Research preferences to expand sake market

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Naohiko Noguchi

The Yomiuri ShimbunThe following is an interview with Naohiko Noguchi, a toji master sake brewer who discusses his passion for his profession.

After two years of retirement, I returned to work as a toji two years ago at the brewery that I named the Noguchi Naohiko Sake Institute in Komatsu, Ishikawa Prefecture. My fans had been saying that, as long as I am healthy, I should again make delicious sake.

I was in bad shape at home doing nothing. I realized I was nothing without my work.

I set up a tasting room at the institute. I can’t drink alcohol, I’ve been listening to my customers’ opinions in order to brew sake that pleases them. We ask customers to try our sake here at the institute, and we listen to what they have to say. We ask them to write down their comments in notebooks that we refer to while brewing.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A bottle of Yamahai Gohyakumangoku is shown alongside sake cups at the Noguchi Naohiko Sake Institute in Komatsu, Ishikawa Prefecture.

This institute has seven young employees in their 20s and 30s. I also get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and work with them. When the brewing season starts, I spend each night at the dormitory attached to the institute. For this brewing season, too, I came in September to work through May.

My wife and children opposed my return to life as a toji because it meant being away from home for more than half a year. Going to work at the institute felt almost like fleeing my house.

You shouldn’t produce sake based only on your own philosophy. I learned this lesson while working as a toji for the first time at Kikuhime Co., a brewery in the town of Tsurugi, Ishikawa Prefecture [now part of the city of Hakusan].

When I was young, I learned sake brewing in the Tokai region. The sake there has a “clean” flavor because the area is blessed with a warm climate. I continued to use the Tokai method of brewing in my first year as a toji [in Kikuhime], but my products received a very negative response. Customers would say: “It’s thin. I can’t drink this.”

In Tsurugi, many people worked in the mountains as woodcutters and the like. They were hungry when they came down from the slopes in the evening. They would drink about two “go” [360 milliliters] of sake while sitting on porches at liquor shops. That way they could get a good sleep and feel fine when they woke up.

Such a place called for sake that was rich in flavor. However, I was making the kind of clean spirit favored in the Tokai region. My sake simply wasn’t liked.

It was around that time that I encountered a brewing method called yamahai. To make moto [which helps increase the yeast necessary for fermentation], the most common approach back then involved adding store-bought lactic acid to shorten the sake production period. On the other hand, yamahai uses lactobacillus found in nature, which means the method requires a lot of time and care. However, the finished product has a very different flavor.

For three years, I made frequent trips to a brewery in Kyoto. In spring, I would bring my freshly brewed sake with me and ask what they thought of it. It took about 10 to 15 years for me to build confidence in myself as a toji.

Rice is the key ingredient for sake. I believe if you can’t detect the umami flavor of rice in the sake you’re drinking, it shouldn’t be called sake. The aftertaste should remain after it passes your throat and it should have a sharp finish. The finish should be sharp enough to make you wonder, “Where did that flavor go?” and it should make you feel like you want to keep drinking. This is what sake should be.

Preparing koji [made by sprinkling mold on steamed rice to ferment it] is of paramount importance for sake. As the saying goes, “First koji, second moto, third brewing.” Whenever I enter a room for making koji, I never fail to taste it. I can tell how easy it is for hyphae to make their way into the rice based on the texture I feel when I bite into the koji.

My teeth got so decayed from tasting koji two to three times per night that I had to replace all of them with artificial ones by the time I was in my 40s.

Some foreign visitors travel all the way to the countryside out here to buy my products after tasting my sake in Tokyo. I hope more and more sake will be enjoyed overseas as well. Even among Japanese, preferences can vary depending on the time and the place. I believe we have to work to create a new market by researching the preferences of people overseas.

Lucky for me, I received a flood of applicants when I started this institute. A dozen of my apprentices whom I taught years ago now work as toji in various parts of the country. Even now, they call me seeking advice, and we exchange the sake we brew with each other.

Young brewers here at this institute also willingly challenge me. For craftspeople, the best thing is to learn from personal experience.

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Hiroyuki Yoneyama.

■ Naohiko Noguchi / Toji master sake brewer

Born in Noto, Ishikawa Prefecture, in 1932, Noguchi started his career at a brewery in Shizuoka Prefecture in 1949 and became the toji for Kikuhime Co. in Ishikawa in 1961. He later worked at Kano Syuzou Co. in the prefecture and elsewhere before retiring in 2015. He returned as a toji in 2017 at his Noguchi Naohiko Sake Institute.

Noguchi’s products have won 27 gold prizes at the Annual Japan Sake Awards competition, which is organized by the National Research Institute of Brewing and the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association. In 2006, he was recognized as a contemporary master craftsman by the government.

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