Updated: Mar 29
Nothing embodies the ebb and flow of the sake industry like the history of its prominent regions. Nowadays, Nada (Hyogo) and Fushimi (Kyoto) produce the most sake by volume in Japan. Only the entire output of Niigata prefecture is worthy of a mention next to these two industry behemoths. Nada has been a leader in production since the mid-eighteenth century. The development of water-powered rice polishing machinery (suisha) and access to crucial transportation routes ensured its rise. Fushimi followed during the Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1912 CE) when brewers there stole a march on the competition by utilizing scientific and technological advancements that arrived from overseas. A look further back in history, however, reveals that these were not the first prominent brewing regions in Japan.
For much of Japan’s medieval period (1185 to 1603 CE), Nara and Kyoto were the front-runners in sake brewing. Most of what was brewed in these two former capitals came from either sakaya (a place that both sold and brewed sake) or from powerful Buddhist temples. Sakaya were mostly located in what is now the center of Kyoto City, distinguishing this phase from later developments in Fushimi, and mainly produced low-quality sake catering to the masses. Conversely, Buddhist temples benefited from superior brewing technology imported from China and produced sake of excellent quality.
The fortunes of both would significantly decline by the end of the sixteenth century. Although exploitative moneylending by sakaya would result in several incidents of looting and vandalism from disgruntled peasants, their demise came inadvertently from the devastation Kyoto suffered during Japan’s tumultuous Sengoku period (the age of the country at war, approx. 1467 to 1568 CE). Buddhist sects, on the other hand, had frequently meddled in politics throughout history, and often maintained their own armies. Consequently, they posed enough of a threat to the ambitions of regional warlords that they were often directly involved in the conflicts. When the fighting finally stopped, many were left destitute or destroyed. The later Tokugawa shoguns (1603 to 1868 CE), whose ancestors had witnessed the troubles with Buddhist sects in the past, stripped them of the right to commercial activities such as sake brewing and ensured they never regained their former power and wealth.
The void left by the collapse of temple brewing was filled by a more mercantile class based mainly in Settsu (former province covering parts of modern-day Osaka and Hyogo). Brewing was now regulated by the shogunate which strictly controlled several aspects of the industry such as who was allowed to brew, when and where it could take place, and the distribution and allocation of rice. Those with permission became members of the sakekabu (brewers certified by the shogun) and were able to apply the techniques developed previously in temples in Nara and Kyoto to large-scale brewing without the hindrance of constant war.
Perhaps the most significant of these regulations was the 1657 prohibition of year-round brewing, giving rise to kanzukure, or winter brewing. This led to the system of seasonal workers, or kurabito, led by a toji (head brewer), who would leave their hometown in late autumn to brew sake during the winter. Beginning in the village of Konoike (modern-day Itami), this style of sake soon became popular with consumers in Edo (modern-day Tokyo). This success later spread to surrounding areas, and by the early-eighteenth century a group of twelve regions, or villages, had formed that shipped highly prized sake to Edo. Commonly known as the sessen junigo (The twelve villages of Settsu and Izumi), the group comprised of eleven villages from the former and one from the latter.
By the end of the Edo period, however, all but one of these regions would be a shadow of their former glory. Their decline provides evidence of the fleeting fortunes of sake brewers during this time of rapid development. The village of Ikeda, located in what is now modern-day northern Osaka, is a particularly good example of this. It’s the story of the rise and fall of one of Japan’s most prominent brewing regions, and one that nowadays is sadly almost completely forgotten.
The history of sake brewing in Ikeda is thought to begin when the Manganji-ya sakaya from a nearby village relocated to Ikeda sometime between 1467 and 1469. This was during the outbreak of the Onin War (1467 to 1477 CE), a conflict that marks the beginning of the Sengoku period, a civil war lasting over two-hundred years. Consequently, castle towns were developed throughout Japan of which Ikeda was just one of many near the capital Kyoto. Its strategic location intersecting several highways ensured its growth, and it also served as a distribution point for goods conducive to sake brewing such as rice and other grains, wood, and charcoal. As the Tokugawa shogunate would later introduce regulations restricting sake brewing to castle towns, post towns on Japan’s major highways, and a few other specially designated areas, regions like Ikeda enjoyed a considerable advantage during the subsequent peace of the early Edo period.
Geographical features also helped with the development of its sake industry. The Inagawa (Ina River) provided both Ikeda and nearby Itami with good water suitable for brewing. It is said that the water’s quality made it possible to brew a drier style of sake, unlike that typical of Kyoto and Nara that tended to be sweet. As sake historian Yoshida Hajime has noted, sake from Ikeda was off-dry, although not as dry as that from neighbouring Itami. As the people of Edo developed new tastes during peacetime, with a move away from sweeter sake, Ikeda’s was a good match for the shiokarai (a Japanese term meaning salty) foods favoured by its residents. Fortuitously for brewers in both regions, the population of Edo swelled to between 600,000 to 700,000 during this time, providing a vast market in which to sell their wares.
Nowadays, much emphasis is placed on the presence of good water in the early development of prominent brewing regions, and rightly so. However, as is the case in today’s sake industry, a region’s success doesn’t depend solely on geography. During the Edo period, politics played an equally important role, and Manganji-ya is said to have risen to fame not only for the quality of its sake but by the political ability of its owner. During the Seige of Osaka (1614 to 1615 CE), a series of battles that finally consolidated Tokugawa hegemony, Manganji Kurouemon is said to have offered funds and provisions to the Tokugawa troops. Crucially, this included sake. In return, Tokugawa Ieyasu bestowed him with the shogunate’s official Red-Seal allowing him to trade freely in Edo and raising the profile of his home region. Unsurprisingly, Ikeda’s golden era followed soon after.
The peace and prosperity of the Genroku period (1688 to 1704 CE) led to a flourishing of consumerism in Edo. Sake branding became a crucial part of the industry, and those from Settsu enjoyed the highest reputation. Aside from Manganji-ya, whose sake was known colloquially as o-tera (temple), other famous Ikeda brands included Yamatoya, Kikuya, Shimizuya and Kagiya. According to existing records, Ikeda sake reached its peak in 1702 producing 11,233 koku (one koku is equivalent to 180 litres). This accounted for roughly 9% of all sake sent from the Kamigata region (modern-day area of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe), collectively known as kudari-zake. If accurate, these figures suggest that Ikeda was one of the largest sake producing regions in the vicinity of Kyoto during this time.
This success, however, was short-lived, and by the end of the Genroku period the rapid pace of development geared toward servicing Edo’s market, once so lucrative for its brewers, now contributed to their sharp decline. Shipping sake during the Edo period was a formidable task and initially relied upon a type of sailing vessel called a higaki-kaisen. As these left from a port in Osaka carrying several other goods, sake first had to be carted across land to a network of rivers before being loaded onto smaller vessels. Upon arrival in Osaka, it then had to be reloaded onto its final vessel bound for Edo. The cost of this frequent loading and unloading added considerable time and expense to the operation putting regions located inland, such as Ikeda and Itami, at a considerable disadvantage.
Unsurprisingly, brewers soon realised that simply relocating closer to the coast would significantly improve logistics. With its proximity to Osaka, Nada provided the ideal location, and many brewers made the move. Nowadays, we think of famous national brands such as Kenbishi and Sakura-Masamune as distinctly products of Nada. However, both trace their roots to Itami and relocated only after it became clear that the halcyon days enjoyed by inland regions in Settsu had passed. Existing records from 1785 reveal the scale of Ikeda’s decline, with more than double the number of casks shipped to Edo from Imazu (one of Nada’s five Villages) during the same period. Nishinomiya, now part of Nada’s five villages, but at the time an independent brewing region, boasted its own port and shipped over four times as many.
With Nada’s place assured as Japan’s most prominent brewing region, Ikeda gradually faded into history. Nowadays, there is only one remaining active brewery in Ikeda, and the story of this once mighty region has been reduced to a mere footnote within the history of Nada and Itami. Although it never reached the heights of its more famous neighbours, it was nonetheless a significant part of the kudari-zake boom during the heady years of the Genroku era. Its legacy survives today through Goshun, a brand that, although not known nationally, is still widely appreciated by sake drinkers within the Kansai region. Let’s hope this sole survivor from one of Japan’s former prominent brewing regions can continue to remind sake drinkers of this former glory.
If you enjoyed this blog, please consider making a small donation via the link below. Just a small contribution is greatly appreciated and really helps me create more content in the future.