Name in Japanese: 富田酒造
Pronunciation: tomita shuzō
The Tomita Sake Brewery is at the northern end of Lake Biwa where the snow falls thickly in winter. Founded in 1534 during the Warring States period, it’s one of Japan’s oldest surviving breweries. In an area where its common to hear business owners say, “I’m the ninth generation”, the young Tomita Yasunobu is the fifteenth in his line.
The brewery is located in the lovely, sloping town of Kinomoto. It stands beside the old Hokkoku Kaidō road linking Kyōto and the Hokuriku region. In the Edo period when the road was a major highway, Kinomoto was a post town, and travellers between east and west Japan would have been customers of the brewery. The town was destroyed twice by fire, so the brewery building isn’t ‘that’ old – it dates back to 1744. The ‘Shichihonyari’ in stained glass looks as though it might be old too.
Tomita-san chuckles. “It’s not old. My sister made it. Although the glass is actually antique.”
The current Tomita, Yasunobu-san has been in charge since 2002. Since then, he’s actively sought to put the ‘ji’ in ‘jizake’, in other words, to make the local sake brewing even more local. Whereas the previous generation was constrained to buy rice from here and there, Yasunobu-san has contracted with local farmers to produce the varieties of sake rice traditionally grown in Ōmi, such as Wataribune and Tamasakae. ‘Ji’ means both ‘local’ and ‘earth’, and Shichihonyari seeks to protect the soil and water that enables sake to be brewed in perpetuity. This means using rice grown with minimal chemical inputs, and from 2010, they started a brand of completely organic junmaishu, something they hope to roll out to other products.
Shichihonyari is known for sake that’s dry and clean but rich. It’s big-boned, provincial sake reminiscent of the samurai of the Warring States period. It’s a staple of the Kohoku northern lake area.
As Yasunobu-san puts it, “We’re not aiming to make flowery, fruity sake. We want to make sake that reflects its origin as rice, that goes well with food.”
“Do you personally dislike that fruity type of sake?”
“I like it more than I used to, but it doesn’t seem entirely natural to me. Of course, those flavours are produced with yeast which is natural, but it doesn’t seem to reflect the nature of the main ingredient, rice. I get to drink that type in the course of my work, and it’s okay for drinking on its own, but I wouldn’t want it with food.”
Since the brewery makes primarily junmai, Tomita-san recommends not chilling it too much. “Our sake has a strong and stable character, so there are no off-flavours to hide by cooling it.”
One mustn’t mistake Tomita-san entirely for a stick-in-the-mud traditionalist however.
“I think it’s necessary to try new things and to offer an accessible entry point into sake. For example, we make sparkling sake.”
“What method are using to get the sparkle?”
“Bottle fermentation. It’s doing quite well. People who normally don’t drink sake are surprised to find it acceptable. It’s sweet, but there’s no sugar added. The sweetness comes from the kōji. I think it’s good that people learn about this. ”
“Do you have any other new products?”
“In 2010, we started selling koshu aged sake.”
As a recent development, Shichihonyari has started making the painstaking traditional yamahai and kimoto types.
The brewery is involved in various collaborations. Tomita-san gets particularly animated on the topic. “We have collaborations in various areas like research, marketing, and regional development. For the rice farmers, it’s an opportunity for all of their work to become visible to the end consumer, who might even be in another country. Sake is something that easily catches people’s attention, and by having a formal collaboration, it brings the focus back to Nagahama. At least, for people who are curious about such things.”
At a time when more people are drinking sake from a wine glass, the brewery also places emphasis on the choice of drinking vessels used to drink Shichihonyari, whether ceramics made from the clay of rice fields, or glass melted down from old sake bottles. This focus on crafts is literally carved into their brand.
Around 1913 or 14, the artist and gourmet Kitaōji Rosanjin stayed at the brewery for a while, because his talent was recognized by a paper and stationery dealer in Nagahama. The twelfth head of the brewery, Hachiro, was himself an afficionado of Japanese arts and crafts. The two men were both in their early thirties and they got on well. Rosanjin carved the name Shichihonyari on a large plaque, and the characters are used on the labels today. The plaque still hangs in the brewery. Thanks to his time spent amid the natural beauty of Ōmi, his talent blossomed, and he went on to fame and honour, which he nevertheless deprecated. The current brewers are happy to make sake under the dynamic characters left by Rosanjin, whose hungry spirit still provides inspiration.
The brand is named after the seven daring warriors who fought alongside Hideyoshi at the battle of Shizugatake, establishing him as the ruler of Japan. The name established the brand as the sake of victory and good fortune.
place 1107, Kinomoto, Kinomotochō, Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture
Mt. Shizugatake is a mountain with an altitude of 421 m located in Nagahama City, Shiga Prefecture. The mountain is a peak on a mountain range between Lake Biwa and one of its subsidiary lakes, Lake Y