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History of Gekkeikan Sake - from Kyoto to America

Okura Sake Research Laboratory. (Photo provided by Gekkeikan)

“During the New Year holiday season, Maneki and Nikko Low served Sake and relish free of charge to all who stopped by. They decorated the table with a large one-foot carp especially shipped from Japan, salted and broiled, along with the specially cooked traditional Japanese New Year dishes and Chinese dishes. This made one forget he was abroad. Paying tips to the maids, we had them play the shamisen and sing Okesa bushi or other popular songs. Such was the jolly New Years Party scene at restaurants in which ‘real’ Japan was vividly alive.”

— Ito Kazuo Issei: a History of Japanese Immigrants in North America,
p. 829

This is a scene of Seattle’s Japantown in the roaring 1920’s. For the hardworking Issei far from home, the sake at New Year’s must have tasted especially delicious. The export of Japanese sake to the US coincides with the history of Japanese immigration to the United States. We would like to follow the relationship of Japanese Americans and Japanese sake by tracing the history of Gekkeikan Sake. Interestingly, as one of the largest sake brewers, it began exports to Honolulu in 1902, when Hokubei Jiji published its first newspaper.

The Sake of Fushimi, Kyoto

There are several views on the origin of Japanese sake, but it is generally said sake history goes back to when rice crops started in Japan around the 10th Century BC. In a description of ancient Japan’s geography called Harimano Kuni Fudoki put together around the year 715, we find descriptions such as “Offerings for the gods got mold,” so “we brewed sake.” The ancient Japanese nation that was formed by the Imperial Family in the 7th century had a government office responsible for sake brewing called “Sake No Tsukasa.” As it took on a deep relationship with Japan’s government and religion, sake brewing techniques advanced.

By the time Japan turned into a samurai-led feudal state through the 12th Century, Sakaya (sake brewing businesses) appeared all over the country. Sake brewing businesses flourished especially in the Kyoto area because the Imperial Court officially allowed them by collecting taxes on the sales, while the Samurai government in the east banned the sake business. A list from 1425 in Kyoto shows there were 342 Sakaya operating in the city.

Gekkeikan Sake is based in Fushimi, a few kilometers south of the Kyoto city center. Sake brewing began here long ago because of the good water source and the proximity to downtown Kyoto. Fushimi grew into a large castle town when Hideyoshi Toyotomi built Fushimi Castle in 1592, and Fushimi’s sake businesses flourished. The castle was deserted when the Edo Era started in 1603, but in time Fushimi turned into a busy post town because of the well-developed waterways. The town’s brewing businesses continued to develop and the name of Fushimi became known nationally as a sake brand.

Gekkeikan’s predecessor, Kasagiya, was created in 1637 as Fushimi rose in prominence. The founder, Jiemon Okura (1615-1684), derived the name from his home village Kasagi, which is located at the southernmost tip of the current Kyoto Prefecture and close to Nara. Jiemon’s father was said to be an active farmer and merchant who also managed a sake business. That family business enabled Jiemon to establish himself in Fushimi. According to Gekkeikan’s company history book, Jiemon’s father was of the 41st generation of the Okura family. From the number, we can imagine how long the family has been dedicated to rice farming and sake brewing in the area.

Despite the success in the early part of the Edo Era, Fushimi’s sake industry declined during the era. The Edo shogunate continued to develop land and water transportation systems across the country, which set off competition between different sake regions like Nada Sake in Kobe. Fushimi, with no access to the ocean, was at a disadvantage.

During the Meiji Revolution, the town of Fushimi became the stage of battles between the Edo shogunate and the new rising power. In the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, the largest battle in 1868 which practically destroyed the Edo shogunate and gave birth to the Meiji government, most of the town of Fushimi was burnt to the ground. It was extremely difficult making a go in the sake industry. Of the 83 Sakaya in Fushimi listed at the beginning of the Edo Era, only two were still in business in the Meiji Era. One of those was Kasagiya.

The Gekkeikan Sake Brewery (circa 1909) as viewed from the Hori River canal, which flows through Fushimi. The view of the brewery from Hori River today has barely changed. The landscape of the sake town Fushimi is a symbolic favorite. (Photo provided by Gekkeikan)  


Japanese sake crosses the ocean in the Meiji Era

The Meiji Restoration unveiled a modern Japan. Kasagiya had survived the challenges of the past and began to ride the wave of the new era, making great leaps of progress. In 1886, the 13-year-old Tsunekichi Okura, the 11th generation owner of Kasagiya, began a series of innovations in sake brewing and selling. Fushimi sake began to sell across Japan, and then to the rest of the world.

In 1886, the 13-year-old Tsunekichi Okura was the head of the family and the 11th generation owner of Kasagiya. He founded the Okura Sake Research Laboratory and led Gekkeikan’s leap forward in the Meiji Era. In later years, he poured his energy serving for his local community such as assisting hospitals and fire departments. During WWII, he ceded his position as company president to Haruichi Okura, the 12th-generation head. Tsunekichi died in 1950 at the age of 76. (Photo provided by Gekkeikan)

In 1889, the railroad connecting Kobe and Tokyo was completed. Kasagiya immediately anticipated the advantage in marketing to Tokyo, and by the next year, it had begun wholesaling and trading in Tokyo. Tsunekichi realized the importance of accounting when expanding the organization, so he learned Western-style bookkeeping from a local insurance agent and applied it to his business in 1896. At that time, many of family businesses were still using the traditional bookkeeping system from the Edo Era.

A Gekkeikan storefront poster from 1934. (Photo provided by Gekkeikan)

In 1905, with the hope of establishing a high-quality sake, Tsunekichi trademarked the name “Gekkeikan,” meaning laurel crown in Japanese. The new name translated from the Western language sounded modern and stylish back in those days. Through newspaper ads, store posters, and other novel techniques, the Gekkeikan brand began to expand across the country.

As it spread across the nation, the company also started exporting its product to Hawaii in 1902, where more than 60,000 Japanese immigrants resided at the time. Exports to California started in 1906. While all these young Issei set off across the ocean to explore new opportunities, the young head of the Okura family was sending his generations-old sake across the ocean to join them.

What especially stands out about Tsunekichi’s young leadership is his formation of the Okura Sake Research Laboratory in 1909. Most sake brewers of that time relied completely on the skills and experiences of brewmasters for sake production. Tsunekichi decided to research sake brewing techniques from a scientific perspective and modernize his sake production. Hide Hamazaki, a Tokyo University engineer, and other scientist joined the research. They began manufacturing sake in bottles at a time when sake barrels still signified the height of prosperity. That same research lab discovered a way to bottle sake without adding preservatives like salicylic acid.

In 1911, the company led the industry in selling preservative-free bottles of sake1. It won awards at trade fairs and established Gekkeikan as a premium sake brewer. At the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair, Gekkeikan’s sake won the “Prize of Honor.” Gekkeikan’s sales steadily rose from the Taisho to the Showa eras, and it produced a pre-WWII record amount of about 11.3 million liters of sake in 1939. Gekkeikan’s brown sake bottles were probably lined up at the ever-popular Maneki restaurant for New Year’s festivities in Seattle’s Japantown.

A small sake glass doubles as the lid of the bottle. This was another invention of Tsunekichi, collaborating with Sozan Sawada, a famous designer who studied and researched crafts design at Columbia University. This product pushed Gekkeikan’s sales at railroad station yards. The sake was well-paired with station bento lunches. (Photo provided by Gekkeikan)


Calrose and Japanese sake

After World War II, Gekkeikan restarted with exports to Hawaii via the M. Otani firm in 1949. In 1961, the company expanded sales to Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Guam. After that, you probably know how sake became popular in America and other parts of the world together with the Japanese cuisine boom.

Today’s Gekkeikan Sake (USA), Inc., was established in 1989 in Folsom, California, a suburb of Sacramento. The following year, it became the North American base for sake brewing. Folsom’s brewing uses Calrose – a type of rice crop that Japanese immigrants brought from Japan to California and refined over time to suit the local climate.

Gekkeikan Traditional is the American-made sake that combines Gekkeikan’s centuries-old techniques with the Calrose rice created by Japanese immigrant farmers. It is widely available at stores in the US. (Photo provided by Gekkeikan)

Gekkeikan produces its brand Gekkeikan Traditional in Folsom and the brand is sold worldwide. The brand would not exist without the efforts and wisdom of the Japanese immigrant farmers who made Calrose. In fact, Calrose rice is similar to Yamada Nishiki rice, which is considered the best kind of rice to brew top-quality sake. Both Calrose and Yamada Nishiki were made out of the parent type called Tankan Watari Bune, which was originally made by farmers in Shiga prefecture. The sake made from Tankan Watari Bune is recently getting popular in Japan.

When you enjoy some sake with friends and family in the New Year, please give some thought to the passion, wisdom, and efforts of the pioneers through the ages who helped make sake what it is today.

Note:

1. The sake industry (the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association) banned use of salicylic acid in 1969.


References:  
Gekkeikan Sake Company, Ltd. website  
Sake Service Institute (SSI) portal website  
Fushimi Sake Brewers Association website


* Photos and information provided by Gekkeikan Sake Company, Ltd. and Gekkeikan Sake (USA), Inc.

 

**This article was originally written for The North American Post’s 2019 New Year’s edition.

 

© 2019 The North American Post

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