|Iizuna, Togakushi, Kurohime, Myoko and Madarao. These five peaks of the northern Shinshu region define the northwest skyline of the town of Obuse, home of the Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery. Our sake is produced by a team of kurabito, or brewers, and their leader, known as the Iiyama toji.
By late autumn the team of four is in place. At Masuichi, the least experienced man has already seen his 20th winter making sake. They hail from a splendid village of briskly chilled air at the southern foot of Mt. Madarao.
Supervising veterans and newbies alike is the Grand Toji, "the Boss," Ryukichi Toyama, 78. This will be his 56th season of making sake. He started in 1941 - the winter when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
"Well, we don't stand on ceremony around here. In our yori-tsuki rest area, everyone helps himself at mealtimes."
Back when I was 15 or 16, I had to go around and wait on everyone else in the brewery. The job of a new guy at the lowest rung of the ladder was just work, work, work, pure and simple. It was a hierarchy. I was supposed to be the last to start eating but the first to finish. I had to bus my superiors' food trays. If you didn't do at least that much, you were nothing. It was the way of an apprenticeship. It was a really conservative era, you know.
When I joined the brewery I was 15, fresh from completing school, in the winter. In those days winter chores consisted of making dried tofu and vegetable gelatin in the town of Suwa, or harvesting mikan oranges in the Shizuoka area. You could make good money clearing snow along the Iiyama railroad. I got a job offer to do just that. So why did I end up at the brewery? Guess I prefer working indoors! No deep reason. In fact, in those days working in the brewery was physically demanding.
The brewers are known as kurabito, and their chief is called the toji. There is one toji per brewery. Incidentally, in Nagano prefecture, toji traditionally hail from three places - Otari, Suwa and Iiyama. Ninety percent of the nearly 100 breweries in Nagano are run by toji from one of these three areas. Formerly, kurabito came mainly from these areas as well. But nowadays kurabito are recruited mainly from the towns where breweries are located. Accordingly, breweries are starting to be run by toji from the neighborhood.
When a toji steps down, it is usually the end of his brewing career. But toji Ryukichi Toyama is a priceless resource both for Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery, as well as for other toji from the town of Iiyama. And thanks to his vast store of knowledge, he is also an invaluable asset to the industry as a whole, so he has been appointed Otoji, an advisor to toji at other breweries. His official job title at Masuichi is "oyaji-san," or "the boss," a term that expresses our affection for him.
The yori-tsuki is a place where Masuichi kurabito (brewers) take a break, trade information, and dine. Other breweries refer to the brewers' room as "hiroshiki" and use of the term yori-tsuki is limited to the tea ceremony realm nowadays. But in the old days, the term yori-tsuki was in common vernacular. For instance, in private homes, the area near the entrance to the kitchen was also referred to as the yori-tsuki.