The drive from central Iwate Prefecture to the coast is quite pleasant. Most of the roads snake through idyllic towns and beautiful snow covered mountains, imparting a peaceful serenity that is quintessential Tohoku. As the coastline approaches, a darker reality sets in. In Kesennuma, the first major town when you reach the Pacific, there is still evidence of what transpired here five years ago. An abandoned building here, an empty lot there, but by and large life here has returned to normal. The road turns north up the coast, along cliffs and overlooks reminiscent of Northern California. Before too long, the road winds down into Rikuzentakata and the true magnitude of what happened is apparent. A vibrant and picturesque Tohoku fishing town was reduced to nothing. Other than a new hotel and a handful of construction machines and outposts, there is little here but dirt.

The Great Tohoku Earthquake of 2011 and its subsequent tsunami left a lasting mark on much of the Tohoku region. Many coastal towns in Tohoku suffered heavy damage and tragic loss, but perhaps none more so than Rikuzentakata. Nearly ten percent of its roughly 20,000 residents were killed when the tsunami, estimated at a maximum of eighteen meters high, surged inland. Most of those who were fortunate enough to survive lost everything. Their homes, possessions, friends and family were gone in a matter of minutes.

Also lost to the tsunami was Suisen Shuzo, a famous local sake brewery. Not only was Suisen one of the largest employers in town, but also an enormous source of local pride. As Rikuzentakata’s only commercial sake brewery, Suisen was known throughout Iwate, the greater Tohoku region and among Japan’s sake aficionados as makers of delicious and comforting sake. When the tsunami barreled through town and destroyed Suisen’s brewery, killing seven people inside, it also struck at the heart and soul of Rikuzentakata. “Suisen was kind of a soul drink in the area for a long time and people have grown with Suisen,” explains Wada Hiroyuki, Sales Director for Suisen.

On a personal note, I recall many things from March 11th, 2011 and the days that followed. Being in the US, I was restricted to mainstream coverage as well as any articles and information that I could find online. One of the most memorable pieces I came across was about the president of Suisen, standing next to the rubble of his beloved brewery, defiantly vowing to rebuild. The strength and courage of this man, only a week after losing everything, was inspirational. Never did I think that nearly five years later I would be standing in almost the same spot.

The process of rebuilding Suisen was not easy. In order for them to quickly get back on their feet, a rival brewery, Iwate Meijo, extended their hand and offered Suisen use of their facility to brew their sake. Meanwhile, construction began on a new brewery, about fifteen kilometers up the coast from Rikuzentakata in the town of Ofunato. In August of 2012, less than eighteen months after the disaster, the new Suisen Shuzo opened.

Back in Rikuzentakata, the arduous and emotionally draining task of clearing the rubble was far more difficult, taking nearly three years. Nearly every building in town was at least partially damaged and the loss of city services and utilities meant that the entire town needed to be cleared. What followed was one of the largest public works projects in all of Japan and it is still going on to this day. As you drive into town from the south, you pass underneath a towering bridge, appropriately named The Bridge of Hope, which is part of a three-kilometer long conveyor belt, transporting tons of dirt and rocks carved from a nearby mountain. The goal is to not only build a new protective seawall, but to also raise large portions of Rikuzentakata by as much as 10 meters, partially mitigating the effects of a future tsunami.

For now, in what was once the center of a bustling and vibrant town is only empty space. At night it is quite eerie as the pitch black, deafening silence and memories of what happened create an uneasy feeling. This is, however, only temporary as the rebuilding of Rikuzentakata kicks into a higher gear. Will the displaced citizens return? For some, the answer is no. The memories are far too painful and vivid to return home. There are those who even feel that the massive project to transport soil and raise the town is far too costly and the region is better served by simply cutting their losses and letting go of the dream to rebuild. This is not an opinion shared by most people in the region and certainly not one held by Suisen. “The people of Rikuzentakata wanted Suisen to recover quickly and they wanted to return to the same way of life before the tsunami,” Wada comments. While nothing would ever bring life back to exactly how it was before the disaster, Suisen felt the weight of the region on their shoulders and vowed to come back stronger than ever.

Rebuilding, reviving and rising up from the rubble is such an important goal for Suisen that they created a logo that is emblazoned on the jumpsuits worn by brewery workers as well as several of their sake labels. The logo reads, “Rise up, Kesen! We are in this Together, TOHOKU!” Kesen being the the coastal area of Iwate. Rather than allow such a terrible disaster to defeat them, Suisen chose to lead the rally cry to lift everyone up.

As I delve deeper into the heart of the brewery, the local pride becomes even clearer. All of the sake produced by Suisen is made with rice types specific to Iwate and purchased from local farmers. Throughout much of Japan, sake brewers will purchase rice from other areas depending on the style of sake that they are trying to produce. To Suisen, such a practice is unthinkable. Their sake represents the spirit and hope of the region, so it must be Iwate through and through. One such local rice type, called Gin Ginga, is used in Suisen’s ginjo sake and produces exceptional flavor. The sake overall are quite drinkable and very typical of Iwate, where the influence of the Nanbu Toji guild is strong. Light, clean, airy and very well structured with a slight sweetness is a common thread among most of their brews.

While the sake is quite pleasant to drink on its own, a clearer picture emerges when the sake is enjoyed with the local fare. Before the disaster, Rikuzentakata and the surrounding area was well known for its abundant seafood, most notably shellfish. The famous oyster farms of coastal Iwate were heavily damaged and needed to be rebuilt. Much like Suisen, the local fishing industry has come back and the region is once again home to some of the best seafood in the world. The plump, juicy oysters, fresh scallops, shrimp and other delicious sea creatures are a perfect match for the elegant, yet sturdy sake from Suisen. It is in these moments, experiencing the synergy of local sake and food, that it all makes sense. There is no way that they will fail.

Building a new brewery and resuming production of the region’s “soul drink” is only part of the struggle. The existential threat of declining sake consumption in Japan that worries many in the industry has affected Suisen, too. It is critical for many breweries to seek out opportunities to export their sake to foreign markets. Luckily, through a mutual connection, Suisen was introduced to SakéOne, the Oregon-based sake maker and importer of some of Japan’s best sake. The idea they came up with was to produce a sake, available only to the US market, that would share not only their delicious brew, but also their story of hope and rebirth. The sake, appropriately named KIBO, which means “hope,” was packaged in single-serving cans and tells the story of their struggle. After first launching in California in late 2014, KIBO has seen steady growth as it has spread across the US. The intrigue and “cool” factor of drinking sake from a can, which has become quite popular in Japan, is beginning to catch on in the US. Furthermore, most US consumers have had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to helping a brewery and region that has undergone such hardship get back on their feet.

This past March, the owners of Umami Mart, a well-known Japanese sake and kitchenware shop in Oakland, CA, organized a benefit that raised nearly $10,000 for various charities in Tohoku. The event, Tohoku Springs Back, prominently featured KIBO as the sake of the evening, pairing it beautifully with regional foods prepared by a Tohoku native. Umami Mart co-owner Yoko Kumano commented, “After five years, people over here forget and it was good to take a moment and open up that conversation again. To think about what happened over there and support the region any way we can was very important to us.” When asked about the message that Suisen’s rebirth carries, she added, “When people rebuild and are coming up with new ideas of how to spread their message of hope, it has a domino effect. There is a lot of energy coming from over there and as a retailer in the US, we are happy to support their efforts and promote it to our sake loving customers.”

Also in March, at a memorial event in New York City commemorating the fifth anniversary of the disaster, one of the guest speakers was Konno Tsurane, President of Suisen. His message was two-fold. First, do not forget the disaster since it can happen to anyone at any time. Life is precious and we should be thankful for every day we have. Second, he invited people to come to Rikuzentakata to see what hope looks like. Drink their sake, eat their delicious food, talk to the people and gain a deeper appreciation for what makes them so special. Witness their strength and resiliency firsthand. It will be overwhelming, inspiring, sad and, at times, difficult to comprehend, but there is no doubt that you will understand the meaning of hope.

by Jesse Pugach

This article appeared in Sake Today 9. You can order a copy here.