Skip to content

Otokoyama Honten: Sake that Brings People Together

Today we’re lucky to have a guest article written by Hiroki Sugawara, a good friend of mine. Hiroki is a fifth generation sake brewer, in line to succeed his father at Otokoyama Honten, a brewery in Kesennuma with over 100 years of history. The brewery was also featured on a Discovery Channel documentary called “Beyond the Tsunami” narrated by Ken Watanabe.

About Me
First let me take a moment to introduce myself. I was born in 1991 in Kesennuma and spent the first 18 years of my life in this city. After graduating from high school, I decided to go on to Hokkaido University in Sapporo. Back then, I wasn’t exactly set on following in the footsteps of my father. I wasn’t sure if working at the family brewery was what I really wanted to do.

Hiroki Sugawara, 5th Generation sake brewer at Otokoyama Honten

However, the Great East Japan Earthquake happened during my first year of university, and our business was devastated. After the disaster, there were so many people from within and without the city who reached out to support us. And thanks to this support, we were able to continue our operations. I thought, “Our business has been allowed to continue operating thanks to the support of so many people. It is my duty to carry on this legacy.”

Rather than immediately returning to Kesennuma after graduating from university however, I decided that I wanted to spend some time getting work experience in a different place. So I spent the first 2 years after university working at a sushi restaurant in Shonan, where I learned the nuances of customer service and managing a storefront. After spending a short time studying abroad in the U.S., I’ve now returned to work at our brewery in Kesennuma, where I’m responsible for selling our sake internationally.

Otokoyama Honten sake brewery

Our History
Established in 1912, this year marks our 106th year of operation. Our current president is the 4th generation head of the company.

The name “Otokoyama” was chosen when our founder visited Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine in Kyoto, to offer thanks to the gods for receiving a license to produce sake. The head priest at that shrine is said to have given this name.

Otokoyama Honten storefront and corporate office (pre-tsunami)

In 1932, our corporate office was established above our retail store. Due to its rather rare architectural style, this building was also selected as a “tangible cultural property” 15 years ago. The tsunami which followed the Great East Japan Earthquake however, destroyed this building. But thanks to the support we’ve received from around the country and around the world, we’ve been able to continue our sake production operations.

Our Process

At Otokoyama Honten, we are dedicated to producing sake which captures the essence of our region. 80% of the rice used in our production comes from Miyagi Prefecture. This puts our usage of local rice among the top of sake breweries in Miyagi.

“Koji,” is a fungus which is used to saccharify rice in the sake-making process. It is said to be the most important element in sake brewing
Rice being steamed on a cold winter morning
Brewers at Otokoyama Honten make koji
“Moromi” or sake mash in the process of fermenting

In addition, 20% of our rice comes from Kesennuma, and thanks to the support of local farmers we are able to produce specialized sake rice called “Kura no hana” right here in our hometown. As for our water supply, we use local well water that has low mineral content (soft water). It is said that using soft water makes the fermentation process more difficult, however, using it effectively results in a sake with a smooth, easy-to-drink flavor.

Sotenden sake being bottled

Flagship Brands
Our brewery has three flagship brands of sake: Sotenden, Otokoyama and Biroku.

Sotenden was created about 15 years ago, with the vision of “Expressing Kesennuma through Sake.” Kesennuma is known for producing bonito, swordfish and pacific saury of the finest quality, so we believe it’s essential for us to ensure that our sake doesn’t detract from, but rather enhances, the flavors of seafood. Sotenden is our tribute to Kesennuma’s local food culture.

The classic Sotenden Junmaishu

Otokoyama, on the other hand, is our oldest brand. This is the brand that has been brewed since we first opened our doors, with a time-tested taste that represents the preferences of the locals throughout the Kesennuma’s history: clear, dry sake.

Otokoyama “Date Masamune” label. Date Masamune is a famous Edo period warlord from Miyagi Prefecture.

Finally, the Biroku brand. This brand is an expression of our brewmaster’s inspiration. As a Kesennuma brewery, we believe it’s important for us to remember our traditions. But paying tribute to your roots doesn’t mean you have to be tied down. As brewers, we always strive to innovate and inspire with our sake. Biroku is our attempt to express flavors which aren’t found in our other two flagships. Biroku is currently released four times a year, for each of the four seasons. In the future though, we plan to go beyond this seasonal series, and develop a variety of new sakes under the Biroku label.

Summer version of Biroku

Touring our Brewery
We offer tours of our brewery for anyone who’s interested in learning more about our story.
Tours are available from Monday through Saturday, 9 am to 5 pm. (Both English and Japanese tours are available.)

Visitors from Berlin sampling a variety of different sakes after a brewery tour

The tour includes an explanation of the sake brewing process, and the conditions required to make good sake. You can learn about the equipment used here, and at the end of the tour you’ll have a chance to sample a variety of our products. Depending on when you visit, you might have the chance to taste a seasonal specialty!

Our Vision
The founding principle of our brewery is “Nature and People. Sake-brewing which brings people together.”

Harvesting locally-grown sake rice

Sake is a product born from local resources, influenced by the rice, the water, and the climate of the region where the brewery is based. And this natural product is then refined by craftsmen dedicated to the art of brewing. To deliver sake brewed with gratitude for Mother Nature’s resources, using the techniques handed down from our forefathers: this is our purpose.

Sake is intimately connected to the human emotional condition. For example, sake drunk at a wedding (joy), sake which sparks a drunken quarrel (anger), sake drunk in mourning at a funeral (sorrow), and sake shared together with family and friends (happiness). In other words, the moments where people drink sake are moments where they express themselves. We believe that sake has the power to bring people together, and we hope that our sake will continue to play a role in connecting the people who share it. Our dedication to the craft of brewing is our dedication to the bonds between the people who drink sake, and our dedication to stronger friendships and more fulfilling relationships.

Otokoyama Honten President Akihiko Sugawara

This is the vision which guides our daily operations at Otokoyama Honten. We might be a small-scale operation, but our commitment to the sake-brewing tradition is sincere. Come visit us in Kesennuma, and become a part of this tradition yourself. We hope to see you soon!

Otokoyama Honten offers tours of their brewery from Monday – Saturday, 9 am to 5 pm. If you’re interested in joining a tour, please reach out to me (nishant-kck@k-macs.ne.jp), or contact the brewery directly by email (info@kesennuma.co.jp).

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *