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The society and culture section of Keizai Premier (part of the Mainichi newspaper) reports on a town in Saitama Prefecture holding sake + BBQ events.

Toda is a small town in the south of Saitama Prefecture, bisected by the river Tama and right next to the Tokyo metropolitan area. It has a population of about 140,000 people, and the average age of a resident in January 2017 was 40.2 years old which actually puts it at the youngest average age in the prefecture for the 22nd year running. 69% of the population are classed as of working age (15 – 64), giving it the largest workforce in the prefecture as well.

The city is popular because of its proximity to Tokyo. A fast Japan Rail service from Toda Kōen (Toda Park) station at the south side of the town takes just 20 minutes to get to Shinjuku Station. Many newlywed couples move out there as it’s a good commuter town, and its population has been growing since the last 1980s. However, it doesn’t have much in the way of regional produce (a huge deal for local promotion, as you’ll know if you’ve ever been to Japan) or sightseeing attractions.

Some are trying to turn this disadvantage into an opportunity. ROT is a company based in Toda City that operates over 30 cafes and izakaya (traditional pub/bar with snacks) in Saitama Prefecture, and Suzuki Takeshi is a manager at the company who came up with the idea of “BBQ x nihonshu” (the Japanese term for what is called sake in English). He was one of the people who set up the company’s cafe at Toda Kōen station in 2002, rising through the ranks until he was running their 19 locations across the town. Thinking back to when he first joined the company, he remembers there were no casual places for younger people to eat or drink, which made his cafe popular. But as he settled and brought up his own family there, he became more and more aware that Toda had nowhere for families or younger people to go and enjoy themselves, and no famous local produce.

Then Suzuki heard about the concept of machi-iku (literally “going to town”) from Fukusawa Ryō, a consultant employed by the company. It was a side-project Fukusawa was involved in outside of work, which involved unearthing the strengths of small shopping areas and making them into places people wanted to go. The project stood out for encouraging producers and companies to work together, without local government involvement, but with participation from local and non-local people. Fukusawa had been working since 2016 to revitalise his home town of Fujikawa in Yamanashi Prefecture by reviving the sake Honbishi (本菱) which had been brewed by his family until 120 years previously.

So Suzuki started gathering people who could help him discover Toda’s strengths. He held monthly workshops with 12 participants for six months in an attempt to find what resources were hidden around them. It was out of these workshops that the idea of associating Toda with sake and BBQ was born. Suzuki stresses that they wanted something in keeping with the town’s image as a good place for families, as there were lots of younger people with children and a great green space in the shape of Toda Kōen (park). That led them to the idea of a barbecue as a way of gathering family and friends. Next came the idea of making a sake that would go with barbecue.

However. Toda City did not have a sake brewery. Suzuki enlisted the help of the owner of the Kamaya brewery in nearby Kazo City to get his team experience of brewing, then started in earnest. And in March 2017, a sake that could be enjoyed on a day out in the sun, was born – Kakehashi (bridge, link). It’s brewed sparkling to reduce sweetness and keep it light and refreshing, easy to drink with any kind of food.

Toda City has several parks perfect for barbecuing, including the Saiko Dōman Green Park that lies on the side of lake Sai. Suzuki chose this as the site for his BBQ x nihonshu event, lining up people on social media to kick off his attempt to make Toda the place to come for those two ingredients. The first barbecue was held on 30 April 2017, with about 20 people attending. The event is now in its fifth round, costs JPY 4,000 per person, and the selection of food has improved as well. They try to concentrate on ingredients from the prefecture, such as popular sausages made from musashi-mugi buta (pigs fed on industrial food waste such as bread, udon and… baumkuchen?) in the north of Saitama Prefecture.

Suzuki is now looking at seasonal events, such as hanami (cherry blossom viewing) barbecues, to make Toda the mecca for BBQ x nihonshu.