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It’s not easy to get to Iio Jozo, but it’s definitely worth the trip. And now that I think about it, that’s a metaphor for how the company operates. They don’t take the easy way out…everything they do is hard - but the end result is sublime.
From Kyoto Station it’s a fairly slow two hour train ride to Miyazu. You transit numerous tunnels cutting through steep, densely-wooded valleys. In the spring time it is gorgeous, awash in different greens and dripping from the morning’s rain. When we finally make it to Miyazu, it’s overcast and very windy. The town feels almost deserted. Miyazu is a tourist town on the Sea of Japan, known for Amanohashidate, which translates as ‘bridge to heaven’. This ‘bridge’ is actually a sand bar that stretches over 2 miles and is covered in pine trees. It is said to be one of the “Three Views of Japan” — the most celebrated sights in the country. But this is off season, so the tourists aren’t around. Unfortunately our schedule doesn’t allow us time for a visit, so we’ll have to come back another time.
But first some lunch before our meeting. Luckily our friend Doi-san had asked around and found us an udon shop that does a unique sweet & sour udon. Naturally we are game to try it…and it is delicious. Very viscous and with a pleasing sour note. When we ask the owner about it, we are happily surprised to find out that they use Iio Jozo’s rice vinegar in the recipe. So far, so good.
Sated and warmed by the soup, we still have another 10 minute journey in a taxi until we are finally at Iio Jozo. They are situated right on the water of Kunda Bay, which lies just to the east of Miyazu. It’s quiet in this hamlet, and a light rain has started again. As the taxi drops us off, we wander a bit around, unsure of where to enter. The smell of vinegar eventually leads us to the entrance and we are greeted warmly by the 4th generation Iio-san.
Iio-san begins our tour by telling us that it’s really his son, 5th generation Iio-san, who is the President and runs the company on a day-to-day basis. Turns out that Iio-san the younger is in Nagoya for a few days on business. So our host tells us that if we want to talk business, we’ll have to wait until we can speak with his son. Something tells me, however, that Iio-san senior still keeps a close eye on things.
Iio Jozo, the brewery, is over 120 years old but the real story of why their vinegar is so special starts back in the 1950s. It was during this time that the local farmers started using pesticides. Iio-san’s father, the 3rd generation owner, noticed that after the pesticides were applied, everything in the rice paddies dies including the beneficial frogs, snakes and other critters (no, he didn’t use that term). In his heart he knew that this wasn’t right, so in 1964 Iio-san was finally able to convince some of the mountainside rice farmers to grow their crops without pesticides. Today Iio Jozo even has its own rice farm, which supplies a small amount of the rice they use every year. Each year they get volunteers to come from as far away as Tokyo to help them plant in the spring and harvest in the fall. Hopefully someday we’ll participate and can report back on that experience.
Starting with pesticide-free rice, Iio Jozo then commences the laborious process of making vinegar from scratch. To do this they first make their own sake. This is rare since most small vinegar makers in Japan make vinegar from sake that they have purchased from a third-party brewery. Making sake using traditional methods is a skill set all of its own and is very labor intensive, taking about 45 days to make. Due to Japanese laws, nobody is allowed to buy or even taste Iio Jozo's sake, for that would impose a high tax. So naturally Iio-san did not bring us to his waterside house and allow us to taste it. But if he had, I’m sure we would’ve tasted an excellent sake.
This sake is then mixed with approximately equal parts water and vinegar mother and allowed to ferment and age. Iio Jozo ages their vinegar to round out the flavor and reduce the harshness of the acid. In total it takes about one year for Iio Jozo to make rice vinegar. For comparison purposes, the rice vinegar you buy in the supermarket takes about one day to make.
Iio-san explains to us that to be called rice vinegar in Japan, a manufacturer must use a minimum of 40 grams of rice to make 1 liter of rice vinegar. He then says that decent rice vinegar really needs 120 grams of rice. Iio-san’s ‘regular’ rice vinegar uses 200 grams per liter. And his premium uses 320 grams. And it’s not just the quantity of rice that Iio-san uses to make the vinegar, it’s the quality, too. Supermarket rice vinegar uses ‘old rice’ that’s been in government storage houses and costs about $1/kg. Iio-san buys only new, premium rice which costs over $5/kg.
So Iio-san’s process is more labor intensive, uses a larger quantity of higher cost ingredients and takes substantially longer (remember that old saying? time equals money). Yet he says he can only charge a little over twice what big vinegar companies charge. They’re really not taking the easy path, but their efforts are worth it. This rice vinegar is like nothing else we have tasted. In their small shop & tasting room, Iio-san takes us through each of their vinegars. He tells us how his son spent years developing their premium vinegar to appeal to the noses of some of their customers who don’t care for the scent of their ‘standard’ vinegar. We learn about how Joël Robuchon was smitten with Iio-san’s fig vinegar. And how they use locally-grown purple sweet potatoes to make a vinegar with a beautiful red hue.
As we end our visit, we thank Iio-san for his time and hospitality. The taxi ride back to Miyazu station is quiet as our heads swim in everything we just took in. This vinegar is the definition of artisanal. This is exactly what we’ve been looking for.
Two days later we change our plans and make a quick trip to Nagoya. Iio-san the younger is there at a local food festival. Iio-san senior suggested that we go there to speak with his son to see if he’d be willing to export to us. We love Iio Jozo’s vinegar and desperately want to introduce it to the US. But we need to make a good impression. Naturally, Iio-san is expecting us and graciously receives us. We tell him about our company, our passion for artisanal Japanese ingredients, and our desire to bring his products to the US. Over a handshake and a bow it is agreed. Iio-san will export his amazing vinegars to us. We leave with big smiles.