In a corner of Gekkeikan's original site, on the other side of the courtyard from the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, is the Uchigura Sake Brewery (Motozaimoku-cho, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto; built 1906). The name of this brewery stems from the fact that it was the internal brewery or uchigura adjacent to the main residence of the Okura family, the founders of Gekkeikan. The view of the Uchigura from the banks of the Horikawa River is considered one of the best at showing Fushimi's heritage as a sake town.
In the Sakekobo Mini-Brewery inside, we produce Daiginjo-grade sake using historical tools and materials such as the koshiki for steaming rice and the koji-buta box. Mototsune Aikawa, who is working with this brewery, has many years of experience making sake under a Tajima chief brewer. Aikawa uses the wealth of experience and scientific principles he learned there to become certified by the Tajima Master Brewers Cooperative (formed from brewers from areas like Mikata County in the north of Hyogo Prefecture) as a chief brewer in 2013 while still a staff sake production technician, and is passing on his skills to others. At the 70th Tajima In-House Brew Research Society meeting in April 2015, he was awarded the Hyogo Prefectural Governor's Award, the highest award in the Junmaishu category. And at the Japan Sake Awards, the only contest where new sake competes for quality nationwide, he was awarded the Gold Medal, only given to the very best of the best.
The most important person in making sake is called the toji (chief brewer). The toji and the other skilled brewers (kurabito) who make sake come to the brewery from late autumn to early spring, leaving their farming, mountain, or fishing villages over the period when farming and fishing is in abeyance, and work to brew sake over the winter. Toji come from all over the country, and bring slightly different brewing techniques from each region. Through the passing on of skills, and the gradual accumulation of experience and instinct, numerous different winter-brewing techniques have become formalized as schools.
Toji and kurabito, whose homes are in rural villages, are professionals when it comes to raising and harvesting crops, or when it comes to spotting the best fishing grounds. It's clear from watching them at work that they are using these powers of observation and this tenacity to manipulate microorganisms in the best way to create sake. With the modernization of sake brewing, machines and systems may be updated, but sake is still created through the work of microorganisms like koji mold and yeast fermenting starch. Even today's sake-brewing technicians need to have, in addition to the latest knowledge and technical skills, the observational skills and tenacity to grow microorganisms.
During the Economic Miracle of the last half of 1950s and the first half of ‘60s, Japan became filled with company offices and factories. The children of the toji and kurabito are now spending the entire year working at local companies, or moving to the big cities to work. This means that there are fewer and fewer people to take over as toji each year, and the toji themselves are getting older and older.
Aware of this situation, back in 1961, Gekkeikan started an all-season brewing system by hiring workers annually, one of the first in the industry to do so. Since then, we have operated an all-season sake plant by staff workers, and a winter-brewed sake brewery by our chief brewers.
Until 1996, we had chief brewers from up to six schools at Gekkeikan, representing the Sannai (Akita), Nambu (Iwate), Echizen (Fukui), Tamba (Hyogo), Tajima (Hyogo), and Hiroshima schools. Staff brewery workers would compete with the toji to improve their skills. Now, more than half a century after we started all-season sake brewing, we have trained many workers whose skills are the equal of any toji, and who have gone on to run their own breweries, including winter breweries. These breweries have also won numerous prizes and awards at the Japan Sake Awards, demonstrating that they can regularly produce high quality sake.
In the sake industry, it is increasingly common for children at a brewery to join the brewery after studying agriculture or brewing at high school or university, then gradually increasing their experience before working as toji or kurabito themselves.
In modern sake-making, it's not enough to master the basic processes of washing and steaming rice, creating the koji malt, and preparation work: brewers need to be able to use advanced brewing machinery as well. In addition, operating a sake brewery requires adjusting the temperature, humidity, wind amount, and many other factors to ensure that the microorganisms do their work properly. This means that there are people in charge of seeing that mechanical equipment gets planned and developed, and that utilities are prepared and managed. In addition, there are also workers who deal with a range of tasks, such as production management, quality control, chemical analysis and microbial inspections of sake quality, adding water to balance quality, and many others. All these people work together to brew and supply the best sake we can.