Sake Brewery Returns to Disaster-hit Namie as Town Revives

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Suzuki Shuzoten President Daisuke Suzuki polishes rice Monday to prepare for the opening of his brewery next month at Michi-no-Eki Namie in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture.

NAMIE, Fukushima — Sake brewing in the disaster-hit town of Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, resumed Monday for the first time in 10 years since residents were forced to evacuate because of the 2011 nuclear accident.

Namie brewery Suzuki Shuzoten found shelter in the city of Nagai, Yamagata Prefecture, and has been brewing sake there ever since. But it has also been preparing to once again produce sake entirely in Namie using the town’s rice and water.

“I want to cheer Namie people up and give something back to my hometown,” the brewery’s president and master brewer Daisuke Suzuki, 47, said as he polished sake rice with a machine.

Suzuki Shuzoten was established in the Ukedo district of the port town in the late Edo period (1603-1868). Its signature brand Iwaki Kotobuki is popular as a sake to celebrate a good catch.

On March 11, 2011, tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake devastated the district. Suzuki lost his house and his 170-year-old brewery. On top of that, an evacuation order was issued as the district was affected by the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, seven kilometers south.

While evacuating to Yamagata Prefecture, townspeople huddled against each other in a chilly gymnasium in Kawamata, Fukushima Prefecture. One of them told Suzuki, “Please brew your sake again one day.”

Suzuki couldn’t say “I can’t,” even though there was neither a brewery nor the yeast that played a decisive role in the taste.

The following month, however, Suzuki received a call from the prefecture’s research facility saying that it had some of the yeast that had been kept for testing.

“I wanted to resume brewing as soon as possible and use it as a foothold for my return,” Suzuki recalled thinking.

He bought a brewery that was about to close down in Nagai, which is located 110 kilometers from Namie, and resumed brewing eight months after the disaster.

Suzuki tried to re-create the taste of the sake he made in Namie in the snowy city of Nagai, where the water and climate are different. In an effort to improve his skills, he interacted with young sake brewers in Yamagata Prefecture and introduced snow chambers for storage. When an evacuation order was lifted for some areas including the Ukedo district in 2017, Suzuki brought Namie’s rice and water to Nagai and brewed a new sake brand named Landmark.

Last year, Suzuki applied when Namie issued a callout for a brewery operator at a Michi-no-Eki roadside rest area to be constructed under a town project. Suzuki decided to resume brewing in his hometown while also making sake in Nagai.

The roadside rest area, which will open in full on March 20, will have a workshop facility where visitors can try their hand at making the town’s traditional Obori Soma ware, the history of which goes back to the Edo period. Suzuki dreams of visitors enjoying his Iwaki Kotobuki in Obori Soma sake cups along with fish caught at Ukedo fishing port for a snack.

There was another reason why Suzuki decided to return to his hometown. He wants to show Namie people who remain evacuated how the town is being invigorated. Many Namie people have decided not to return because they’ve been away so long.

“People living away from Namie will be rewarded a little by seeing their hometown being restored,” Suzuki said.