaguchi Saketen is a sake store just a hundred meters from the Washinoo Brewery that carries the entire line-up of Washinoo sake

    Sawaguchi Saketen is a sake store just a hundred meters from the Washinoo Brewery that carries the entire line-up of Washinoo sake

    Sawaguchi Saketen is a sake store just a hundred meters from the Washinoo Brewery that carries the entire line-up of Washinoo sake

    Sawaguchi Saketen is a sake store just a hundred meters from the Washinoo Brewery that carries the entire line-up of Washinoo sake

    Sawaguchi Saketen also have a web-shop from which you can get sake delivered anywhere in Japan, including hotels – unfortunately this website is in Japanese language only. Ideally, one might spend a few days in the area, visit the brewery, drink the local sake with locally sourced meals. Iwate prefecture is, after all, the only prefecture in the entire main island that produces more food than it consumes, so the local vegetables, meat, and seafood are not only fresh but also in abundance!

    Washinoo Sake Brewery:
    22-158 Obuke, Hachimantai City, Iwate Prefecture
    Enquiries for English language tours of the facility: english@washinoo.co.jp
    General information: https://www.washinoo.co.jp/english/

    Washino
    place
    Iwate Pref. Hachimantaishi Obuke Dai22chiwari 158
    phone
    0195763211
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