Updated: Jun 16, 2019
A little over a month ago, I was lucky enough to be offered employment working in a sake brewery. My first thoughts on hearing the news were about how I was finally going to be doing a job that I actually had a personal interest in, and I soon began wondering if perhaps I could become one of those people who are genuinely happy in their work. However, as it often does in my case, my initial excitement and optimism soon turned to panic as the reality of the challenge ahead began to sink in. I was well warned beforehand from people who had experienced this type of work (and from those who had not) to expect a tough working environment that would put me to the test physically. Add to that the fact that my Japanese is still terrible despite going into a workplace where lots and lots of obscure vocabulary are used, and you have the mental challenge thrown in for good measure. With these anxieties rushing through my head, I set out for my first honest day’s work in a kura. Here is how it unfolded:
The people who make sake are early risers. Despite it being cold enough to keep my bedside water chilled, I’m up and scrambling for my clothes before the sun has even come up. I had expected a cold working environment, so the day before I had went and bought warm clothing in preparation. Needless to say, the 5k bike ride to the brewery was still freezing but it certainly acted as a good body warm up. As is common within Japanese companies, the first action of the day is assembly (chourei, 朝礼 ) when the master brewer (toji,杜氏) conveys the day’s plan of action. As it was my first day, I did a quick self introduction to the rest of the workers before everyone rushed to their stations.
I really didn’t know what to expect from my first day working as a complete newcomer in an environment where mistakes have the potential to be very serious. Maybe they would have me sticking labels on bottles, or moving bags of rice from one place to another? As we stood in line to wash our hands before entering the Kura, for the first of what seemed like over a hundred times that day, I was expecting the toji to take me aside and assign me such a job. However, I soon found myself standing in the midst of a flurry of activity as the workers all dashed around preparing the first job of the day of steaming rice. As I had expected, the temperature in the kura was very cold. However, seeing the massive rice steamer (koshiki, 甑) belching out steam throughout the building seemed to somehow psychologically help in warming me up. Before I knew it, I was running up and down stairs with baskets of freshly steamed rice and had forgotten all about the cold.
After a quick break, all of the staff who had been working together in perfect unison during the morning seemed to branch off into different parts of the building. To my surprise, I was told to scrub up again as me, the toji of course, and two others were heading to the room where the real magic of sake brewing happens: The koji room (koji-muro, 麹室). This was when it really started to feel surreal. I am a huge fan of sake. I have read many books on the subject, watched documentaries, sourced countless articles for my dissertation. But here I was, standing in what is effectively a sauna helping to make the next batch of what is considered the hardest stage of sake brewing.
Everything was as I had read and seen, right down to being told ”Don’t move and inch” once the spores had been scattered across the rice. My body was also put to the test by being exposed to repeated changes in temperature. Sitting in virtual silence for 5 minutes in a temperature controlled room at a balmy 35 degrees, then immediately doing the same outside in the chilly temperature of the brewery. It really was a challenge working out how much clothes to leave on. Is it better to sweet in the muro or freeze in the kura. I still haven’t figures it out!
With lunch finished, we all gathered once more outside for what felt like the shortest meeting in history. Before I even work out what was said, everyone is off again doing individual tasks. I am once more paired with the toji, this time washing the rice in preparation for the next day’s steaming. If I am completely honest, my first reaction to hearing of this task was thinking it sounded boring and insignificant. Just shows how little I knew about sake making. As it turns out, it is both critical to the outcome of the final brew and also extremely challenging work.
Luckily for my first day, it was a relatively small batch that was scheduled for steaming the following day, and the toji was not quite ready to have me playing a crucial role in the task just yet. Essentially it entails washing and soaking rice for predetermined times that are monitored down to the second. Rice that has been polished that finely absorbs water at a very fast rate. Therefore, getting the timing right is essential for getting the desired consistency. If it over or under soaks it will not be as it needs to be for both making koji and for adding to the mash.
No matter how I describe it, I will not be able to convey how much precision is needed to get it right. One mistake, and that batch of rice is basically ruined. To add a bit of pressure, on that first day we just happened to be using Yamada-Nishiki, which has a reputation as being the best rice in the business. However, I have been responsible for doing this task everyday since I started and I must admit, I now look forward to it. Working flat out without any slip ups, for sometimes up to ninety minutes without stopping, comes with it enormous satisfaction. It also certainly works the back muscles and helps you forgot about the cold.
At this point in the day, the kura had become pretty quite. There seemed to be an almost unspoken but universal agreement that the really difficult work was done for the day, and now was the time to ease into the close. With the toji busy tending to the precious job of checking temperature levels on the tanks, the rest of us handled the job of packing and fixing labels onto bottles. It was probably just as well as my body was now starting to feel pretty tired and my concentration levels had dropped.
When I think back to the morning, it seemed like days ago, yet it also didn’t feel like the day had dragged on one bit. If I could try and explain it in the simplest way, the day was like four sprints, rather than constantly rushing around. However, the variety of the jobs we had done made it seem all the more interesting. When 5:00 PM finally approached, in true Japanese style, everyone pitched in to get the place secured for the night and said their Otsukaresamas before vanishing for the day.
While cycling home for the return leg of my commute, my legs definitely felt heavier than they had in the morning. With the sun setting and the temperature dropping further, my only real thoughts were on having a hot meal and a warm bath. As I had been warned, the job was physically tough, and as I had thought, the language barrier was vast. However, the satisfaction of being involved in the making of something that I find so interesting more than made up for the fatigue and occasional frustration I had felt throughout the day. Furthermore, as I thought ahead to the challenges of the remaining weeks until the brewing season finishes, I didn’t fear them. Instead, in what was certainly a rare occasion in my working life, I actually felt a little excited about returning to work for the next day. Perhaps I will finally become one of the those people genuinely happy in their work…