Torii gates, sushi, manga, and Mount Fuji are just some of the many things that immediately shout “Japan!” at anyone who will listen. And yet another one of these intensely Japanese signals, though perhaps more subtle, is the humble bottle of soy-sauce. And while shared across the culinary landscape of East Asia, it is perhaps right here in this place we call Shikoku that the finest examples of the condiment can be found. 

Rising from the brilliant blue waters of the Seto Inland Sea, the island of Shōdoshima serves as a tightly packed version of mainland Shikoku condensed into stretches of sandy coast, mountains, valleys, small-town scenery, and the island even somehow manages to contain its own miniature version of the 88-Temple Shikoku Pilgrimage. Yet Shōdoshima is perhaps most famous for the numerous olive groves that can be found just about anywhere and which at times almost seem to consume the island. 

Shōdoshima was one of three locations where the crop was introduced at the behest of a Japanese government still dripping with a freshly painted coat of modernity and Shōdoshima was the only location where the olive tree really took root. The government’s hope in this endeavor was that domestically produced olive oil could be used in canning projects for the rapidly expanding Imperial Navy. However, the tradition of growing olives stuck and is largely responsible for their widespread cultivation which has remained to this day. 

However, before the olive tree’s march across the island was even conceived of, Shōdoshima was particularly known for the production of salt and later soy-sauce. In fact, as salt was a highly valuable resource for much of Japan’s history, and in addition to Shōdoshima’s strategic location, the island was directly ruled by the Shōgunate for much of its history. And it is in salt production that the origins of what would become Yamaroku Soy-Sauce Brewery emerged. 

A Tradition Grown from Salt

Originating somewhere in mainland Hyōgo Prefecture as part of the Akō Clan, the Yamamoto Family is thought to have come to Shōdoshima as part of the clan’s attempts to capitalize salt production on the island. Ultimately, these endeavors may have worked out too well as deforestation and manmade infrastructure had ruined the agricultural integrity of the soil by the time salt production became common across the shores of the Seto Inland Sea which ultimately led to the bursting of Shōdoshima’s lucrative “salt bubble.” 

This in turn led many families to switch to the production of soy-sauce or face ruin due to the now poor soil. At its height, the number of soy-sauce producing families on the island was around 400 and roughly 150 years ago, the Yamamoto Family joined their ranks when they first transitioned into the industry.

Originally, the Yamamoto Family would only produce “moromi,” a mash made up of soybeans, salt, and rice which serves as the corner stone of soy-sauce production and from which the sauce is eventually extracted once the fermentation process is completed. It was only much later after returning from the Pacific War that the third-generation owner invested in a press to squeeze soy-sauce from the family’s own moromi and the heavy, black iron of this device remains in operation to this day seeming to prove the adage “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

Entering the Soy-Sauce Hell 

Yamamoto Yasuo, the current fifth-generation owner, recalls that when inheriting the family business his father actually warned him against the soy-sauce business quipping that he was “passing along hell,” which Yasuo would come to realize during the arduous process of manually mixing over 40 barrels of the all-important moromi with a massive wooden pole multiple times a day. And, as the fermentation process only speeds up, the mixture must be mixed at more and more frequent intervals making any sort of rest difficult and leading to the apt expression, “the amount of rest doubles the amount of hell.” 

Compounding this hell is the weather itself with the hot and humid summers of Shōdoshima making labor especially difficult due to the heat released during the fermentation process which transforms the interior of the warehouse into a living soy-sauce sauna. During the island’s winter the difficulty comes from the opposite end of the thermometer as harsh winds blow down from the surrounding mountains transforming sauna into icebox. Consequently, each bottle of soy-sauce produced is truly a labor of love and Yasuo’s dedication to keeping the traditions and flavors of the past alive is certainly admirable and likely goes far beyond what most of us might be willing to endure. 

Living Barrels

When standing in the warehouse the long history of hard work is tangible in the dimly lit silence inhabited by massive “kioke,” large cedar barrels, which have been used to house countless tons of moromi over decades of production. The looming containers have a certain air about them and many of the larger ones can date back hundreds of years to the brewery’s earliest days. Not only is their existence a testament to the skill of traditional Japanese craftsmanship but it is almost humbling to consider that they are still in use to this day.

The usage of barrels to ferment the moromi was at one time widespread but after the advent of industrialization in Japan, the usage of authentic wooden barrels was overshadowed by modern methods. However, in addition to being one of the few remaining breweries still using these traditional style containers, Yasuo is also one of the few individuals in Japan who is still able to craft barrels of a size and quality able to handle the brewing process. So, there is some hope for the future of traditional methods at least with regards to soy-sauce. 

Covering many of these barrels are mossy colonies of microscopic beings surviving on the cedar slats. It is precisely these tiny forests of life that are so important in the fermentation process and which also lend heavily to the complexity of flavor found in the final product. And while in the warehouse one is quick to develop a certain indelible sense of appreciation towards these “living” barrels that have preserved flavors stretching all the way back to the twilight days of Medieval Japan. 

Indeed, recognition and appreciation for these microorganisms and what they are capable of goes far back in Japanese history and could even affect city-planning. For example, producers of “natto,” fermented soy-beans, were always located far from soy-sauce breweries as the cultures used in their respective fermentations are harmful towards each other. This tradition actually continues on today at Yamaroku as they ask visitors to abstain from eating natto before visiting. 

And while the culture and history of the brewery is a storied one, perhaps the best way to experience the brewery’s soy-sauce is through the avenues of taste and smell. 

The Sublime Resides in the Simple

The very air of the warehouse and brewery is thick with a deep, almost sweet aroma that only seems to grow stronger the longer visitors linger on within. The richness of the aroma alone has a certain thickness and weight to it and is a far cry from the sharp, often acrid scent of the red-capped bottles of Kikkoman that many Western visitors may be more familiar with. This richness carries over to taste, and both varieties of soy-sauce brewed here exhibit a richness and depth of flavor that is incomparable to other brands whose genesis is often found in a steel container. 

Brewed from anywhere between one to three years, “Kiku” (chrysanthemum) soy-sauce is smooth and light with the perceived richness of the warehouse air found dancing around the edges of the palate and when used in cooking imparts delicately rich stripes of flavor. 

Brewed for five years or more, the “Tsuru” (crane) variety is darker and brings the richness of the flavor to the center of the palate yet retains a faint, almost caramelized sweetness on the periphery of taste which makes it ideal for pairing with the often more subtle cuisine of Japan such as tōfu, sashimi, grilled fish, and even ice-cream on occasion.  

It is amazing to consider that such a depth and range of aroma and flavor ultimately comes from a handful of simple ingredients and time. However, the true flavor of Yamaroku Soy-Sauce ultimately originates from the traditions, history, and dedication of the brewers which not only lives on through the kioke barrels and warehouse, but also through the intense efforts put towards keeping the flavors of the past alive as shown by the Yamamoto Family over generations. It is this devotion that makes each bottle produced a piece of history and culture in its own right as well as an excellent way to rediscover the cuisine of Japan and just how amazing it can and should be.

And while at the end of the day it may only be a humble bottle of soy-sauce, Yamaroku certainly challenges our perceptions of what exactly Japanese cuisine is and the brewery remains just another one of many culinary gems waiting to be discovered on this place we call Shikoku.  

Written by H.Sapochak

Photos by Pierre Verney

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