Location: Niigata City, Niigata and various locations on Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture
Duration of Stay: 3 days, 2 nights. March 18-20, 2012
Impressions of the Trip:
Along with about 15 others from the International Terakoya Chiiki Producer class we have been participating in for the past two months, we traveled to Niigata Prefecture`s Niigata City and Sado Island. Our goal was to experience the local color and make recommendations to Niigata`s tourism board about how to attract more tourists and impart to them a lasting impression of the area`s values and local culture. It was an evocative and action-packed few days.
Our first day in Niigata City coincided with “Sake no Jin,” the prefecture`s annual two-day sake (rice wine) festival. This year, 94 of Niigata`s 98 sake breweries participated in the festival, and over 50,000 people attended each day. Last year`s “Sake no Jin” was canceled due to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan`s Tohoku region, but this year`s festival activity was thriving and impressive. Please stay tuned to our upcoming “47 Flicks” release for a glimpse of the event, which involved unlimited sake tasting for the price of a 2,000 yen (approximately USD$23) ticket.
Prior to attending “Sake no Jin”, we heard a fascinating lecture by John Gautner, a sake expert who offered some excellent background on sake production and tips on how to enjoy and evaluate sake. We learned that Japan`s 47 prefectures are home to 1300 sake breweries. Hyogo prefecture tops the charts with 100 sake breweries and Japan`s highest sake production. While Niigata ranks second in terms of number of breweries, it ranks third after Hyogo and Kyoto in actual sake production, since many Niigata breweries are quite small. Only 1.7% of Japan’s sake is exported so few non-japanese have much experience with sake. Perhaps for this reason, we found that attending “Sake no Jin” and seeing the diversity and number of sake products on offer here was a real eye-opener.
The rice used to produce sake is two to three times more expensive than regular rice, and the price and quality of the sake is at least in part determined by how much the individual grains of rice are milled. Milling is a process that grinds down and eliminates the protein and fat-filled exterior of the grain, exposing the sugary center. One of the primary reasons Niigata is famous for sake is because Niigata’s rice is widely considered to be some of the best rice in Japan.
On our first evening in Niigata, we had the pleasure of chatting with Murahashi-san, one of Niigata`s most distinguished farmers, who, among other endeavors, has succeeded in growing organic rice. We asked Murahashi-san for his thoughts on Japan`s current deliberations over whether or not to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and he told us that he was opposed on the basis that Japan`s small farms would not be able to compete in an international free-trade arena. On the other hand, Murahashi-san pointed out that many of the challenges faced by Japanese agriculture have less to do with the possibility of trade liberalization and more to do with other political, social, and demographic challenges Japan is grappling with. While I am tempted to tease out some aspects of this discussion in greater detail here, we did not record our discussion with Murahashi-san, which was held in a very noisy room, over the last of many rounds of sake, and I don`t want to misquote or misinterpret anything that was said. Suffice to say, we concluded that Japan and the U.S. each have some very specific cultural attitudes toward farming and competition, and that compromises will have to be made on both sides, but that the TPP is perhaps a good idea over all.
We awoke early on our second day to take a morning walk around a beautiful, 4 hectare farm and wild bird reserve. Guided by Miyawa-san, a Niigata farmer, we learned about some 220 varieties of migratory birds and over 500 varieties of plant life growing in the area. Against the backdrop of Niigata`s snow-capped mountains, it was a gorgeous setting. Niigata`s name means “new lagoon”, and in fact, we walked by several lagoons, each housing its own flock of wild birds, which also flock to the rice fields nearby to eat fallen grains. In one of the photos above a rice field with a popular anime character planted into it can be seen. The birds also did some decorating, leaving impressive poop patterns all over the fresh snow.
After an inspiring, if freezing, walk, we joined Miyawa-san and a few other farmers from the area at his house for a breakfast of rice, home-grown raw eggs, pickled bitter gourd, miso soup, and soybeans. While eating, we heard a fascinating talk from a local organic tea producer about his products and tea in general. Tea is Japan`s leading organic crop, and compared to many other products in Japan, it enjoys a wide international distribution. After last year`s Fukushima reactor melt-through, farmers in several tea-producing prefectures in Japan had their products banned from sale/shipping because the tea leaves had absorbed cesium and exceeded the 500 bql radiation limit set by the Japanese government. We learned that tea leaves were given the same radiation limit as green, leafy vegetables, which some believe is unfair since an individual consumes only a small amount of tea (in grams) compared to one serving of green, leafy vegetables.
After breakfast we took a one-hour jet foil trip out to Sado Island, home to a former penal colony, gold mine, and Japan`s tradition of kodo, a taiko drumming community that spends much of the year on tour abroad doing performances and the rest immersed in intensive, austere training on the island. We had the opportunity to do a fun drumming workshop with one of the kodo players, and learned from some representatives of the kodo training facility that most of the kodo students and performers are not originally from Sado Island, but come there from other parts of Japan and, occasionally, from abroad. As with much of Japan, Sado Island is contending with an aging population. According to a tourism official, only about 10% of the Island`s youth stay after graduating from high school. Without a university or thriving industry, young people who stay on Sado do not have much in the way of employment prospects. Interestingly, since many on Sado make their livelihood through fishing or farming, there is an active bartering culture. Some residents are thus able to get by with very little money. While on Sado, we had the occasion to stop by a local sakagura, or sake brewery, where we met a 31-year old apprentice who shared his life story with us. Originally from the Tokyo area, he came to Sado after high school for two years of kodo training, after which he traveled abroad and worked odd jobs before returning to Sado to work with sake and pursue other personal projects. He mentioned that his current lifestyle in Sado is possible mainly because of the connections he made as a kodo student, and that integrating into island life is not easy for outsiders who move to Sado without any connection to the community. This seemed like a paradox: on the one hand, Sado’s future seems seriously challenged by the lack of youth there, and the likely remedy would be a desire to welcome newcomers, particularly young people bringing skills, ideas, and a drive to revitalize the area with new businesses and innovative approaches to traditional industry. However, several people suggested during our brief time in Sado that there is a fear that outsiders will lead the island away from the traditional view of how things should be. Perhaps, in some ways, the case of Sado is a reflection of some of the lingering skepticism and fear around loosening Japan’s immigration policy, even when the country’s demographic and economic challenges are undeniably serious.
Niigata was a beautiful and fascinating place, with romantic landscapes and charming old architecture. We look forward to keeping tabs on Sado’s evolving tourist industry – by visiting again, of course!
Since sake was a recurring theme on the trip, it seems appropriate to select a related term for this trip’s kanji. We learned that the traditional name for a chief sake brewer is toji, 杜氏, allegedly the name of the inventor of sake. The title of tōji was historically passed from one generation to the next, but today new tōji are either veteran brewery workers or are trained at special schools and universities.