Sake Monogatari – Nihei Takao, Hawai‘i’s Sake Savior

Sake Monogatari – Nihei Takao, Hawai‘i’s Sake Savior

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Photo of Nihei Takao making sake

Chris Pearce
Hawai‘i Herald Columist

Editor’s note: With interest in sake culture and consumption continuing to grow in Hawai‘i and around the world, we are happy to announce the revival of Kokusai Sake Kai co-founder Chris Pearce’s thoroughly researched and well-written columns, “Sake no Monogatari,” (“Tales from the Sake World”) on sake history and culture in the Herald. We are especially pleased to relaunch the column with a tribute to one of Hawai‘i’s enduring sake heroes, Takao Nihei.

Earlier this month, friends and family gathered at the Izumo Taishakyo shrine near Honolulu’s Chinatown to honor the memory of Takao Nihei, former brewer and vice president of the Honolulu Sake Brewery, as well as the guiding light for generations of Hawai‘i sake lovers. Bishop Daiya Amano reminded us that when we die, our souls depart for the afterlife. Although we cannot detect those in the other world, they can hear our prayers. Clapping our hands four times and bowing, we paid our respects to the man who not only singlehandedly preserved Hawai‘i’s sake heritage, but also pioneered new techniques that changed the way sake is made in Japan.

Nihei-san’s story has been told many times before, but as the years pass, new information comes to light that gives us a deeper appreciation of his extraordinary life.

He was born in Tökyö in 1925, although both his parents were from Töhöku. After graduating from middle school, he decided to pursue a career in aviation and was accepted at Tohoku Gakuin College of Aeronautical Engineering. When the Occupation authorities shut down Japan’s aviation industry after the war, this career prospect vanished and he settled instead on agricultural science. His first job was at a factory in Töhöku that made tsukemono (pickles), providing an early encounter with fermentation technology. The president of the pickle factory, recognizing his aptitude, took it upon himself to write Nihei a letter of recommendation to the National Research Institute of Brewing.

Founded in 1901, the institute fell under the administration of Japan’s National Tax Agency. (At the time, levies on sake production provided over 20 percent of Japan’s tax revenues, creating a powerful incentive for the mandarins at the Finance Ministry to improve the quality of sake and hence the amount of sake consumed.) In 1946, the year that Nihei-san began his studies there, the institute was entering its golden age, conducting experiments on sachrification, aroma, amino acids and other essential research areas that would lay the foundation for our scientific understanding of how sake is made.

The director at this time was Masakazu Yamada, a towering figure in the sake world of the mid-20th century. A prolific researcher and writer himself — he published over 200 scientific papers — he was also a charismatic figure who inspired all around him. It was a great time to be at the institute, and the young researchers were full of energy and passion for sake-making.

Students taking up their studies would be assigned to a classroom headed by a sensei (teacher). It was Nihei-san’s good fortune to become a student of Yasuyuki Kobuyama, a gifted researcher and bon vivant around Tökyö with contacts in the media and a flair for explaining sake to a popular audience. Kobuyama would take Nihei-san on trips to breweries in the countryside to pass on the latest scientific knowledge. At the same time, they’d learn from the toji (master sake brewers), who had a lifetime of experience making sake under every conceivable condition.

Gradually, Nihei-san began visiting breweries on his own, and it seemed that most of the ones he assisted ended up winning gold awards at the Japan National Sake Appraisal. Meanwhile, the institute itself made sake for educational and research purposes, and Nihei-san was on the team that prepared its appraisal entries, which, likewise, garnered a string of gold awards. In this way, Nihei-san developed a reputation as a hands-on sake virtuoso, equally at home in the laboratory and on the brewery floor.

In 1953, Dr. Yamada was invited to present a paper at a microbiology conference in Italy. On his way back to Japan from Italy, he stopped in Hawai‘i at the invitation of Daizo Sumida, president of the Honolulu Sake Brewery. Things had not been going well since the retirement of Kazuma Hamamura, a nisei graduate of the University of Hawai‘i, who had been at the company before the war and ran the brewing operations. Sumida asked Dr. Yamada if he could send over a research technician to help them improve the quality of the sake in Hawai‘i.

Those of us with a warm spot for Honolulu Sake Brewery tend to think that its sake was always of decent quality. But in looking at the accounts of visitors to Hawai‘i after the war, this does not seem to have been the case. A year before Nihei-san arrived in Hawai‘i, Shigeji Iida, a researcher at the Institute for Physical and Chemical Research, wrote his impressions of Honolulu’s sake at the time: “It’s just not feasible, using California rice, with a shortage of technology and skilled workers, to make good sake in a tropical climate. The first fault you notice is the color of the sake. Then it’s the rough taste. Thirdly, there’s no pleasant aroma. No matter how much you polish the California rice, and how pure the local water, under the strong tropical sun even a light, clean sake turns yellow like horse urine within three days.” When Nihei-san tasted “Takara Masamune” after arriving in Honolulu, he wrote, “It’s hard to call this sake. I don’t have much confidence that we can make good sake here.”

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