Fukushima sake brewer warms shattered Japanese fishing community

By Harumi OZAWA

Daisuke Suzuki is helping by doing what he does best as life tentatively returns to normal for the devastated fishing communities of Japan’s Fukushima region: making sake.

The “toji” sake master and his family were lucky to escape with their lives when a huge earthquake and tsunami devastated the area in March 2011, killing about 18,000 people and knocking out the nearby nuclear plant.

In the town of Namie, the disaster obliterated the old port of Ukedo and its local fishing industry, as well as the Iwaki Kotobuki sake brewery that Suzuki’s family has owned for five generations.

For two centuries at least it had made the rice wine that revived many a fisherman’s spirits after returning to port from the capricious Pacific Ocean with a hold brimming with fish.

They would drink cups of Iwaki Kotobuki sake over white-meat sashimi of flounder and bass, delicacies from the Fukushima coast.

“The sake was always there, just like the fish,” said one taciturn local fisherman, not wishing to be identified. “That is the way it has been here since my childhood.”

– ‘Nothing left’ –

With radiation levels dangerously high, Suzuki and others were not allowed to go back and look for lost neighbours until a year after the catastrophe.

“We lost the land that gave us our livelihood, and people disappeared from the town,” the 50-year-old told AFP next to where his brewery once stood.

People are banned from living in the coastal area where he used to work, not because of the radiation but because of the high tsunami risk.

“I had nothing left and couldn’t imagine how I could start making sake again,” he said.

But then, a month after the disaster, came a phone call out of the blue from a research laboratory.

It still kept Iwaki Kotobuki’s yeast starter, the all-important “shubo” that is crucial to a sake’s taste.

Suzuki was able to resume his trade at his new brewery far from Ukedo in Yamagata prefecture on the other side of Honshu island.

But sake-brewing being tricky, depending on water quality, the rice and myriad other factors, it took him a long time to get the taste exactly right.

“Over centuries, my ancestors had worked to create the flavour of the Iwaki Kotobuki sake to suit to fish,” he said.

– All-clear –

Two years ago, the government gave the all-clear for the sale of fish from the Fukushima region to resume.

The fisherman needed something to drink, and Suzuki then built a new sake plant back in Namie.

The local fishing industry has slowly recovered, although in August China banned seafood imports from Japan after its neighbour began releasing treated wastewater from the nuclear plant, dealing another blow to Fukushima’s fishing communities.

To help, this year he brought out a new sake called “Gyoshu (fish type) Mariage”, designed for pairing with eight different kinds of Fukushima seafood, such as flounder, surf clam and Japanese mitten crab.

“We analysed the seafood’s five aspects of taste — sweetness, saltiness, acidity, bitterness and savouriness — and used AI to design the sake each for the best pairing,” he said.

Yasushi Niitsuma, 64, an “izakaya” pub owner near the port, remembers how local fishermen and residents enjoyed drinking Iwaki Kotobuki before 2011.

“The restart of the sake brewery is the town’s pride,” said Niitsuma, who himself was forced to evacuate for years before returning.

“The sake is the tradition of the town. Daisuke helped the tradition continue,” he told AFP.

“And it encourages fishermen to continue fishing.” — Agence France-Presse

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