Ikoma and Heguri

Sake and sake breweries

Nara is particularly famous for religious sites that inscribe the root of Japanese culture. Food is of course a part of the culture but Nara’s cuisine is often dismissed due mostly to its lack of showy look and flashy taste. However, some of Japan’s most familiar foods which includes Somen noodle and Manjyu sweet bun are native to Nara and their simple but lasting tastes have been welcomed by all. Similarly, the first proper refined sake was brewed in Nara and modern sake all date back to this revolutionary invention. Intimately called Nanto-Morohaku, it has Widely been appreciated as the true origin of this particular liquor.

Sake is the Japan’s native liquor based on the fermented rice. It has its origin as sticky white liquor created in ancient times as an offering for Shinto deities. However, the refined sake we now appreciate is quite different one that requires more sensitive treatment of materials and more complex fermentation processe. First successful products, called Sobosen, appeared in pre-medieval period. They were brewed at Buddhist temples and among them brewed in Nara were most admired of all.

However, the prime brewing method for refined sake was invented in the mid 15th century at one of those temples called Shoryakuji which is located on a hillside in the east side of Nara City. Syoryakuji was founded in the late 10th century by the monk Kenshun at the request of the emperor. By brewing the prime sake, the temple was highly flourished throughout the Middle Ages but is now a small temple surrounded by woods which beautifully tints the precinct every autumn.

Shoryakuji actively brewed sake under the name of Bodaimoto up until the mid 17th century. At present, on the rediscovery of the lost formulae in the late 20th century, the temple brews starter mesh of refined sake once a year following the method of the day. It is the seed for sake with which breweries in Nara brew their own product.

Refined sake is a fermented alcohol brewed with its own unique process. What distinguishes sake from other fermented alcohols such as grape wines or beers is its simultaneous conversion in which molding and fermentation occur at the same time.

The brewing process

The very first step to make sake is to polish the rice, carefully striping away the outer layers of rice grain. The taste of sake depends on each process but the overall grade of the product will be determined at this stage. Koji is the basic element of sake and will be produced in the next step. The polished rice is steamed and the part of them is mixed with koji-mold, a special mold that grows and spreads over the surface and ultimately penetrate into the core of the rice. This process, takes about 48 hours, converts the starches in the rice into glucose which requires to create alcohol. Koji is the basic element of sake which determines its quality.

Upon the completion of koji, the starter mash called moto will be created mixing a portion of the koji with steamed rice, water, and yeast. In the next process, the koji, steamed rice, and water are added to the starter mash to create moromi mash to accelerate the yeast fermentation. This process must repeat three times so as to stabilize the process and avoid failure. The starch of the rice forms glucose which is converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide to help fermentation. This entire process generally takes one month to complete, in which the alcohol content will rise to as much as twenty percent.

After this process, moromi mash will be separated from the lees adding the pressure to make pure undiluted sake. This sake is further filtered and pasteurized around 65 centigrade then kept to mature. This final process will usually be repeated twice before bottling.

Several processes mentioned above were first proposed by Shoryakuji Temple. For example; use of white rice not only for starch and the polished rice but also for koji enzymes; the multiple fermentation process called Sandan-jikomi. Shoryakuji’s method also refers to add pasteurization to kill bacteria before proceeding to maturing process.

Breweries in Ikoma

At present, there are 28 sake breweries in Nara Prefecture and nine out of which produce refined Sake based on Shoryakuji’s Bodaimoto. In Ikoma, two out of three breweries have products based on it. Those breweries in Ikoma were established during the 18th to the 19th century. They brew various sake with unique methods nurtured by their peculiar tradition.

Ikoma City, which spreads at the foot of the mountain of the same name, is located about 9 miles to the west from the central area of Nara City. Although Ikoma is now thoroughly modernized, it used to be a agricultural village with significant cottage industries which included an ice making. The industry was thrived supported by abundant pure underground water and cold weather. Ikoma’s agriculture was represented by rice cultivation. Especially the south part was the famous rice-growing center of the entire region. Not to mention, cold weather, pure water and good rice are among the most important materials for sake brewing.

One of three breweries in Ikoma called Kikutsukasa may also provide self made Narazuke pickles along with the original sake. Narazuke is a pickles pickled with fresh sake lees which is readily available as byproducts. Cucumbers, watermelons, pickling melons etc. are pickled with the sake lees which adds the robust taste and rich fragrance to the materials. However, because pickling of Narazuke requires time consuming hard labor, only a few breweries really produce it by their own hand. Despite its price, Narazuke pickles has been one of the most typical foods of Nara and frequently purchased also as a souvenir or gift idea.

As above, there are three sake breweries in Ikoma and only two breweries, Kikutsukasa and Ueda, may offer sake products based on Shoryakuji’s Bodaimoto. The list below shows names and addresses located from the north to the south of the city:

  • Nakamoto shuzoten: 1067 Kamimachi, Ikoma-shi, Nara
  • Ueda shuzo: 866-1 Ichibu-cho, Ikoma-shi, Nara
  • Kikutsukasa jozo: 555 Oze-cho, Ikoma-shi, Nara

The best way to purchase sake is to directly visit the breweries as you may try samples. Just adjacent to the Kintetsu Ikoma reilway station, there is an antenna shop called Ochiyasen which conveniently sells various local products include sake, but samples are not available. Sake breweries often sell their products by mail order, but they may not deal with overseas delivery. If you would like to try Ikoma’s and other areas’ of Nara, go to special sake bar in which you can try various sake products at relatively low price. In the Old Town of Nara City, there are some sake shops such as Harushika, Izumi Yusai, and Ogawa Matabei, all of which may suit such needs.

Sakabayashi: Stacking some barrels up at the store front and hanging an orb from the eaves, such decorations make a typical scenery of customer’s entrance of traditional sake breweries. The orb is called Sakabayashi or Sugidama made by branches of Japanese ceder gathered and rolled into an orb. Breweries renew the orb when they begin to brew the year’s sake as the indicator of its progress. The newly made greenish orb turns to dark brown coincided with the progression of fermentation of the sake. This custom seemed to begin in the 18th century, in the middle of Edo period. Edo was the last feudal period of Japan, lasted for about 250 years. It was the period that steadily governed by one shogunate clan and under this stability, Japanese culture was flourished and industries were thrived. It was also this period most of Nara’s traditional breweries were established.

Restaurants in Ikoma

Nara is particularly famous for exquisite religious sites that suggest the root of Japanese culture. Food is also a part of culture but Nara’s cuisine is often dismissed due mostly to its lack of showy look and flashy taste. But in reality, some of the most popular foods are native to Nara and their simple but lasting tastes are appreciated nation wide. As the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, Nara was once highly internationalized and the food was wholly integrated with other cultures. This foresees the modern condition of Japanese culture in which the tradition essentially fused into the world standards. Following the line and embraced by the special natural environment, some of Ikoma’s restaurants create unique and exquisite cuisines.

Those restaurants are located at two identical spots and one of them is the surrounding area of Hozanji Temple. Located at the mountain side, Hozanji is still the most popular spot in the city and attracts many worshipers especially from Osaka. Although the temple town is no longer prospered as it used to be, younger generations, either emigrants or natives, remodeling the area by adopting new ideas and technologies. Several restaurants straightforwardly reflect such spirit in their managements changing interiors and providing new recipes which appeal to all.

Around the temple, there are modern cafes, a special pizza restaurant and so called ethnic restaurants that are immersed by Asian tastes. There are also traditional ryokan inns along the sando path and one of them, OKAGERO, is the newly renovated one that includes an art gallery and a restaurant. The restaurant is called Rokkontei and specialized to Japanese cuisine notably soba buckwheat noodles.

Some newly established cafes and restaurants in Ikoma wholly integrate with surrounding. It is a reflection of tendency in which a restaurant is presented as a part of complex in which customers enjoy not only the cuisine but also the natural environment of Mt. Ikoma. This idea has most strategically realized in another identical spot located around Kuragarigoe Nara Kaido, or Kuragari Mountain Pass, in the south part of Ikoma City.

Although Kuragari Pass was narrow and steep, it had been crowded as one of the main roads which connected Nara to the Japan’s second largest town, Osaka, until the Ikoma railway tunnel was opened to traffic in 1914. Then the pass was forgotten but recognized again in 1987 having selected as one of a hundred historic passes of Japan. Having received a public attention, the surrounding area, which had been a ubiquitous rural village, was further cultivated and new farmlands and restaurants were appeared.

One of them called “Lucky Garden” is probably the most symbolic of all. It is a restaurant with own farm in which keepers grow vegetables for their use. Customers enjoy meals based on Asian cuisine in its open environment. Music concerts and other events are also take place periodically in the garden. Standing in the forest, another famous restaurant called “Yamaoka-pizza” has been approved by professional chefs as one the best of this cuisine. Reservation is required to enjoy this particular Italian restaurant.

Ikoma is now a modern city of about 120,000 and there are many restaurants which covers whimsical tastes of inhabitants and tourists. In addition, bakeries and cake manufactures stand out and there are cafes which tie with them. As the city has tighter physical and spiritual connection to Osaka, Ikoma’s restaurants often look mere copy of Osaka’s. But there are some exceptions as introduced above.

Shopping

One of the best place to visit for tourists is in fact a supermarket. It is the best place to know not only the materials of which various food is cooked but also the life of local people. However, the supermarket is not generally dedicated to sell locally produced food and goods. So those who are interested in hunting fresh local souvenirs should visit special shops introduced below.

Ochiyasen: is a general shop that sells special products of Ikoma City. It is not a big shop but has all kinds of products and they are tidily displayed offering an atmosphere like a museum. The shop is in fact run by the Chamber of Commerce, and it also functions as an information center of local products.

Ochiyasen is only a minute walk from the north entrance of Kintetsu Ikoma railway station. Full address is 36-304 10 Kitashinmachi, Ikoma-shi, Nara.

 

Michi-no-Eki: is a roadside station equipped with various convenient facilities. Those who are interested in hunting fresh local souvenirs should visit the station. There are well more than 1000 roadside stations in Japan and there is one in Heguri Town. It provides a shopping space with a distinct local flavor, which includes fresh fruits and vegetables purchased by even local people. The station is purposefully build as a resting area for tourists with a special restaurant and food stands. It provides free Wi-Fi and the tourist office which transmits local information.

Heguri’s Michi-no-Eki is located along Route 168 and its full name and address is ‘Michi-no-Eki Yamatoji-Heguri Kumagashi-Station’: 75-1 Byodoji Heguri-cho, Ikoma-gun, Nara.

Guided tours are provided by Kenichi Nakatsu who is an official tourist guide interpreter of Nara Prefecture. Living in the north western edge of Nara, Kenichi works as a guide to introduce relatively unknown along with the famous spots of this insightful region of Japan. Special tours will be made according to the request. For more information and queries, please contact Kenichi Nakatsu.

Note: all photographs are taken by the author unless otherwise stated. No part of this website may be copied, reproduced, saved or reused.

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