New Japan, Old Japan / Coopers pass on skills for soy sauce barrels

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Fueki Syoyu Brewing Co. President Masatsugu Fueki, right, and four craftspeople hit bamboo hoops with hammers to tighten a barrel in Kawajima, Saitama Prefecture, on Sept. 8.

By Ryuzo Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior PhotographerKAWAJIMA, Saitama — Fueki Syoyu Brewing Co., a soy sauce maker with a history of more than 200 years in Kawajima, Saitama Prefecture, demonstrated the process of building a new wooden brewing barrel at a public event earlier this month.

The event was organized by the company’s 12th president, Masatsugu Fueki, 37, to provide opportunities for people to become interested in the job of building barrels, a profession that is facing a nationwide worker shortage, as well as handing down traditional methods of making soy sauce, which have been passed down from the Edo period (1603-1867), to the next generation.

The five-day operation took place at a factory at the company’s headquarters.

Brewing soy sauce in a wooden barrel requires 1½ to two years of fermentation with koji mold, lactic acid bacterium and yeast. The process involves adding salted water to soybeans, wheat and seed koji mold, and then maturing the soy sauce. Compared to the method of using a plastic or stainless steel tank, which has recently become common, this traditional method makes quality control more difficult and is more time-consuming.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Keiji Harada, the head of the craftsmen, carefully puts the final touch on the wooden barrel.

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    Koichi Miyazaki makes a hoop for a barrel.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Midori Ito slices bamboo to make a hoop.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Fueki writes his name at the bottom of the finished barrel as people look on.

However, soy sauce made in a wooden barrel has a richer and milder taste, with less direct saltiness on the tongue, as microbes are able to live in such barrels more easily.

The new wooden barrel is about 1 meter in both height and diameter. To build the barrel, four craftspeople came from various parts of the nation — Keiji Harada, 33, and his pupil Midori Ito, 33, both from Anan, Tokushima Prefecture; Koichi Miyazaki, 25, from Goto, Nagasaki Prefecture; and Kenichi Kishina, 41, from the city of Osaka.

The coopers built the barrel using cedar boards produced in Nara Prefecture, and hoops and nails made of bamboo from Tokushima Prefecture, working with the utmost care and without any adhesives.

“This is the greatest one I’ve ever built,” said Harada, the head of the group.

Fueki Syoyu plans to start making soy sauce with this new barrel around February 2018, and the first drops from the barrel are expected to be ready around October 2019.

“Soy sauce is actually produced not by us, but by various microorganisms. So it tastes slightly different from one barrel to another,” Fueki said. “However, the number of barrel-building craftspeople — who need the skills to carry out delicate processes — is rapidly decreasing, and there are only about 60 left nationwide. Wooden barrels are said to last more than 100 years, but they need repairs every few decades. If we don’t have good coopers in the first place, we can’t make good soy sauce,” the company president said.

Other than the new barrel, the soy sauce maker uses 38 giant old wooden barrels, and faces the challenge of how to replace them with new ones.

(New Japan, Old Japan is a series exclusive to The Japan News)Speech


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