Author: Eva Steinhorst
Date: December 22, 2020
Part of fully experiencing Yamaroku soy sauce is to understand where it comes from. After all, it’s taste and the culture surrounding it are inherently intertwined. This takes us all the way to Shodoshima island - a beautiful and peaceful island with white beaches, coastal sceneries and a mountainous interior in the Seto inland sea in Japan. With its traditional Japanese island lifestyle still very much intact, a trip to Shodoshima is almost like a journey back in time. Shodoshima literally means “small bean island”. It gets its name from being a hub for olive and adzuki bean cultivation. The mild climate on the island makes it not only suitable for growing olives, but also provides the perfect conditions for the fermentation process of soy sauce. A second factor that has attracted soy sauce brewers to the island for centuries, was its abundance of fresh sea salt - another essential ingredient of soy sauce. With the introduction of sea transport, ingredients such as soybeans and wheat could easily be brought to the island.
What really makes visitors experience Shodoshima like a timelapse, is its abundance of traditional soy sauce breweries that produce soy sauce the way it was produced in Japan 400 years ago. One of these breweries is Yamaroku. It lies right at the foot of Kankakei mountain, at the end of a small alleyway. "Yamaroku," is a short version of the sentence "Yama no Fumoto no Rokurobei" translating to "Rokurobei who lives at the foot of the mountain”. Rokurobei was the original founder of the brewery, who established it around 150 years ago during the Meiji era. Today, it is managed by the fifth generation owner Yasuo Yamamoto, who is a passionate craftsman and an acclaimed personality in the world of traditional soy sauce production.
Yamamoto's specialty is brewing soy sauce in wooden barrels, also referred to as Kioke barrels. In wooden barrels, essential bacteria such as lactic acid bacteria and yeast, which are crucial for the fermentation process, can thrive. Some of the barrels which are used at Yamaroku are as old as the brewery himself. Yamamoto’s philosophy is brewing soy sauce in harmony with nature - an approach he refers to as “hands off approach”. He does not believe in controlling the yeast but in providing the perfect conditions for them to thrive. At the brewery, even the walls and pillars are also important parts of the bacteria ecosystem.
200 years ago, the island was a bustling hotspot for soy sauce production, with hundreds of small breweries. Yet, today there are only twenty, with Yamaroku being one of them. With metal being abundantly available after the second world war, soy sauce producers in Japan began to modernize soy sauce production and started replacing wooden barrels with steel tanks. Today, only around 1 percent of all domestic soy sauce production in Japan occurs with wooden barrels. With rising demand for steel tanks, production of Kioke barrels plummeted and less and less people know how to build them.
Yasuo Yamamoto soon recognized that the future of his artisanship was at stake. As such, he has embarked on the mission to preserve soy sauce production with Kioke barrels and started the Kioke revival project. He traveled to one of the last remaining masters of Kioke wooden barrels to learn the craft himself. In order to pass on this knowledge to the following generations, he now annually hosts the Kioke summit, where he teaches other people how to make Kioke barrels. Every January, the Yamaroku brewery is packed with carpenters, food producers, chefs, and consultants who all come together to celebrate and learn about Kioke. With guest speakers, lecturers, and panels lasting several days the event indeed resembles a summit. However, it is not just about learning the craft, but also about indulging in the culture of Kioke. This means sharing meals to explore the authentic taste of soy sauce, laughing together, and exchanging stories. For that reason, many visitors experience the summit rather like a festival than what we associate with a conventional summit.
All in all, Yamamoto and all those who join his workshops celebrate soy sauce not only as a great seasoning but also for the beautiful cultural heritage attached to it. This is also what we at Huadou stand for. The message is simple, but powerful: Authentic taste comes with the appreciation for authentic culture.
- Oishi So Japan, https://www.oishisojapan.com/home/2018/6/28/yamaroku-soy-sauce