My friends Kanako and Masahiro have invited me to their new apartment for dinner after a busy day sightseeing together. I tag along while they shop. One of our stops is Masahiro’s suggestion. A place to purchase regional Nihonshu or rice wine.
The Tedorigawa Yoshida sake brewery is a 144 year-old, family-run establishment in their Kanazawa neighbourhood, and they think I might enjoy this particular wine.
Almost every local spot in Japan is famous for something. Often something no one has heard of—a cracker or bean cake or some regional twist of soy sauce, miso, fish or vegetables into a “unique” local specialty. This brewery has been winning top national honours and awards since 1968. However, as we bow our heads to part the noren curtains, quite by chance we’ve walked through the front door of a spot that’s becoming famous in much more than a local sense.
Tedorigawa Yoshida brewery, which still makes rice wine the old fashioned way, is the subject of The Birth of Saké, a documentary of the process and the people who give life to this 2000 year-old art. The film debuted at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival where its director Erik Shirai took the Best New Documentary Director Award. Soon after, it picked up two more awards at the Bend Film Festival in Oregon: Best Feature Documentary and Best Director. Since its debut it has been screened at various film festivals in Italy, Russia, Spain, Brazil and Australia.
The Birth of Saké depicts the labour intensive, hands-on tradition of sake brewing as it takes place at Tedorigawa Yoshida–one of very few places in Japan still using the centuries-old methods. Here the men who craft this artisanal wine under brewmaster Toji Yamamoto spend six months of the year secluded from society to produce this top tier product.
Nothing about the shop, however, suggests any notoriety. A simple cooler contains bottles for sale, and a display shelf showcases samples of other stock. Computer print-outs line the walls. In the corner across the narrow entrance (as is commonplace in Japanese sake breweries), the spring water from which Tedorigawa Yoshida sake is made slides noiselessly over a stone fountain.
Though not in operation during our visit, we are shown through the establishment and told some of the company’s story. Afterwards, President Yoshida Ryuichi lines up and opens 8 bottles for us to taste.
Of course, given an opportunity like this I really should take comprehensive notes. However, after a day of sightseeing and still fighting jetlag, I’m done in. Alas, my digital voice recorder which would be the perfect bailout for the occasion is at the hotel. Much as I am tempted to try, not every life-detail can be documented and shared. Some moments exist simply to be savoured.
We taste and talk and laugh together. As planned, my friends purchase a bottle to share at dinner. I select the wine I like best as a gift for them to enjoy after my departure. I am content (and deeply honoured) to have the good fortune to taste a small but rich sampling of a venerable, centuries-old tradition. A tradition that is now a niche market and could well succumb to economic realities and mechanization by the end of the present generation. We hope not.