In the 35th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your host Stephen Lyman takes you on an auditory journey, working the afternoon shift in a handmade shochu distillery. This is a pretty sharp departure from our usual Japan Distilled podcast as we enlist the voice over assistance of our editor Rich Pav who also incorporated all of the music and sound effects. This is part 2 in a planned 3 part series encompassing a day in the life of a shochu distillery.
THE AFTERNOON SHIFT HOST
STEPHEN LYMAN discovered Japan’s indigenous spirits at an izakaya in New York City. He was so enthralled that he now lives in Japan and works in a tiny craft shochu distillery every autumn. His first book, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, was nominated for a 2020 James Beard Award.
Stephen has been writing professionally for over two decades, but this is his first attempt at writing a narrative audio story. He stared working at Yamatozakura Distillery in October 2013 and has worked dozens of afternoon shifts at this point.
If you have any comments or questions about this afternoon shift episode, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
THE AFTERNOON SHIFT SHOW NOTES
The Afternoon Shift Transcript
I step out of the distillery into the noon day sun. As I strip off my rain gear and boots, the sun on my skin feels fantastic. I wash my hands and face in an outdoor sink before jogging back to the office. I find Tekkan at his desk, ordering his next sweet potato shipment over the phone. He tells the broker that the potatoes today were excellent so he hopes he can get a similar delivery in two days time. He hangs up the phone and wipes his brow with a hand towel before turning to me with inquisitive eyes.
He shrugs and says, “sorry. Isogashi.” He’s too busy for lunch today. I offer to get something for him from the convenience store. He smiles and gives me his order. He also pushes 2000 yen into my hand. He insists room and board means room and board even if he can’t be there to pay. I don’t resist. He forgets often enough that I don’t feel guilty.
Tekkan asks me to prepare for de koji before I leave. This is the process of preparing the rice koji for today’s primary fermentation. I head back to the distillery, where I find Ko-chan firing up the sweet potato steamer. I slip out of my Vans into my fake Crocks, and shed my hoodie before stepping into the koji room’s sauna. I roll four long tables out of the koji muro into the anteroom. Atop the tables are dozens of wooden boxes. These hold the koji we made two days ago. It’s now been in the koji room for about 44 hours. In the anteroom, it will cool to room temperature before being used to start today’s primary fermentation.
Finished, I head out for lunch. The 10 minute walk to the convenience store with the sun on my back is refreshing after the chilly, wet morning spent processing three-quarter tons of sweet potatoes.
At the 7-11 the shop staff smile and bow with their singsong irasshaimase! I explore the prepared lunch offerings. Until Tekkan’s wife started her yoga studio, I was spoiled with daily homemade lunches. The first year he suggested we go to the conbini for lunch, I was disappointed, but I have grown to enjoy these simple, surprisingly well-prepared meals. I find Tekkan’s favorite spice curry bowl. For myself, I choose a steamed chicken pasta salad, and a bottle of cold green tea. I always use these visits to drop weight.
As I check out, the staff smiles and asks how long I’ll stay. About 9 days, I reply. She thanks me for my patronage and gives me a parting “Ganbatte kudasai!” I promise to work hard.
I return with Tekkan’s lunch. He thanks me and digs in. He barely pauses his continuous paperwork and intermittent phone calls from liquor shops, restaurants, or friends just wanting to chat. It’s turned into a nice day, so I opt to enjoy my lunch outside, perching on a low stone wall that rims the distillery property. The unmistakable smell of steaming sweet potatoes wafts on the breeze. The mornings in the distillery are very much about physical intensity and tactile experiences. The afternoons are full of technical activities and wonderful aromas.
Tekkan hurries past with a wave, as he goes into the distillery to check the steaming potatoes. Through the glass doors, I see him loading the rice steamer with the rice we had washed this morning. He must have drained the water before washing the potatoes. One of the myriad things he has to remember every day. I quickly finish my lunch to go help.
The rice washing and steaming area is tucked between the koji muro and the conveyor belt that winds its way up to the top of the sweet potato steamer. Tekkan hands me the bucket to continue. I put about half of the rice into the steamer. Using a worn, flat piece of wood, I smooth out the top of the rice in the steamer to make it completely flat to assure even steaming. I crank up the steam and let it run until I can see the last of the rice in the steamer move from dry to wet, noticeable by how the rice changes from white to slightly less white. It changes from the perimeter inward toward the center. When I’m convinced it’s finished, I cut the steam.
I take the shovel from the wall and dig it down into the partly steamed rice. It’s heavy and hot as I struggle to lift the load. I turn it over so that the rice that was on top is now on the bottom. I repeat this process for the entire half batch before again smoothing it out with the piece of worn wood.
I use the bucket to put the remaining rice into the steamer and repeat the process. With that complete, I go find Tekkan. He’s just finished sanitizing one of the 400 liter ceramic pots that is buried in the cement floor. These pots are used for both fermentation and some long-term storage at Yamato Zakura. With this pot, he will build a primary fermentation. I let him know the first step of the rice steaming is finished. He nods.
I return to the rice steaming area to finish cleaning the rice washing tub. I work to capture every single grain. I put all the leftover rice into a sieve and rinse it with spring water before adding it to the rice already in the steamer. It is this process more than any that reminds me that every grain of rice contains a god, as Tekkan likes to tell me. We try to preserve every single grain. Not because it increases the final yield, but because we need to be aware of every small decision we make. If you start slacking off on little things, soon you’re ignoring big things. And that’s when the quality will suffer. So rather than start down that slippery slope, we take a few extra minutes to rescue every grain we can.
That being said, unlike some other distilleries, rice that touches the floor is discarded. That’s for two reasons. First, because the fermentations at Yamato Zakura are so small, any unwanted organism could spoil an entire batch. And second, due to the distillery layout, we wear the same shoes indoors and out. Except for in the koji muro and anteroom. There we wear our ugly fake Crocks, or, koji shoes. But even in there, any rice that ends up on the floor is discarded. At that point rice is too close to the beginning of the primary fermentation to risk it.
Tekkan starts up the rice steamer, affixing the lid to direct the steam to an exhaust outlet in the ceiling. This helps keep the interior of the distillery from becoming too humid. As Tekkan gets the rice steamer going, I slip into my koji shoes and begin the process of de koji. I use a small hand brush and a wooden board placed across the mouth of a 20 gallon bucket. I take each wooden box and bang it on the wood board to loosen the rice koji. The koji, as it dries in the box, sticks to the wooden surface. The sudden jolt separates most of the koji from the wood. The small hand brush helps me get the rest of the koji out of the box. I repeat this process for all 150 kilograms of rice koji.
Each time a 20 gallon bucket is full, I slip out of my koji shoes into my Vans and use a hand cart to move the bucket to the waiting ceramic pot. I carefully tip the bucket to allow the koji rice to slide slowly into the water and yeast waiting in the pot. I use a kaibo – a bamboo shaft with a flat, wooden mallet-shaped head – to mix the koji rice into this primary fermentation.
Returning to the anteroom, I pause to inspect the rice koji. There is a beautiful white fluffy bloom of mold on the surface of the rice grains. If we were to examine it under a microscope, it would look like a field of tiny white flowers. I taste a few grains. Thanks to the koji doing its job, the grains almost melt on my tongue with a sweet, acidic taste that I associate with koji. At times when enjoying sake, I find that the predominant flavor is that of rice koji. Once I taste it, it’s hard for me to identify any other flavor in the drink.
As I continue the de koji, I am joined by “tsuyoi obachan, or strong grandma.” She works the afternoon shift. You’d never guess it by looking at her, but she’s the younger sister of “genki obachan”, the now-retired world champion sweet potato trimmer. Tsuyoi means strong in Japanese and if you saw this woman, you’d understand what I mean. She’s in her early seventies, but built like a brick shit house. She does the same work any man could do in the distillery, and smiles while doing it. She’s always good for a joke in her thick Satsuma dialect. So as usual, I have no idea what today’s gag might mean. We make quick work of the de koji. I leave her to clean up any spilled rice koji. Even though we try to capture every grain, there is inevitable spillage with the violent jarring of the wooden boxes against the wood board.
I finish building the primary fermentation. It becomes harder and harder to mix with the kaibo as more and more rice koji is added to the pot. By the end it’s almost impossible to bury the kaibo to the bottom of the pot due to the weight of the rice koji. After I finish, I put a thermometer into the pot so Tekkan can check the temperature when he has a moment.
I mix the other primary fermentations that are bubbling away in nearby pots. These will spend nearly a week fermenting, before we start the next step in the process. We stir these pots every few hours to give the aerobic koji a chance to breathe, so it can continue doing its job. As I move through the pots, one made each day, they become easier to stir. as more and more of the rice has been liquified by the koji and yeast.
Tekkan finds me and asks me to wash bottles. He looks almost guilty. It’s everyone’s least favorite job in the distillery, especially once the weather turns cold. The bottle washing machine is outdoors under an open air lean-to. A pallet of cardboard boxes of 1.8 liter bottles waits just outside the shanty. I put on my rain suit, still damp from washing sweet potatoes this morning. Before starting the machine, I move boxes from the pallet to the staging area, to make sure I can be as efficient as possible. The sooner I finish, the sooner I can do something more interesting. Once ready, I crank open the water faucet, which feeds spray jets inside the ancient bottle washing machine. I press a series of buttons on the control panel and the machine lurches to life.
The bottle washing machine is like a merry-go-round. It never stops moving unless you turn it off. The rotor creeps around very slowly so that 10 full cases, or 60 bottles, can be steam-sterilized at once. I let each set of bottles do two full rotations so I use a clothespin to mark where the batch starts and ends. Once they’ve finished two laps, I have a few seconds to remove each set of 6 clean bottles, and replace them with 6 unwashed bottles, in order to maximize efficiency. This will also minimize the amount of time I have to stand here in the cold, with mist spraying out of the mouth of the machine, gradually dampening everything I am wearing.
The bottles don’t go back into the cardboard. They are placed at a downward angle on a large metal rack with wheels, that will be rolled into the bottling room, where they will wait their turn to be filled. The cardboard boxes pile up around me, so whenever I am waiting for the 2nd lap to finish, I break down boxes and move fresh boxes into the staging area.
Thankfully, Tekkan soon needs me for another task. I turn off the machine and cut the water. The sudden silence, broken only by the periodic hiss of the boiler in an adjacent outbuilding, is a relief after the clunking and clanging of the ancient machine, and the constant echo of spray jets inside the steel chamber. I quickly strip off my rain suit, and head back to the koji muro.
Inside, Tekkan has uncovered the mound of rice koji that Ko-chan and I had broken up this morning. He’s using a shovel to mix the rice koji, which has again become warm to the touch. Too warm and the koji will stop its process. Too cool and, you guessed it, the koji will stop its process. So the mixing we had done this morning, and the process we will do now, are both designed to provide oxygen to the koji, and to maintain optimum temperature.
Tekkan bends over the low table with a small wooden bucket in hand. I move a stack of 8 wooden koji boxes to the edge of the table. He takes a scoop of the waiting mound and pours it deftly into the top box. With his other hand, he pushes a divot into the top of the rice koji in the box, creating a mini volcano. This is perhaps appropriate since Kagoshima is also the home to Sakurajima, the most active volcano on earth.
I quickly move the box to the long table behind me. As I turn back to the center of the room, Tekkan is making another divot in the next box. I move that one aside to place on top of the first box. I stack these 8 high before using another box as a cover to maintain heat. I lift the next stack of 8 empty boxes to the edge of the table to begin the process again. This is the first time Tekkan and I have had time for a conversation since breakfast.
We usually chat about which movies we’ve seen recently. He’s a huge fan of Star Wars and the Marvel Universe. I usually try to watch the latest releases within the few weeks before my annual visit so I’ll know what the hell he’s talking about. But he’ll also discover other movies or TV shows he’s now obsessed with. If he hasn’t had lunch, the topic is usually food. New restaurants he visited during the previous summer’s sales season. Or new places he wants to try. At other times he’s quizzing me about foreign tastes for shochu.
We make quick work of the mound. Our system works well, but more than a few times a year, he has to do this by himself.
I head back to the bottle washing machine to continue to tackle the monster. I don’t mind. The rhythm is reassuring. The constant sound of water, relaxing. I don’t exactly understand why, but the sound of running water is so soothing. I love washing dishes by hand for this same reason. My dream is to live near the ocean where I can open my bedroom window at night and fall asleep to the sound of the waves crashing on the beach.
The challenge of bottle washing is the grip. The 1.8L bottles are wet and awkward. Since they go into the machine upside down, the fastest way to pick them up is by their very wide base. These bottles lack a punt, the dimple sometimes found in the bottom of wine bottles, so there’s no easy way to grab them with one hand. My hands are just big enough to lift out by the base with one hand, two at a time, but moving these bottles safely away from the mouth of the machine to place in the drying rack, is a constant challenge–one I have gotten better at. I am proud to say I’ve only broken one bottle in nearly a decade of work.
Fortunately, today I don’t break any as I make it through a rack and a half before “hayai obachan, or fast grandma” appears over my shoulder to let me know Tekkan needs my help. As I strip off my rain gear once again, I watch her jog quickly back toward the main building. She runs everywhere. This slight woman in her 60s seems to have forgotten how to walk. Hayai means fast in Japanese. Thus her nickname.
Turning off the water and the machine, again returns the area to relative silence.
I find Tekkan removing the lid from the rice steamer. Tsuyoi obachan and hayai obachan wait in the anteroom–where they’ve moved the long, low table that had previously held the mound of rice koji in the koji muro.
They’ve also set up industrial fans blowing on the empty table. The steamer is on a hinged rack, so it can be tilted on end to empty the freshly steamed rice directly onto the table. It’s hot and somewhat dangerous work, as the steamed rice is hot enough to cause severe burns, if you were to come into direct contact. We all work with heavy leather gloves.
Once everything is ready, with a 1-2-3, Tekkan releases the hinge lock. The steamer begins its slow descent to the table. Tsuyoi obachan and I guide it from the front, while Tekkan wrangles it from behind. When it’s close to the table, we again countdown to let it drop the last few centimeters on its own, with a loud thud.
Tsuyoi obachan and I use shovels to empty the rice out of the steamer. We spread it out on the table so it cools quickly. The steamed rice smells delicious. As we shovel deeper into the rice, it becomes harder to remove the rice by shovel. At this point we unclasp the canvas netting that lines the steamer. We countdown. Ichi! Ni! San! Seeeee-no! We simultaneously pull the heavy netting forward toward the center of the table. It only comes out part-way. We give it another heave-ho successfully. We again count to synchronize our lift to empty this canvas netting.
I toss the empty netting into the steamer, as Tekkan moves it out of the way. As we shovel the rice flat to help it cool further, Tekkan closes the sliding doors of the anteroom so we can control temperature in the chill November air.
We dig into the rice at one end of the table, and move it by shovel to the other end. Once we have created an empty 1 foot gap at one end of the table, we turn the adjacent rice over so that what was on the bottom, is now on top. We repeat this process all along the table. When finished, we do it again, to continue the cooling process. Tsuyoi obachan removes a glove, and digs her hand into the center of the rice, feeling the temperature. When she pulls her hand out, it’s turned bright red. She holds up one red finger to signal that we need to turn the rice one more time.
Once finished, Tekkan enters with the koji mold, which he stores in the office. These white koji spores are purchased from one of just a handful of koji makers in Japan. He dons eye goggles and an N95 mask. Until a few years ago, he did this without protection, but after we made black koji shochu in 2016, he began using a flour sifter to get a finer distribution of koji spores on his steamed rice. This seems to have resulted in a bit of a koji sensitivity. It’s not nearly as bad as the few toji I have met who have an outright koji allergy. They have to rely on others to propagate the spores for them.
I watch him through the glass window as he slowly sifts koji over the rice. He repeats the process twice over the entire table. The fine cloud of spores settle on the rice but some escape, floating up into the rafters. When finished, he empties the contents of the shifter onto the table. These are rice koji grains that have gone to spore. These will be mixed into the koji. Again, no rice is wasted.
Now begins my least favorite part of the day. Not because it’s difficult, but because it requires an hour or more bending over this low table. Having been an athlete my entire life, my knees and back have become unhappy with certain movements and positions. Tekkan and I shovel the bed of rice into a mound at one end of the table. He checks the temperature by hand. It’s ready.
We kneel at the empty end of the table. I kneel on two cushions that were procured by hayai obachan once she realized how much pain kneeling on the floor caused me. Leaning over the low table, kneeling on the cushions still does my back no favors. However, we need to mix the koji that has been sprinkled on the steamed rice before the rice gets too cold. If not, the koji can’t take hold.
The rice is hot to the touch. The goal is to mix the rice with our hands until it’s cooled to a little bit above human body temperature. It turns out I was quite good at determining the appropriate temperature right out of the gate so Tekkan always wants me to do this work when I am around. The ladies know their workday is almost finished when this work is done, so they sometimes rush through it, leaving the temperature too high or too low. I work very hard to get it just right. Tekkan and I work together in sweaty silence, until hayai obachan brings him the distillery’s wireless phone. He’s got other work to do, so she takes over. Tsuyoi obachan soon joins us, and the three of us chat away. Hayai obachan chats with me in standard Japanese, and then translates my responses into the local Satsuma dialect for tsuyoi obachan. The conversation invariably drifts toward food. By the end of this work, I always know what everyone’s had for lunch, what they are planning for dinner, and what to watch on TV that evening. As if I have time, or a TV.
After an hour of kneeling and straining and mixing my back is aching, my knees are barking, and my hands are raw. The fabric underneath the rice is not soft or forgiving. But its properties are good for the koji so we humans suffer. We check the temperature, find it to be just a touch too warm, so we dig our raw fingers into the mound and move it to the center of the table. We roll the table into the koji muro. We cover it with the sailing tarp, futon blankets, and ancient rice sacks. It will rest until morning, when Ko-chan and I wake it up.
The ladies will clean up. I’ve earned a break. They had their afternoon tea while I was washing bottles. I step out into the chill late afternoon shade at the side of the building and stretch my back. I drink deeply from the cold spring water tap at an outdoor sink. It’s almost sweet. Absolutely the best tasting water I know. I drink more than I should, but I feel parched. I find a patch of sun on the stone wall and enjoy a few minutes of rest.
Tekkan pokes his head out of the bottling warehouse entrance and waves to me. Back to work. Inside I find two other older women who I haven’t given nicknames hand-labeling newly filled bottles. Tekkan’s father putters around with the ancient bottling line, which only applies labels for the 1.8L bottles. And even then, only for a couple of their brands. It’s nearly outlived its usefulness, but he’s bound and determined to keep it running.
Tekkan is busy preparing the dilution tank for the next day’s bottling. I join him, since I will inevitably learn something. He’s again smiling and chatty. He likes this part of the day, because the heaviest lifting is over. He wants me to try two different possible shin-shu blends he’s considering releasing this season. He promises we will taste them after dinner.
There really isn’t any work for me to do with this dilution process other than hold the hose as the shochu starts to flow. As with so much around this small family distillery, everything is jerry rigged. The hose is tied with a string to a peg on the wall. When the flow starts, the hose can jump and if it jumps out of the tank, shochu that’s been aging for 2 years or more would be lost at the very last moment. I hold the hose. It doesn’t jump as the flow starts. Did I mention the 3M filter hung over the end of the hose? That’s DIY as well. That small task finished, Tekkan asks me to bottle what’s left in the bottling tank.
I set up the 6 bottle bottling machine, turn on the back light to catch any impurities that might have made it through the second filtration, and get to work. The rack of 1.8 liter bottles I had washed earlier in the day waits nearby. I roll it into position. This is another job that can be done most optimally if everything is just right. However, I can work faster than the old bottling machine. I only use 4 of the 6 slots to assure consistent flow. As each bottle reaches its fill line, I pull it out, press fit a cap, and place it in a nearby plastic crate.
As the clock strikes 5, I can faintly hear the town loudspeakers once again come to life with the tune that signifies the end of the work day. The labeling ladies shout out a sing song “otsukaresamadeshita!” and make their escape. The bottles that need labeling will still be here tomorrow.
I am left with the bottling line as Tekkan’s father continues to fiddle with the labeling machine. Tekkan hurriedly packs up orders and applies shipping labels for that day’s deliveries. Delivery trucks will be arriving soon to ship Yamato Zakura to fine bars, restaurants, and liquor shops nationwide.
I can tell the bottling tank is running low by checking a clear rubber tube that serves as a fill guide. Another of seemingly endless hacks Tekkan and his father have worked out through their years of experience and pure ingenuity. I finish up the last few bottles as I hear the first of the delivery truck back-up signals. It’s time to help load up the trucks.
Today’s shipments are relatively light. Thursdays are busiest, as businesses prepare for their weekend rush. Next month will be extremely busy as everyone prepares for bonnenkai season, the notorious and absolutely fun forget-the-year parties. As the last of the trucks leave, Tekkan gives me a quick “otsukare” to let me know I can call it a day. There will be work later, but for now I can rest.
MORNING SHIFT CREDITS
Distillery Background Sound courtesy of the Japanese Sake & Shochu Makers Association.
Background Music for this Episode in Order of Appearance:
Full Moon Lofi Vibes by EdiKey20
Hip Hop Flute Chill(loopable} by chilledmusic