A Hundred-year History of Innovation and Inheritance
Bamboo whistles in the wind, boat flows gently on the river. For more than a thousand years, Kyoto had been the imperial capital of Japan. A sense of elegance and historical charm can be found in every corner. Now imagine a hundred years ago, Fushimi is a stop for people travelling between Kyoto and Osaka by sea, flourishing with many businesses conducted by her residents for the travellers. Fast forward to today, she is the home to more than half of the breweries in the Kyoto Prefecture – making it essential to taste a glass of locally brewed sake when one visits Fushimi, or it is like one hasn’t met a beauty dressed in kimono in Japan. And out of the many breweries in Fushimi, the signature brand “Eikun” of the 125-years-old “Saito Shuzo”, resembles a gentle lady dressed in Yuzen kimono, flowing with a sense of softness and lightness. Coincidentally, the brand history has a connection with kimono too.
The Saito family had been operating their family “Gofuku” kimono shop in Fushimi for eight generations. Fushimi once enjoyed an advantageous position as being located in the only sea route between Kyoto and Osaka, but as time changes, the rapid development of roads and railways in the Meiji era has eroded Fushimi’s role as a transportation hub. In 1895 (Meiji 28), Saito Sotaro, the 9th generation of the Saito family, made a bold and impactful decision at the age of 18 – changing the family business to sake brewing by making use of the high-quality water of Fushimi. Many signature brewery brands have then been developed thanks to the hard work of the following generations. The Saito family created the “Eikun” brand in 1915 (Taishō 4) to commemorate the smart and wise Sotaro, which is now the signature brand of Saito Shuzo.
The Secret Behind the Understated Elegance of Kyoto Flavour
The ingredients for brewing sake are simple – rice, water, yeast, koji, and artisanal skills. The simpler the ingredients, the more importance it carries, and the unique character of each product by different breweries are thus formed. The representative of Saito Shuzo, Mr. Saito said, “Eikun is not only brewing sake. Our mission is to bring happiness to the heart of everyone through enjoying our sake – cultivating a sense of joy and healing.”
When asked what the most important element in sake brewing is, Mr. Saito responded, “People are definitely the most influential component. As time changes, great efforts have been contributed by everyone in order to retain the ideal character of Eikun; this includes the brewer, the staff responsible for logistics and sales, and even our customers have played an important role in keeping alive the value of the brand, such that we can give our 100% to brewing sake.” As for raw ingredients, the gentle trait comes from the famous Fushimi water. While many people would think that rice is the primary ingredient in brewing sake, water is, in fact, the main character. The alcohol concentration of sake is about 15% on average, with water accounting for the other 85%, which tells its significance. The water in Fushimi is medium-hard when compared with the dry style ”masculine sake” brewed with the hard water from Hyogo Prefecture. Sake brewed with Fushimi water is smooth and rounded, often being referred to as “feminine sake”, as it is soft and gentle.
Having suitable and good quality water is not enough for making Eikun special, not until Eikun ensures the use of another rare jewel from Kyoto for brewing their sake — Iwai rice. Iwai is in fact a sake-brewing rice invented in Kyoto Prefecture in the 1930s. However, the increase in demand for food after the war has made Iwai obsolete as it is a difficult species to grow. It is only until 1980, the breweries in Fushimi started promoting the farming and conservation of this unique rice species. Therefore, only the breweries in Kyoto can use this rice for brewing their sake, with Saito Shuzo being one of the major supporters, employing more than half of the yearly harvest of Iwai to brew their sake. Sake made with Iwai rice requires more complicated techniques than using “Yamada Nishiki”, and gives a sweeter aroma with a soft and gentle texture.
Reason for Bringing Eikun to Hong Kong
There are 43 sake breweries in Kyoto, and 23 of them are clustered in the Fushimi area. Why do our professional sake buyers choose Saito Brewery among these many breweries? For the Saito family, the desire to innovate and challenge is in their blood. They have continuously participated in the Annual Japan Sake Award, garnering both recognition and skill advancement. Mr. Saito said, "For us, it is like racing in Formula 1. The investment in racing car is huge with cutting edge technology and performance; yet the car cannot be put into daily use. It is through the competition that technique is improved for applying to general usage. Sake presented at brewing competitions is the same. It is a chance for us to explore the brewing and presentation of finer sake, to refine our techniques and apply to our commercial sake."
city'super buyer is impressed with the founding story and vision of Eikun, and moved by their continuous efforts in technique enhancement. Eikun sakes are widely recognized both locally in Japan and internationally. In addition to winning the gold awards at the Annual Japan Sake Awards for 14 consecutive years, its Ichigin Junmai Daiginjo won a gold medal at the International Wine Challenge (Sake Section) in London last year.
Ways to Savour the Japanese Flavour of Joy
According to Mr. Saito, he thinks that Hong Kong customers prefer aromatic and sweet sake like Junmai Daijinjo more than Japanese customers. Its popularity in the city has made this top-graded sake in the eyes of the Japanese people as common as house wine in Hong Kong. Moreover, he is surprised by the in-depth knowledge of sake that many Hong Kong customers possess. “Sake plays the best supporting role on the stage of dining; it complements the main character perfectly, and can be paired with a variety of international cuisines. It can also be enjoyed at different temperatures to your heart’s delight,“ Mr. Saito added.
How best to enjoy Eikun sake? Eikun sake is well-liked for being delicate and elegant while not overpowering the taste of food. It has just the right amount of kick to enhance the umami of ingredients, which contributes to its lasting popularity. This brand character has been established since the 10th generation and has been kept alive ever since. Why not try the pairings recommended below and delve into the world of Japanese flavours: