The ryokan breakfast in Hitoyoshi was a sight to behold, but I was too sleepy to remember to document it with a photo. It was also absolutely delicious including an onsen egg – an egg poached in the hot spring water itself. Mid-breakfast the okami (ryokan manager) visited our table to let us know that Mizobe-san had visited the ryokan to pick us up, but did not find us in the lobby. He’d return at 9am.
Embarrassed, we arrived in the lobby at 9am as planned to find him in good spirits, but anxious to get on the road. We had a lot of traveling to do.
We drove about 45 minutes on rural roads to Toyonaga Shuzo, which makes Toyonaga, available in the US market. This was the first rice shochu that made me realize what kumajochu was. It’s dry, crisp, and has surprising character for something so clean. Toyonaga-san was very glad to meet us and once he learned I liked joatsu muroka shochus he broke out a bottle of Jigaden, which immediately set a new standard for what a rice shochu could be. I’ll be coming home with a bottle of this if I don’t drink it on the trip.
(Toyonaga koji room)
Our next stop was Ohishi Shuzo, which is the kura closest to the riverhead, giving it the cleanest water and a special place among Hitoyoshi kura. Yet we found the hostess to be a clever, amusing woman with a big smile and a willingness to take risks. Not content to make kome shochu, they also produce shochus made from mochi, taro, kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), and the strangest product we saw in 2 days in Hitoyoshi, a honey shochu liqueur with a bee in the bottle. The last shochu we tried from them was called Ohishi Nijunenshu … which was created completely on accident when the owners put some rice shochu into oak barrels and forgot about them, rediscovering them 25 years later and bottling it on the spot. They’ve since made it a 20 year oaked rice shochu on purpose.
(one of Ohishi Shuzo’s stills and some aging pots)
After Ohishi we stopped for ramen at RaiRai where an ancient Japanese couple made us amazing tonkotsu ramen with fried garlic, a feature of Kumamoto ramen.
We didn’t have much time, because Takata Shuzo was waiting for us. Takata has the oldest ishigura – stone kura – in Hitoyoshi, which they now use for oak aging (no photo available since it was raining heavily). Takata niche is to make shochus with flower yeasts, which give them unique floral aromas. With 8 different flower yeasts in play they have the potential to make an infinite variety of rice shochus. Takata-san was proud of being a small kura so they can play around with their processes. Two of their more unique products were made with organic rice, one which rice was made in a duck paddy in which ducks are used to control insects, and another from a rice paddy salted with koi fish to keep down the bug population.
(oak barrel aging in Takata’s ishigura)
The final stop before our return to Fukuoka for dinner was Fukano Shuzo, producers of Saiva Shochu, only available on the west coast in the US. We were given a tour by a sophisticated older lady who was glad to have us visit. She allowed us to taste shochu directly from an aging kame, which is one of my favorite kura experiences.
(aging pots at Fukano)
It was a little early in the kome shochu production season – heavy rains had delayed rice harvests – so Fukano turned out to be the only shuzo on the second day where we could see actual fermentation in action. A first moromi in a clay pot buried in the floor was bubbling like mad.
(Fukano’s first moromi)
We finished in their tasting room where we discovered Yasai Banashi – a shochu made from a blend of 27 different vegetables. With the current juicing craze, this may be the shochu equivalent. I haven’t tasted anything like it. We also tasted her hanatare shochu, which is always a treat. These viscous first drops shochus are very high proof and full of amazingly rich flavors. They’re also impossible to come by unless you live in the kura’s area.
(Fukano’s hanatare – first drops rice shochu)
A quick stop by Sengetsu Shuzo’s gift shop wrapped up our Kumajochu tour and lead to a well deserved nap in the car on the way back to Fukuoka. By the time we’d tried 50 different shochus and it wasn’t yet 6pm. It was fun at the time, but I feel nauseated just writing that.
Dinner was at Kaizantei, a traditional Japanese restaurant with an owner from Hitoyoshi. We had dinner with friends from Sengetsu, Nishi Yoshida, and Shinozaki Shuzos. I tried fugu sashimi for the first time. This is the sushi that kills people sometimes since blowfish is poisonous. I’m still alive so I guess the sushi chef knew what he was doing (you actually have to licensed to serve these days).
Another stop at a basement izakaya followed by yatai ramen finished a very long day that saw 57 different shochus (a new personal best) consumed and lots of fun for all.