Shirakami Life: Creating Akita fans through sake and storytelling

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Shirakami Life: Creating Akita fans through sake and storytelling

Akita prefecture, with its sprawling rice fields and untainted water, is known across Japan for producing delicious sake. And in Noshiro city, there’s arguably no one that knows more about the tastes and stories of Akita’s sake than Tenyo sake shop owner Asano Sadahiro.

Spring has come early in Akita prefecture, and in Noshiro city, cherry blossoms are beginning to bloom but there’s still a chill in the air. On the corner of the main road stands an indigo-painted building. The store name written in Japanese characters juxtaposed with English and automatic doors makes the building look both old and new. 

The store is called Tenyo, and it is one of the oldest liquor stores in Noshiro, not to mention, one of the most popular. A family-run business, its history dates back to 1917 when the Asano family was granted permission to sell sake from the toji (brewing master) of a nearby sake brewery. 

Tenyo’s hip storefront stands out on the main road.

For a long time, Tenyo sold all kinds of alcohol products. However, the expansion of big chain liquor stores and convenience stores in northern Akita began to threaten its existence with lower prices and larger selections. So, in 1997 Tenyo owner Asano Sadahiro decided to start carrying only local sake — a decision that was aided in part by the growing demand for local sake by workers that had come from all across Japan to work on the construction of a new thermal energy plant in Noshiro. These workers were spending money on sake that couldn’t be found on the shelves of Tokyo department stores or national supermarket chains.

With his growing clientele, Asano built rapport, sending out monthly newsletters that featured limited edition sake and even taking customers to tour local breweries if he had a little extra time. At one point, he was hand-addressing 300 newsletters to be sent all over Japan. Today, sake connoisseurs will go to Tenyo specifically to talk with Asano, and his store has been featured in national and regional magazines (including in this article). Through sake, Asano wants to create more Akita fans.

Asano standing next to the fridge of Akita Shirakami area sake.

For Asano, storytelling plays an important role in selling sake. “Telling people about the various sake breweries is one of my jobs.”

What makes Tenyo special is Asano’s knowledge of the sake breweries. With a commitment to working with sake breweries with which his values and visions align, he often refrains from working with large sake breweries, instead opting for small operations that prioritize the quality of their product over the volume of their sales. Asano can engage customers with detailed stories of each brewery’s beginnings and his intimate memories with the local tojis. Through the years, he has worked closely with various sake breweries to come up with creative ways to market new products.

I sat down with Asano at his shop. He grabs a few bottles from the shelves to show me. All were made by Yamamoto, a sake brewery located in the Shirakami area in northwestern Akita, which Noshiro also inhabits. The sake is made with natural spring water that is piped down from the nearby Shirakami Mountains (a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site). 

Sake produced by Shirataki Brewery in the Akita Shirakami area’s Happo town.

According to him, around twenty years ago Yamamoto brewery was struggling.  Its production had shrunk to one tenth of its original size, and the toji, Yamamoto Tomofumi, who had just moved back to take over the family business was searching for ways to keep it running.

Yamamoto heard from his staff that the nearby liquor store, Tenyo, didn’t carry Yamamoto products and decided he’d go and talk with Asano. As they chatted, Yamamoto mentioned that he had a lot of cloudy sake that would be difficult to sell out of season. Asano suggested a marketing plan. It was starting to get cold in Akita, and the nearby Shirakami Mountains had just been registered as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. He suggested naming the sake “Shirakami no Hatsu Yuki” translating to Shirakami’s first snow. It would be sent to those who pre-ordered it on the day that snow fell on the mountains. Yamamoto’s wife handcrafted each label to save money, and everyday Yamamoto himself would drive to Noshiro (about a 20-minute drive from the brewery) to look at the top of the Shirakami Mountains with binoculars searching for the faint blanket of white.

The new product sold unexpectedly well, and the relationship between Asano and Yamamoto grew as they continued collaborating on various sake projects. 

I ask Asano to tell me more about how Akita’s sake differs from that of other parts of Japan.

“Compared with other regions, Akita’s sake is typically described as sweeter — a characteristic that has its origins in a tradition that equated sweetness to delicacy.”

He starts naming different foods: chawanmushi (an egg custard), natto (fermented soy beans), chirashizushi (sushi rice with raw fish) — all of which are uniquely sweetened in Akita. I recall, akazushi, an unusual Akita dish that pickles rice with sugar and sweet sake, and I begin to see his point. 

Asano turns back to the bottles of Yamamoto sake. The big bottle has a wood-patterned label. Akita is known for natural cedar trees with Noshiro even being nicknamed the City of Wood. This specialty sake brewed in a natural cedar oke (barrel) supposedly has a subtle woody scent when poured. He picks up the bright pink bottle, a spring sake called “Uki Uki,” which translates to buoyant, and  expresses a cheerful or lighthearted mood. He explains that its sour and sweet, wine-like taste is perfect for spring cherry blossom parties.  

Next, Asano directs my attention to a black and gold bottle. Yamamoto’s “Pure Black,” a local favorite — a fruity, dry sake, available year round. He grabs one more bottle, this one from the nearby brewery Kikusui. “This brewery uses age-old recipes, and for those that are looking for a more traditional taste, Kikusui’s ‘Noshiro’ is another popular choice.”

Shirataki Brewery’s “Yamamoto Pure Black” (right) and Kikusui Brewery’s “Noshiro” (left).

A few hours have passed and Asano’s passionate storytelling has worked. I end up buying both the “Pure Black” and the “Uki Uki” spring sake. I even sign up for Tenyo’s newsletter, feeling a sudden inspiration and motivation to become a sake aficionado.

Under normal circumstances during this time of year, I’d enjoy this sake with friends in a park —  eager to partake in the Japanese tradition of hanami (cherry blossom viewing). However with a state of emergency declared in all 47 prefectures, that won’t be happening this spring.

I look up at the clock on the wall. Seven through eleven are colored black, signaling the time during which one should drink Yamamoto’s “Pure Black.”  It feels like an incidental reminder that this year’s spring in Japan will have to be enjoyed at home with cherry blossom pictures on the Internet.

Only a few hours away from “Yamamoto Pure Black” time.

For Asano, the shop has been quieter than usual these past couple of months. Like many he’s feeling the impact of the pandemic on his small business. However, when all of this subsides and travel to and within Japan becomes possible again, Asano hopes that visitors from both in and outside of Japan will come to Tenyo and become Akita fans through the stories and taste of the area’s sake.

Inside Tenyo. All sake is produced in Akita Prefecture.
When Tenyo relocated, tojis from various Akita sake breweries wrote words of encouragement on the store walls.