While the point of my internship was to spend time learning how to make shochu, Tekkan-san was kind enough to arrange the day trip to Kirishima the day after I arrived. The next day would be my first full day working in the kura. I was up at 6am to wash the sweet potatoes – all 900 kg this time. Each basket of imo are put into a washing machine for 90 seconds. The timer will tell you how long it takes for you to load your next basket. When I first started I was hovering around 60 seconds to make the transition – get the washed imo out and put the next basket of dirty imo in. Today I managed to get this down to 45 or so seconds on average and as low as 39 seconds.
After washing the imo I was asked to join Tekkan-san in the koji shitsu, a high heat, high humidity room that cultures koji (rice malt) on freshly steamed rice. Koji acts in sacchirification, turning starches into sugar, which the yeast can then turn into alcohol. In parallel with preparing the day’s sweet potatoes is preparing the next day’s koji rice.
We start by washing the morning’s rice, which is the best workout I’ve yet gotten – 30 “rows” of shovel through water and rice. Switch directions, do it again. For 5 minutes straight. Pulling a shovel through rice laden water is not easy. Tekkan-san barely breaks a sweat, but says it’s the most difficult part of the job. He said he won’t cut corners in doing this (there are automatic rice washers that would not invalidate his sakagura’s status as a hand-made shochu producer), because if he cuts corners at this early stage he’ll care less about the entire process. Hand washing the rice gives him an enormous motivation not to waste the effort he exerts each morning. It’s a “no pain, no gain” attitude, but without the tough guy image. It’s just a craftsman doing his job well.
After washing the rice, it’s time to steam the rice. The steamer is also old school rather than automated. Getting the rice out of the wash basin is a time consuming process. After a bucket is used to get the bulk of the rice out, water, a bucket, and a strainer are used to get the rest of the rice out. And every last grain counts since he’s just spent an hour washing this rice with backbreaking exertion. It’s more focus on details.
Once the rice is steamed (steaming usually coincides with a lunch break as it takes about 40 minutes), it must be cooled and malted with the koji and then the correct temperature must be maintained, otherwise the koji will die, and with no koji there will be no shochu. This is also really difficult work. The steamer is swiveled onto its side the 150 kg of steaming hot rice is shoveled out onto a low, knee high table. Two people then move the rice around cooling it quickly before spread it all out flat and peppering it with koji spores.
The rice is then hand churned to mix in the koji – Tekkan-san swears the koji needs to touch steamed rice for just a second to begin the process, but he’s not taking any chances. This hand turning and cooling process – you have to get the koji mixed in and bring the rice’s temperature down to about body temperature and not much cooler in order to maximize the koji’s ability to saccharify the rice. What makes this particularly difficult is that, because of the table’s knee high height, you have to kneel on the concrete floor to do this well. Lots of stress on the knees and back.
(sleeping koji rice)
By the time we finished this I was dead on my feet, but a quick water break and some moromi stirring to cool off and we were back in the koji shitsu to break up and mix the previous day’s koji. This is not as physically taxing, but it requires some serious coordination to break up the mound in the box and then reform it into a new shape. I’m getting better, but Tekkan-san can still run circles around me. In general I feel like a gangly, awkward teenager not in control of my body’s movements around Japanese people in general. Watching someone actually do work they spend all their time doing is really humbling. The precision movements are a site to behold.
(hand cooled shiro koji rice in an individual box)
Work finally finished, a much needed shower and then a drive to Kagoshima city to meet Yagi-san from Yachiyoden Shuzo in Tarumizu, Kagoshima. Ill be spending the next day at his distillery, but you can’t get there by public transportation since it’s in an area without train service. Our very nice dinner of assorted Kagoshima style chicken is quick and efficient. We have a ferry to catch.
Yagi-san’s wife drives us (very quickly) to the ferry terminal – we’re arriving at the time the ferry is scheduled to leave, but fortunately they must have seen our headlights as they waited until we were aboard to close the gates and depart. A 15 minute ferry ride took us to the base of Sakurajima, the active volcano. As we drove around the base to Tarumizu, ash clouded our vision as if the trees were on fire.
(unexpected shacho home stay in a traditional Japanese house)
Finally arriving in Tarumizu, Yagi-san explained to me that the hotel was full so I’d be staying in his parent’s traditional Japanese house. This was an unexpected treat. His father is the president of the distillery and this house had been in his family for more than 60 years. It was right out of a movie. I didn’t have much time to enjoy it as it was already late and I had to be up early tomorrow for breakfast before riding with the president to the distillery set in a famous valley.