What’s the story behind Daimon Brewery? “It was founded in 1826 and is in Katano, outside Osaka, bordering Nara prefecture. We are at the foot of Mount Ikoma, so we have natural soft water that has low mineral content. Our sake is feminine, gentle and mellow, and pairs well with traditional Kansai cuisine.”
Did you always want to be part of the family business? “I grew up running around in the brewery, but when I was young, I wasn’t interested in sake. My father was a gentle man and let me do what I wanted. Ever since I was a child, I wanted to see the world, so I saved up and, when I was 21 years old, after studying commerce at Kyoto University, I got on a ship and sailed to France. It was a 55-day voyage.”
What did you do there? “I was interested in foreign culture and language. My journey went on for seven years. I visited 55 countries, mostly in central Europe, but also North Africa, Central Asia and Southeast Asia. I supported myself through small jobs, so it was an adventure.
At the beginning, my English was not good, but I gradually learned and was lucky to meet European and American kids. It was the 1960s, the hippie generation. After five years, I decided to go back to Japan by land, so I went through Istanbul [in Turkey] and India. I was like a wandering monk.”
Did your father know you would come back? “Yes, I told him I would but that I needed time. I’m the oldest of four children and I had the responsibility to the family business.”
Did you have to learn to make sake? “I came back to Japan in 1975, when I was 28 years old, and started doing sales and administrative work, not brewing. At the time, sake brewing was done by people who stayed at the brewery for six months at a time, and for the rest of the year were farmers, fishermen, carpenters. In the winter, they had to leave their homes to find work and would join guilds that were led by toji – master sake brewers.
We were dependent on these toji and guilds – as the family that owns the brewery, we were more focused on the business side. But this traditional way of brewing was declining because the younger generation did not want to follow their fathers’ or grandfathers’ way of life, leaving their families behind for six months.
Fifteen years ago, I decided, as the owner, I should do the actual brewing. I learned how to brew and hired a young guy who wanted to become a toji. He has been with us for 10 years. He’s the acting toji and I’m the grandmaster brewer. When you are a toji, your responsibility is to make no mistakes in brewing; you cannot challenge convention. But I am part of the generation [that allows their] sons and daughters to take risks [when it comes to brewing].”
What new things did you try? “I decided to focus on ginjo, or premium sake. Before that we were brewing mostly futsushu, or regular sake. If you continue to make regular sake, there is too much competition, which drives the price down. I converted the structure of our whole production into the ginjo method, which means polishing the rice down to as much as 35 per cent.”
What is the biggest challenge for sake brewers these days? “In 1975, when I got into the business, that year had the highest consumption of sake. Since then it has been declining. Before the second world war, Japan had only sake to enjoy – afterwards there was beer, whisky and wine. Eating habits have also changed, from simple traditional Japanese food – cooked vegetables and grilled fish – to high-protein, high-fat, rich, American food. But the good news is consumption in the premium sake class is increasing.”
Will there be a seventh generation at Daimon? “I have two sons, aged 27 and 25, and a daughter who is 30, with two sons. My oldest son does branding and PR for the company. The second one went to university to become a pharmacist. Before his national exam he told me he wanted to join the sake business. I said, ‘What! I didn’t expect you to say that, but if you are sure you want to do it, you are welcome.’ He started work this April.”
Have you encouraged your children to travel? “When they were in high school and university I encouraged them to take a year off to travel, but they were worried about communicating in English and were comfortable at home. The problem is they think they can understand the world from where they are. That’s a pity.
In my era, when I left Japan by boat, there was no way to communicate and it took three months for the mail to get back home. Kids today are still connected to their mother tongue. It’s like you are in a movie theatre but your physical body is in another country. Learning another language is learning another way of life, way of thinking, value of life.”
Yasutaka Daimon was recently in Hong Kong to host a sake pairing dinner at Sushi Tsubomi, in Causeway Bay.