The Sake of Kochi Prefecture

by Matsuzaki Haruo | photography by Brian Kowalczyk

Shukoku Tosa– “Tosa, the land of sake.” This is the marketing soundbite used by the sake industry in Kochi Prefecture, which utilizes the old name for the region, Tosa. There are many people who associate the Kochi way of life with lots of drinking, and not incorrectly. Kochi folks do in fact enjoy drinking parties, which upholds the prevailing image.

One great example of this is the Dorome-Matsuri held each year in late April, a festival that climaxes with the Taihai Nomihoshi Taikai, an event in which contestants compete to quickly chug down a large traditional vessel of sake: 1.8 liters for the men, half that for the women. Since inevitably a few people get sick, they have doctors on site ready to assist those that need it. The lucky winner of the women’s competition spends the next year traveling to various events all around the prefecture, where photos of her drinking are widely disseminated. Kochi folks are known to be open and straightforward, and that is evident in the way they promote this event.

Kochi’s sake is typically light and dry, which contrasts sharply with sake in most of the rest of western Japan. That quality, however, makes it very easy to drink cup after cup, which in part explains why many residents are such keen drinkers, even to the extent detailed above. Of course there is much more to the sake culture than this, including the fact that it is quite warm all year in Kochi. This has even earned the nickname Nangoku Kochi, or “Kochi of the South,” in reference to its temperate southern climate. Long ago the people of this area came to prefer a lighter style of sake that can be easily enjoyed at room temperature rather than needing to be warmed.

Prefectures in the northern part of Japan also make light and dry styles of sake, including Niigata and Toyama, but there is a tight and restrained quality to them as well. Kochi sake seems somehow more relaxed and unrestrained. This is not merely a function of the differences in climate between Kochi and those northern prefectures, but I also think a reflection of the big-hearted nature of Kochi’s people.

The local cuisine has also played a part in making the sake tanrei karakuchi, or “light and dry.” There is a tendency for inhabitants of coastal regions who have lots of fish-based cuisine to prefer lighter sake since it goes well with fresh fare like sashimi. This prefecture, with its long, bow-shaped coastline, is blessed with a range of fresh fish, the most well-known of which is katsuo (bonito). Other prefectures with significant coastal regions, such as Miyagi, Niigata and Shizuoka, also have similar flavor profiles to their sake.

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One more interesting point is the stark difference between the style of sake here and that of the other three prefectures on the same island of Shikoku. In particular, Kochi has a flavor profile that is almost the exact opposite of the sweet sake of Ehime, with which it shares a long border comprised of steep mountains.

The fact that the lay of the land limited both communication and overland shipping of goods from other prefectures has also had an effect in how the sake culture of Kochi developed. Very little sake from other prefectures made it into Kochi. Even today, the presence of the ocean and the mountains have dictated that the people of Kochi consume a very high ratio of locally-made sake.

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However, even here where they have long maintained such a unique style, in recent years many original strains of yeast have contributed considerable variety to the ranks of Kochi sake. These yeasts have in a sense served to improve the image of Kochi’s sake somewhat. While maintaining the light and clean flavor that has become a part of Kochi sake’s identity, the various aromas from these yeasts have given some diversity to the region’s sake.

Each yeast contributes something different. For example, A-14 leads to fresh aromatics reminiscent of apple and melon, CEL-19 contributes a full character laced with flowers and tropical fruit, and CEL-24 takes those characteristics a step further and throws in some sweetness for good measure. There is also the unique KW-77, which was created by crossbreeding sake yeast cells and wine yeast cells.

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These yeasts are collectively known as Kochi Kobo, or Kochi yeasts, and are cultivated at the Kochi Prefectural Industrial Technology Center. Most prefectures in Japan have similar research organizations whose objective is supporting local industry. Recently, they have been increasingly involved with developing sake yeasts used to win tasting contests. They also engage in providing technical support to local brewers in their endeavors to brew premium ginjo sake.

Kochi has been conducting such research since 1980 and, under the leadership of one Uehigashi Haruhiko, has developed a particularly wide range of yeasts. Furthermore, the center also conducts research into brewing with blends of these Kochi yeasts and the more traditional and commonly used sake yeast strains, proactively using them not only in contests, but also for some sake released to the market.

One particularly interesting lineup of Kochi Kobo consists of several strains of yeast that spent time in outer space aboard the Russian Soyuz space station. Each brewer in the prefecture makes sake using this yeast, selling it under the shared brand name Tosa Uchu-shu (Tosa Space Sake). This is another great example of the character of the people of Kochi prefecture, which is also reflected in an old saying of the region: O-furoshiki wo hirogeru, or “to talk of and then actually implement totally unrealistic ideas.”

Formerly, there was a guild of toji (master brewers) called the Tosa Toji, comprised of toji that were originally from nearby Hiroshima and Ehime Prefectures. However, almost all of the sake producers in Kochi use family members or year-round local employees to brew sake rather than the traditional seasonally employed toji. Just like other prefectures, as times have changed so have the people that brew sake.

Kochi Prefecture faces the Pacific Ocean. From ancient times the residents of Kochi are said to have looked out on that great body of water and thought about other lands and the future. I wonder if maybe the sake brewers of Kochi long ago similarly thought about how far their sake might go. And perhaps they came up with the gallant plan to send Kochi sake to other parts of Japan, overseas, and even to outer space.

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