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 scattered 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.