I was up at 5am to wash 900 kg of sweet potatoes before taking an early morning train (6:42am departure) to Kirishima in northern Kagoshima. This is an area near where Kumamoto, Miyazaki, and Kagoshima meet. Not far from Hitoyoshi where I visited early in my trip or from Kirishima Shuzo in Miyazaki, this is a shochu haven. I finally got a good view of Sakurajima on the morning commute. It’s a majestic peak – the most active volcano in Japan. Can’t believe I completely missed it while in Kagoshima last summer.
I was met at the train station by a shy, smiling young man who Tekkan-san had referred to repeatedly as Nakamura-kun (“kun” is a name modifier like “san” but for younger men generally speaking). I never would have guessed, but Nakamura-kun is 27 with a family. He’s also recently returned to his family’s sakagura, Nakamura Shuzo, to become a toji. At his age he’s poised to become one of the future faces of sweet potato shochu production.
In very broken English he politely explained that he doesn’t speak English very well. I reassured him that we could speak shochu rather than English and I think that broke the ice. From then on we were laughing and joking and having a great time. His smile was everywhere. And genuine.
His family’s distillery makes twice the shochu each day that is made at Yamato Zakura, but that still makes it a small distillery. Nevertheless, their shochu is highly respected and hand made. The firs thing I saw was women filling bottles in an old machine. Very different from some of the large distilleries where bottling is automated and temperature controlled and dust free.
When we moved to the shochu making area, the previous day’s koji was being emptied from their trays and put into a brand new first moromi. They handed me a hand-broom and a tray and I jumped right in to help get the moromi started. They hand carried the koji in a canvas sheet to the kame buried in the floor. I made two of these trips as one of the carriers. Once that was finished we stirred the new moromi to get it started.
After that we stirred some second moromi which were in enormous tanks. Using long kaibo (body length sticks with flat heads that churn the thick mixture of rice, water, and sweet potato), we cooled the moromi. This is done twice a day to make sure it doesn’t get to hot and kill the yeast and koji before they’ve had a chance to do their jobs.
It was then time for the “kill line” – at least that’s how I think about it. Sweet potatoes are washed in a large machine and come out onto a conveyor belt where our job is to pick out the bad ones and chop the very large ones in half so they’ll fit into the following machinery. Those we picked out for having rotten spots were then hand trimmed and put back onto the conveyor. All those potatoes were fed into an enormous steamer. In the middle of this I was called upstairs to start steaming rice, but I proved to be pretty inept at the job, spilling some of the second bag I tried to load so they sent me back down to the kill line.
And then an unexpected thing happened … Nakamura-kun said “tea time” and we all stopped working. The women who run the bottling and labeling area set out green tea and sweet treats and we all sat on low stools around a table on the distillery floor. It was a really nice moment and they do it every day. I can’t imagine something similar happening in a US factory, but perhaps some do have that culture. Was really surprising to me regardless. As we sat around enjoying the break, everyone was curious about me. In broken English and Japanese we exchanged our ideas. When asked how I liked the work, I said “tanoshi” (fun). They all got a good laugh about that.
Afterward, the imo was steamed so we prepared a new second moromi in a large tank set in the floor next to the steamer – this was really hard work as we had to keep the crushed steamed imo coming out of the mixer from clumping together. The more that comes out, the thicker the moromi. I was sweating and exhausted by the time we finished. Fortunately, it was lunch time.
Lunch was a bit confusing at first as we drove to a local shochya where we met Manzen-kun. This was unexpected. It turns out the Manzen Shuzo also owns liquor stores around Kirishima. This was the home shop. Manzen-kun, also 27, is a sharp dressed guy with cool hair. And he was nervous as hell. He’s spent a year in Germany, but that hasn’t prepared him for talking with the American obsessed with shochu. I assured him he could relax. I was much more intimidated about meeting his father, a legend in the shochu world, than he should be about meeting me. This seemed to calm him down and we had a nice local izakaya lunch before saying goodbye to Nakamura-kun.
The drive to Manzen Shuzo was a beautiful one. Up into the mountains outside Kirishima City, winding roads, forest, and sunshine. We turned off onto an unassuming road, which quickly got narrow. We took several unmarked splits before a lone sign pointed the way to Manzen. The narrow road will only carry a 4 ton truck so only small shipments can enter and leave the distillery.
(largest truck that can enter the distillery)
And what a distillery it is. The small, wooden structure sits on a raised ledge in a valley. Below it is a rest house for the staff. A wood porch overlooks a beautiful freshwater stream from the back of this house. Down the stream is a guest house that looks right out of an architectural magazine.
As we drove up, Manzen-san himself was waiting for us. A broad shouldered, intimidating man, he proved to be warm and hospitable. He invited me into the guest house where he had tea and a chestnut snack waiting. His son translated (very well) as we sat in a beautiful tatami room overlooking the stream. After a chat to get to know me, satisfied I was worth his time, he guided me on a tour of his tiny sakagura. It’s a thing of beauty.
A traditional wood still is the only still in the kura. The other places I’ve seen this style still, it’s used for small batch production of boutique brands. At Manzen it is the only game in town. There is only one elderly artisan who can make and repair these stills in all of Kagoshima so unless he trains an apprentice, this style will soon disappear. Both first and second moromi are housed in clay pots despite the large daily volume (closer to Nakamura than Yamato Zakura). Once distilled, the shochu is stored in clay pots or glass jars in an aging cave dug into the side of the hill beside the distillery. Needless to say, it’s an incredibly impressive facility.
(aging cave entrance)
(inside the cave)
What put it over the top for me was the employee rest house. Fireplace, porch, full kitchen, couches. Super comfortable. Like a log cabin in the woods. This brought home the fact that shochu is not just about making alcohol. Shochu is a blend of man, raw ingredients, and nature. Without the men who work in this kura – without keeping them comfortable while they work up in the rural mountains of northen Kagoshima, there is no Manzen shochu.
Before leaving Manzen-san offered to let me stay in the guest house next time I visit Kagoshima. I was floored. I sheepishly suggested “a day or two might be nice” and he replied, “as long as you like.” There’s no way I won’t be taking him up on that offer. The guest house might be the nicest house I’ve ever been in.
The drive back to the station was bittersweet. I’d seen two great distilleries and my visits with them were far to short, but I was on the train back to my home kura, Yamato Zakura. Manzen-kun, true to Japanese fashion, stayed with me just outside the turnstiles, until my train arrived. I returned to Ichiki in time for another amazing homecooked meal by Tekkan-san’s wife. I could get used to this countryside lifestyle.