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The Chiba Nippo newspaper has an article on a 300+ year old sake brewery that prides itself on keeping tradition alive, and a new successor who is bringing a breath of fresh air in with her.

Chiba Prefecture, just to the east of Tokyo, has 39 breweries that each bring their own character to the sake they brew. They also all face a common problem – ageing tōji.

The pressure of replacing ageing staff has led to different people taking up positions they were previously never seen in, such as women tōji and non-Japanese kurabito.

The Asahizuru brewery in Chiba Prefecture, founded in the Edo period, is surrounded by fields and capped with a traditional red-tiled roof. What’s less traditional is its female tōji, something still rare for the prefecture. Motoko Tanaka (54) worked in banking before joining the family business. She had nothing at all to do with brewing at age 25 when she met and married Kōichi Tanaka, the 7th kuramoto (brewery owner). Even while part of his family, she never had any desire to get involved with the family business while raising their three children.

It was only when she stepped in to help during a staff shortage that she developed an interest in the brewing process. She found herself wanting to make sake from locally-produced rice, and embarked on a five year training journey that included staying at other breweries in the area. It was after that long process that she was ready to take over from the Asahizuru tōji when he retired in 1998.

Some people opposed the idea of a female tōji and distanced themselves from the brewery, but Motoko stayed true to her ideals. Her mother in law and husband helped to look after the children while she got to work making Sakurajō, the first tokubetsu junmai made in Chiba Prefecture from locally grown sake-specific rice. She also developed new products aimed at the female market, such as a pink-tinted nigori junmai.

Her new life involves getting up unbelievably early on freezing cold mornings to keep the brewing going, all the way through to bottling which is done manually one bottle at a time. For Motoko, it’s similar to raising children. You have to find a balance between intervening and letting things develop as they will. She also laughingly says that she can recommend every one of her sake “children”, as they all have their own merits.

Moving on to the Kidoizumi brewery in Izumi, there’s another rare find – a foreigner working in the kura. Justin Potts (37) is an American who came to Japan aged 24 and developed an interest in Japanese food. A taste of miso soup and pickled vegetables at a farming family’s dinner table made him appreciate fermented foods, especially sake. He got serious and qualified as a kikisake-shi (sake “sommelier”) and more advanced sakashō. (See Beyond sake sommelier: sakashō) He’s on a mission to spread the word about Japanese food culture both inside and outside Japan.

He travelled around breweries across Japan and promoted sake abroad, but is still troubled by falling consumption at home. It’s something he can’t understand, almost like Japan doesn’t see sake as part of its own culture. Feeling that a more visceral experience might help him get the message across, he decided to learn more by working at a brewery.

Using previous work connections, he asked to lend a hand at Kidoizumi and fourth owner Fumio Sōji readily agreed to take him on, locking him in to rising on cold winter days before the sun rose and working hard until it set. He cut himself off from the outside world to concentrate on brewing, which was tough both physically and psychologically, but worth it for the in-depth and direct experience of the sake-making process.

Deeper experience brought different problems to light. The Japanese had filed sake away as something to be drunk at home in the evenings, closing down other ways of enjoying it. Without that preconception, he sees sake as something to be enjoyed any way and any time that you like, and is back to work to change its image at home.