This Week in Hitoyoshi – 7 March 2023

Mac here! This week, my travel consulting work took me to Hitoyoshi in Kyushu where I trialled some tours to help promote GI-protected Kuma Shochu!

Shochu is Japan’s indigenous spirit. One of the things that makes it unique is that it can be made from 53 ingredients or ingredient families. One of these is rice… as you would imagine!

Hitoyoshi City, the southernmost area of Kumamoto Prefecture, is located deep in a valley surrounded by mountains. The Kuma River, one of the three fastest-flowing rivers in Japan, brings with it fresh water from these peaks. The harsh climate, large temperature differentials, and rugged terrain of the valley has resulted in very fertile soil, allowing Hitoyoshi Kuma to become Kumamoto’s leading area for rice farming. It is from the rice produced in this area that Kuma Shochu was born.

There are 27 distilleries in the Kuma region, and together they produce over 200 brands of shochu. All share a mellow aroma and deep, rich flavour.

In 1995, Japan’s National Tax Agency officially designated the Kuma Shochu certification, which is only one of four approved shochu brands with Geographical Indication (GI).

During my time in Hitoyoshi, I visited four distilleries, each with their own unique heritage.

Ever since my experience making sake, I’ve been itching for the chance to get involved in the shochu-making process. My dream came true at Nasu Distillery (featured image), where I was able to take part in the stages of shochu production that occur immediately after rice steaming – namely, shovelling the rice out of the steamer, letting it cool, then transporting it to fermentation area, and making sure it is thoroughly mixed in with the existing mash.

I was also more than happy to give the team at Jufuku Distillery a hand, not that they need it! Their small-batch shochu is devastatingly good.

The Hayashi Distillery was founded in the middle of the Edo period and the current head is the 14th generation, who is currently in charge of the distillery. This is their traditional ageing room, full of kame clay pots. The porous and mineral-rich material of the traditional unglazed earthenware pots creates a unique flavour in shochu.

Junko Tsutsumi represents four generations of shochu making at Sengetsu Shuzo, which was founded in 1903. After a career in advertising and a return to the distillery during their 100th anniversary in 2003, she took over as President in 2016.

I was honoured that Junko herself guided us around Sengetsu. The work she does to promote Kuma Shochu and support her local community is inspirational.

Hina Matsuri, also known as the Doll’s Festival or Girls’ Day, is a traditional Japanese festival celebrated annually on 3 March. The festival is dedicated to the well-being and happiness of young girls in Japan. During this festival, families display a set of ornamental dolls dressed in traditional Heian-era court costumes, representing the Emperor, Empress, and their attendants. The festival also features special food and drinks, such as mochi and sake, and activities like singing and dancing.

Here’s a special Hina Matsuri display I spotted at Sengetsu. It’s made of bottles from their regular lineup, all hand painted. Spectacular stuff!

A goshuincho (御朱印帳) is a traditional concertina notebook used to collect stamps and calligraphy, called goshuin (御朱印), from temples, shrines, and other religious sites. Goshuin typically feature the name of the temple or shrine, the date of the visit, and sometimes other information, such as the name of the deity.

Collecting goshuin stamps has been a popular tradition in Japan for centuries and has undergone a revival recently. It is considered a way to support the upkeep of the temples and shrines visited.

Here’s a fun twist on that concept – a kuraincho! In this case kura refers to the distilleries. Here’s the stamp I collected at Sengetsu.

A large ARIGATO and KANPAI to all the master distillers, kurabito and all involved in promoting the Hitoyoshi region for their hospitality.

Want to learn more about Shochu? Watch this video on the Kanpai Planet YouTube channel!

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