Watarai Sake Brewery
Updated: Jun 19
Oyama is a sake town that once was recognized as one of the three best sake-producing areas during the Edo Period (1603-1868).
The Shonai region, a renowned rice-producing plain, is also referred to as a sake-producing region. Currently, 18 sake breweries are dotted across the plain. The Oyama area, a town with a long-standing tradition of sake production, hosts “Oyama New Sake & Breweries Festival” annually on the second Saturday of February. We visited Mr. Toshihito Watarai, an 18th-generation brewer and head of the 400-year-old Watarai Sake Brewery.
There are presently seven sake breweries in the city; four in the Oyama area, two in the Haguro area, and one in the Kushibiki area. Watarai Sake Brewery Co., Ltd., situated in the Oyama area, traces its origins in the west of Japan as far back as the 17th century. When the Watarai family settled in the Oyama area during the Genna era (1615-1624) of the Edo Period, which was reigned over by Hidetada Tokugawa, the second shogun, the brewery was already in business. Of all the breweries in Yamagata Prefecture, the Watarai is the fourth oldest.
Mr. Toshihito Watarai, the first son of three brothers and two sisters, did not feel any obligation to take over the family business because there are two other potential successors. After he graduated from university, he worked for an auto company outside of Yamagata Prefecture. Following his days as a corporate employee, Toshihito spent a year in Australia on a working holiday. During his stay Down Under, he was called to return home. He made up his mind to fly home at 25. After returning to Tsuruoka, Toshihito who was a rower during his time at university and the company, participated, as an athlete, in a regional buildup to the National Sports Festival hosted by the Prefecture in 1992. He now takes charge of his family business in his 27th year. He works as a toji (a principal director for the production of sake) and is involved in planning during winter. He mainly sells his products in summer.
Mr. Watarai readily invited us to a Sake Resource Center housed in the brewery and kindly gave us a guided tour of the sake production site. In the Sake Resource Center, a number of tools that were used for brewing in the old days and various old documents, among other items, were on display. There are a quite lot of tools that are not used today.
To Japanese, when it came to alcoholic beverages until the Taisho Period (1912-1926), sake came before anything else. Entering into the Showa Period (1926-1989), shochu (a distilled spirit) and beer gained popularity. Currently, beer is consumed most while the consumption of the sake is on the down slope year after year. The volume of sake shipped in Tsuruoka had also declined, but in around 2010 the volume reversed course and began to increase.
Reading through the records of Oyama’s sake shows us that there were as many as 145 sake breweries in Tsuruoka during the Edo Period. On the other hand, only 42 breweries were identified in the Oyama area during the same period. So, why has Oyama become known as the sake town?
Originally, Oyama was a castle town that was built differentiating its origin from that of the principal castle of central Tsuruoka. Unlike the city center, the names of places such as daiku town (carpenter town) and kajiya town (blacksmith town) still remain unchanged. In 1647, during the beginning of the Edo Period, Tadatoki Sakai, the 7th son of Tadakatsu Sakai, then lord domain of Shonai, established a branch of the family with 10,000 koku. (A koku is a unit of measure in feudal Japan, the amount of rice needed to feed one person for a year.) In 1669, however, because Tadatoki died without an heir, his fief was expropriated. The area became the shogunal demesne from then until the end of the Edo Period. The taxation on sake brewing in the shogunal demesne was less strict than that of the feudal lord domain, which is thus counted as one of the reasons why Oyama thrived as a sake town.
Private rice breeding was active in the Shonai region and various rice varieties were developed.
The Shonai is a snowy region. It is blessed with bountiful water throughout the year and thriving rice cultivation. It is said that “good water makes great sake brewing districts.” Water in the region is divided into soft water that is produced at the foot of Mt. Gassan and semi-hard water that is produced from an area adjacent to the seaside of Mt. Chokai. The water in the Oyama area originates from a shallow layer of groundwater and contains less iron, which is regarded as optimum for fermentation. The Shonai region is also home to private rice breeders and a vast array of rice varieties for brewer’s rice have been cultivated. In the Oyama area, passionate sake brewers thus have been engaged in sake brewing over the years along with the preservation of brewing techniques
Overseas sake trends and future expectations
“Sake brewing might be a declining industry now, but I think it will definitely come under the spotlight again,” says Mr. Watarai. “As wine accounts for most of the exports of France, even if domestic sake consumption decreases, if we sell sake abroad, the industry intended for exports can survive. Recently, sake is enjoying a rise in popularity among foreign nationals at home and abroad. In the near future I believe attention will be paid to sake as an export in Japan as well,” he added.
Expressing his ambition to increasingly disseminate the good taste of sake to Japanese as well as overseas consumers in the run up to hosting the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020, Mr. Watarai continues by saying, “The rice price is rapidly decreasing now, but if sake consumption increases abroad, it means that the production of brewer’s rice will increase. Concerning the brewer’s rice, which is the raw material for sake, the northern region is considered to be more appropriate in terms of rice cultivation, so it will link to an increase of brewers’ sake production in the region.”
On 13th February, 2016, the “Oyama New Sake & Breweries Festival” will take place. The Festival will be the 21st edition next year. Anyone can visit the four sake breweries and taste newly-brewed sake and specialty brands. In the early years, there were fewer visitors than today and only a few hundred came at most. For the last 5 to 10 years, the number of visitors has grown. This derives from the fact that the festival date was changed from the annual 11th February date to the second Saturday of February. There are some other issues that need to be resolved such as how to purchase tickets. Although most of the visitors are from the region, a new ticket sales system has been introduced since last year, on which tickets are made available for purchase via the Internet, enabling people from outside of the prefecture to purchase tickets without queuing. Additionally, the organizer is making a nifty arrangement to make cocktails for those who have an aversion to drinking sake in order to create an opportunity for them to enjoy sake.