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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Russell

The Captivating History of Sakura-Masamune.



Few sake breweries are as iconic as Nada’s Sakura-Masamune. This is for good reason. Since their establishment in 1625, they have consistently been in the spotlight for all the right reasons. Their list of accolades is extensive, including the discovery of Nada’s legendary brewing water, miyamizu, pioneering rice polishing techniques that revolutionised the industry, being the origin of Association Yeast No.1, and, of course, the first to use the now ubiquitous ‘Masamune’ brand name. Let's take a closer look at a few of these accomplishments.


Miyamizu

During the late Edo Period (1603-1868), Nada brewers were thriving, and their sake was in high demand among discerning Edo consumers. One of these brewers, the 5th generation Yamamura Tazaemon, owned breweries in Nishinomiya and Uozaki, both now part of Japan’s famous Nada Go Go (Five Villages of Nada). However, the sake made at their Ume no Ki (Plum Tree) brewery in Nishinomiya consistently produced sake of more outstanding quality than that in Uozaki. To discover why, Yamamura tried everything, from switching the rice, equipment, and even brewers between the two sites. Only when all other options had been exhausted did he finally realise that the secret of Ume no Ki was the water.


This revelation led to the birth of a new local enterprise, distributing this miraculous water to the numerous breweries eager to harness its power. Initially marketed as ‘Nishinomiya no mizu, it was later rebranded to the more distinctive miyamizu. Its reputation quickly spread throughout Japan, particularly in the biggest market of Edo, further elevating the status of Nada brewers across the nation.


Thanks to its high mineral content, which energises sake yeast, and its low iron content, which could spoil the sake, miyamizu is ideal for producing the rich and mellow style of sake that Nada is now known for. So central is it to the characteristics of this region's style that even today, most brewers still draw water from the exact location in Nishinomiya for brewing. Although nowadays it has become a symbol for the entire region, it all started with Sakura-Masamune.





Suisha (water-powered rice mills)

Rice polishing has been an essential aspect of sake's development, and Sakura-Masamune significantly contributed to this area. Historically, rice was considered a luxury item and was not easily accessible to the general population, including rice-based products like sake. The preference was for lightly polished rice, achieved using simple hand or foot-operated milling equipment. It wasn't until the 17th century that advanced rice polishing techniques were developed in Japan, coinciding with the increased availability of rice and sake to the middle classes.


The rice's polishing rate in sake brewing significantly influences flavour and appearance. In the 1600s, brewers in Nada recognised the connection between sake milling rates and successful brews. Their breakthrough occurred around 1770 when Sakura-Masamune adopted waterwheels (suisha) to polish their rice.


Nada is next to Mount Rokko, a range of mountains providing the region with several fast-flowing streams and rivers. By utilising this natural resource to power rice milling equipment, brewers could polish significant volumes to lower levels with considerably reduced time and labour. Although this technology would later be replaced with even more sophisticated power-driven rice mills, adopting suisha was an epoch-changing moment in sake brewing and gave Nada brewers the edge over their competition.





Masamune

The name Masamune is synonymous with sake today. Numerous producers use it for their leading brands up and down the country. However, the first to use it was Sakura-Masumune, and its origin story is closely associated with the discovery of miyamizu.


Initially, the leading brand of what was then Yamamura Shuzo, now Sakura-Masamune, was Shinsui. With the discovery of miyamizu, the 6th generation Yamamura Tazaemon decided this name was no longer suitable for their new style of sake, and an appropriate new name was sought. After seeing a scroll of sutras belonging to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism that contained the characters for ‘righteous’ and ‘sect’, he realised that they could be read as seishu, the now legal definition for sake, but at the time, a moniker for the clear, modern sake of the Kansai region. However, these characters can also be read as masa-mune, and consumers surprisingly opted to use that instead.


The name was a success, and many other breweries soon adopted it for their brands. When trademark laws were tightened during Japan’s rapid modernisation period in the early 20th century, Yamamura Shuzo tried to protect the name for its exclusive use. However, such was the widespread use by that point that lawmakers rejected the claim and declared it was too late. Therefore, the character of cherry blossom (sakura) was added to distinguish their sake from all the others.


Sakura-Masamune’s storied history and lengthy list of accolades continue to afford them a wide fanbase across Japan. Now firmly ensconced in Uozaki, they continue to use the miyamizu well water they discovered in the mid-19th century. Their brand name, too, with its distinctive kanji characters, is recognised across Japan as one of Nada’s representative brands. When you visit this region next time, be sure to try this iconic beverage for yourself.


To book a guided tour of Uozaki, Nada, follow the link below.




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