Perfecting tradition - Horikawaya Nomura

Perfecting tradition - Horikawaya Nomura

Our first day in Japan is always a whirlwind…we take a redeye that leaves SFO at about 1am and gets into Tokyo’s Haneda airport at just before 5am. After a quick shower at the airport ($10 for 30 minutes!), udon noodles for breakfast and we set off via train toward our destination. That first day seldom ends before midnight…Japan adrenaline gets us through.

Our first stop on this trip is Horikawaya Nomura, an artisanal soy sauce brewery, and it’s a long way from Haneda. Monorail from Haneda to Hamamatsucho, on to the Yamanote line to Shinagawa, shinkansen to Osaka and then a regional line down to Gobo City in Wakayama Prefecture. In all a 5 1/2 hour train trip. Why are the best producers seemingly always so remote?

The final part of our train journey winds along the coast of Wakayama Prefecture. Just inland from the water are hills dotted with orchards. It turns out they are full of mandarin trees, for which Wakayama Prefecture is famous. The view reminds Greg of the Cinque Terre in Italy.

We get to Gobo City, Takehiro and Chen-san from Wadaman are here to greet us. And they’ve brought Doi-san…he’s heard great things about Horikawaya Nomura and can’t help but visit to increase his knowledge. We exchange pleasantries and get in the Wadaman company car on the way to Horikawaya Nomura.

Seemingly everything in Japan is ruled by personal relationships. As such, we had a personal introduction to Horikawaya Nomura by Iio-san of Iio Jozo. They know each other through the industry - artisan producers seem to know artisan producers. Both of their companies are also part of a group called Handred - a collection of small producers still making ingredients utilizing artisanal methods. We sense a great deal of mutual respect between these two artisans.

The word ‘city’ is a bit of an overstatement, especially by Japan standards, since the population is less than 30,000 people. As such, it’s quiet here, with few people on the streets. As we wind our way toward Horikawaya Nomura, Takehiro is a little unsure of the way at first, but quickly we’re back on track and find ourselves in front of the ‘factory’. It’s less factory and more traditional Japanese home…a low slung, wooden building with slats in front of the windows. The wonders inside are hidden to us at this point.

Wakayama Prefecture is called the birthplace of soy sauce. More than 800 years ago a Buddhist monk returned from China, decided to settle in Wakayama and brought with him the practice of making a type of miso called kinzanji miso. Over time people realized that the liquid from this kinzanji miso was delicious…and thus soy sauce was born. So here in the birthplace of soy sauce we went to what some argue is the oldest soy sauce brewery in Wakayama - Horikawaya Nomura.

Nomura-san greets us at the door…he’s young, energetic and fiercely proud of his company, product and history. We visitors thank him for receiving us and give gifts to our host - mushroom jerky from us, sesame products from Takehiro & Chen-san and konbu from Doi-san. Nomura-san invites us into the building and shows us to their tatami-lined meeting room. Green tea is served and Nomura-san tell us about the history of his company. He’s the 18th generation to run the company, whose history spans over 300 years. I’m still in awe of this family’s dedication to their craft. My respect grows even more when Nomura-san shows us to the brewery and explains how they have really stayed true to the traditional ways of making soy sauce.

Instead of modernizing, Horikawaya Nomura has perfected the traditional methods over three centuries. Pretty much every other soy sauce brewery now uses natural gas power to steam the soybeans and roast the wheat. But not Horikawaya Nomura - they still use wood fires. Nomura-san first shows us where they boil the soybeans. In some other breweries we’ve been shown giant steel pressure vessels probably 10 feet high. Here at Horikawaya Nomura to boil their soy beans they start a wood fire underneath a 150-year-old, giant iron pot. Nomura-san tells us it’s one-of-a-kind. In this pot they boil a 150 kg batch of soybeans for 8 hours.

In another part of the brewery is where they toast the wheat, giving it subtle coffee & chocolate notes. To a Westerner like me, the large pan in which they roast the wheat looks like a giant paella pan. It is also heated by a wood fire.

The next step is to mix the soybeans and toasted wheat together with spores of that wonderful beneficial mold Aspergillus oryza. Naturally, this is also done by hand. The mixture is then portioned out onto trays and taken to the koji room.

Nomura-san moves us toward the koji room and opens up a small door and turns on a light. The room contains trays and trays of koji. In the middle is a small wood fire keeping the room warm and encouraging the mold to grow. The wood smoke also imparts a bit of smokiness to the koji - part of the character of this brewery. Nomura-san tells us that they make koji 70 times a year - that’s a new batch every five days or so.

Turning the corner we come into the aging room. The place has that wonderful fermented smell common to soy sauce breweries. The twelve cedar barrels here have stood the test of time - they’re anywhere from 60 to 170 years old. Nomura-san ages the moromi (soy sauce mash) for between 18 months and 2 years in these barrels.

After aging, Nomura-san transfers the moromi by hand into bags which are placed into an old wooden press. For 24 hours the moromi is pressed only by gravity, allowing the soy sauce to naturally seep out and be collected. This is really a labor of love and patience.

We are overwhelmed by the dedication. Horikawaya Nomura has stayed with these traditional methods not to be different but because it makes their soy sauce taste better. And they’re right. Full of umami, Horikawaya Nomura’s soy sauce is delicate and balanced, with a hint of smoke and sweetness. When Nomura-san tells us that they’re capacity constrained and that his father is not very interested in exporting, we’re disheartened. But he goes on to tell us that he’s very interested in exporting and that it might be possible to sell to us. We’re elated.

In the car ride back to Gobo City train station, everyone is talking about the unique experience we have just had. Horikawaya Nomura is truly one of a kind.

The Japanese Pantry is excited and humbled to offer Horikawaya Nomura’s aged soy sauce. Please click here to go to the Product Page and buy this amazing shoyu.