In the 36th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your host Stephen Lyman takes you on an auditory journey, exploring the evening work in a handmade shochu distillery. This is a 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 3 in this 3 part series encompassing a day in the life of a shochu distillery.
THE EVENING WORK 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 done hours and hours of evening work at this point.
If you have any comments or questions about this evening work episode, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
THE EVENING WORK SHOW NOTES
Evening Work Transcript
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 ancient 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 evening work later, but for now I can rest.
I exit the bottling and aging warehouse, careful to close the sliding door completely behind me. These small movements help me maintain Tekkan’s expected level of perfection, and remind me in each step, that I can’t rely on my usual level of precision. If I am going to be completely honest, I am a big picture guy. I don’t sweat the small stuff. That’s always been someone else’s job. But at Yamatozakura, that’s my job. It’s been a revelation for me. Realizing how important every single decision I make can have on the final product, despite the fact that I am a tiny cog in a very small machine.
In the parking lot, I find Tekkan’s boys kicking a soccer ball back and forth. Some days they bring their bicycles or baseball gloves, but today it’s soccer. Maybe, because they know I played for most of my life. I kick with them for a few minutes, before Tekkan comes out and lets them know their mother wants them home. Now. They complain, as kids do around the world. Another nudge from Tekkan, and they’re off for home. He shakes his head as he smiles at me. Fatherhood.
As I walk back to my 2nd floor apartment above the office, I realize how tired my feet are. I’ve barely sat down since breakfast. Sure, I sat on a stone wall for a quick lunch, and again for a quick afternoon break, but I haven’t had a proper sit since breakfast. Thinking back to my very first time working at Yamatozakura, I remember my realization that there are no chairs in the distillery. There is no place to sit down.
That’s not entirely true. There are chairs around a table in the oba-chan’s break room, but that’s always felt off limits to me. They go in there and gossip over tea, and I have not once intruded on their relaxation. I am sure working with me is stressful enough. Having to socialize as well? I save that for once a season. I treat them to lunch on my last day. They don’t mind a free meal. Who would?
Slipping out of my shoes and stepping into the apartment, I open the fridge and pull out a cold beer. Is there anything more refreshing than an ice cold lager after a very long workday? It used to be Asahi Super Dry, but my brother from another mother, Christopher Pellegrini, eventually convinced me to drink better beer. Now it’s Orion from Okinawa when I can find it, or Sapporo Black Label. I strip off a few layers until I am down to a t-shirt and shorts. I climb the stairs to the 2nd floor where, I have a sofa and coffee table.
I know I claimed not to have a TV, but actually I do. I tune into the sumo tournament, which happens to be happening while I am working at Yamatozakura this year. Sadly, it’s happening in Fukuoka, where I live. I’ve only attended in person once and it was amazing. It’s hard to imagine a more ritualized and traditional sport, that still manages to show incredible athleticism and strategy. I can’t pretend to ever remember the names of wrestlers from tournament to tournament, but it’s a great distraction after a long day.
Sumo is weird though. Unlike American or European sports, the tournament is over for the day by early evening. No primetime viewing available. As the tournament winds down, I finish my beer and check the time. I head to the bedroom, and pull in a fresh set of clothes for the evening work.
Before walking back to Tekkan’s house, I put a load of laundry into the machine. I dirty 2-3 sets of work clothes per day, so I need to do laundry every other day to keep in supply. Each season Tekkan has to re-teach me how to use the washing machine, because it’s entirely in Japanese, and despite my increased language proficiency, some of those button names just don’t make sense.
I drop my beer can in the recycling bin and slip back into my Vans. The walk to Tekkan’s house is crisp, but pleasant. A couple of children play in the park, despite it now being after dusk. Their mothers idly chitchat on a bench in the dark.
Slipping off my shoes in the foyer of Tekkan’s house before dinner, is one of the most pleasant moments of my day. I know delicious food awaits, and unlike the morning, when his boys are either tired or busy with last minute homework, now they are watching anime on TV. Their eyes shine with happiness as they see me come inside. Forever polite, they thank me for playing soccer for a few minutes before turning back to the TV.
The next thing that hits me are the aromas. Tekkan’s wife and mother-in-law have harvested fresh salad fixings from the garden in the yard. Quick pickles and homemade potato salad are already plated and served. I spy the electric dumpling hotplate on the dining table. Gyoza night. This is a bloodsport. The boys can eat their weight in dumplings and I am famished.
Tekkan sits at the dining table engrossed in his iphone. He doesn’t doom scroll. He’s constantly looking for 2 things: love for Yamatozakura and clues about what trends might be coming soon. He’s a genius at identifying what will be popular next.
Several years before anyone else recommended shochu with sparkling water, Tekkan sat me down on a night much like tonight, and served me his purple sweet potato shochu with soda. It tasted like grape soda. Since then, I have become a big fan of shochu-soda. Today the industry is transforming as makers rush to find new recipes that shine with bubbles. It’s transformed how shochu is consumed in Japan and overseas. I can’t say that Tekkan started it, but he saw it coming.
When he realizes I’ve arrived, he smiles. Next to him are two small unlabeled glass bottles. This year’s shinshu. He pours each into small Kagoshima style oyuwari glasses and pushes them toward me. I nose them each in turn. Both have the gassy aromas I associate with shinshu, but one is decidedly more reserved. I already know which I will prefer. Shinshu is newly made shochu. It’s a relatively recent style and I can’t say I am a fan.
Due to the single pot distillation and the fact that nearly all of the heads are kept, they are funky and wild and not particularly good for your health. If I ever indulge in more than a couple glasses, I end up with a terrific headache the next day. I don’t think that’s the alcohol. I think that’s the off gasses. These volatile organic compounds degrade during aging, but right off the still they are a kick in the head.
But Tekkan makes such clean fermentations, his shinshu is easily one of my favorite every year. This year he’s asked for my opinion. I’m chuffed. I try each. My nose didn’t lie. I like the softer one better.
Dinner time. Our tasting interrupted, we all gather around the dinner table and sing-song “itadakimasu!” – the boys dive into the gyoza with abandon. They’re still bubbling as they shove them into their mouths, which, of course, results in the expected “too hot” reaction universal to impatient eaters world wide. I take a more strategic approach, buliding my ponzu and hot chile oil dipping sauce before digging into the salads and pickles.
As the boys nurse their tongues, I attack my corner of the gyoza field with abandon. Before long they realize they’re losing ground and dive back in. From there it’s simply who can chew and swallow the fastest. Somewhat satisfied, I slow my pace and plate more salad.
I return to the shinshu shochu samples. I make a hot water service for each. They are both delicious. I actually have a slight preference for the more robust version. Tekkan’s watching out of the corner of his eye as the gyoza disappear. Fortunately, reinforcements are on their way. An entire new sheet of gyoza appear for the 2nd half.
As we wait for them to cook, I go back to the shinshu and try them on the rocks and then with a splash of soda. My original recommendation holds. I let Tekkan know. He nods approvingly. He had previously done the same blind tasting with 2 liquor shop owners he respects. They made the same recommendation. This year’s shinshu is decided.
The boys run out of gas during the second round of gyoza. I am left to clean up the spoils. Those amateurs and their small stomachs didn’t stand a chance. They retreat to the couch to watch another 30 minutes of anime before grandma forces them into the tub for their evening bathtime.
Tekkan and I chat idly until we’ve finished our dinner. Knowing this time is precious for Tekkan and his wife, I make my escape. The sky is now pitch black and the air is decidedly colder.
Returning to my apartment, I take the laundry out of the washer and hang it to dry. Returning to the sofa, I lie down and close my eyes.
I startle awake to the vibration of my phone on the coffee table. It’s Tekkan. As I answer he simply says, “koji muro ni” …
I check the time. I’ve been asleep for about an hour but it feels like days. The exhaustion is real.
When I arrive in the koji room, Tekkan is already hard at his evening work. He’s hand mixing the rice in each wooden box to cool and aerate the koji. I join him. We each take a side of the room. My side has about 10 fewer boxes, so we usually finish at about the same time. He also gives me the side facing the exterior wall of the distillery. This side of the koji room is cooler than the other side so if I screw up, the koji isn’t as likely to reach a critical temperature before he has a chance to check it in the middle of the night.
We usually chat for the first few minutes, covering any topics he has on his mind that we didn’t discuss earlier in the day. But then we lapse into the routine. The sounds are mesmerizing and the entire cooling process is dictated by the feel of the rice koji in your hands.
The goal is to cool it to a temperature just about equal to the human body temperature. But this is confounded by the fact that it’s hot and humid in the koji room, even on this chilly evening so you begin sweating almost immediately.
Once I start sweating, the rice grains begin sticking to my hands and wrists as I do the work. I have to be careful to sweep away any that cling to me. Remember, there’s a god in every grain of rice and I am sure none of them want to be carried out of the koji room on the hairy arms of a foreigner.
Tekkan’s side of the room falls silent. With my back to him, I am unsure if he’s checking his phone or if he’s fallen asleep. By this time in the season, he can sleep standing up. I’ve never seen anything like it. I take a peek. Sure enough. He’s having a cat nap. I continue my evening work and let him rest. I’m more likely to finish about the same time he does if I don’t rouse him.
During this evening work my mind wanders. I might be at my most creative. It’s a zen like experience. Some people go to yoga camp. I go to Yamato Zakura. It’s for moments like this when my mind can be completely empty and I can focus on nurturing the koji to its full potential. Without my assistance, it would die in obscurity. But I am simply a facilitator for the magic that this mold does.
Invariably I spill a couple rice grains out of the wooden box onto the table. They can’t be returned, but I don’t want to waste them. I taste them instead. Sweet and sour. Tomorrow’s primary fermentation may be a healthy one.
Tekkan starts awake. I can tell, because he suddenly starts working again. We labor on in silence until we’ve hand mixed all of the boxes too cool and aerate the koji. We finish the evening work at almost the exact same moment. As Tekkan puts thermometers into random boxes, I sweep the floor. Some rice has been spilled.
As I empty my dust bin into the waste basket, I say a small silent prayer for who didn’t make it.
EVENING WORK 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
Vlog Lofi by Ramol Link: https://filmmusic.io/song/7071-vlog-lofi License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license