Thursday, April 24, 2008


Mitsukan, er, Mizkan

I'd been to rice vinegar factory Mitsukan a few years before during a visit to the Handa matsuri, but was pleased to take a more leisurely tour on my recent trip. Handa is my mother's hometown, and a place filled with memories for me. The minute I switch to the Taketoyo train, which takes me from Nagoya down the Chita Peninsula, I immediately relax, because I am "going home" in a way. Whenever I buy Mitsukan products in America, I note the "Handa, Aichi" label on the bottle and smile inwardly, thinking of the place and the people crafting the vinegar I use for cooking.

The location of the company is incredibly picturesque--right on the river, and with the old warehouses still preserved. It's no wonder the company grounds have been used for backdrops to historical films. I love these old, low Meiji buidings, painted dark like this to keep insects away. Note that the buildings have many windows. This is because rice vinegar, Mitsukan's main product, is made here, and the temperature regulated during the summer via all these windows.

The company has been through a few changes since I last visited, including the purchase of Holland House and a rebranding of "Mitsukan" to "Mizkan." The rebranding doesn't change the name really, but I assume it was part of an effort to get foreigners to stop saying "Mi-TSU-kan" and to start pronouncing it "MITS-kan." Come to think of it, I often spell my middle name as "Mutsky" so people won't say "Mu-TSU-ki."

One thing that hasn't changed much is the logo. I was told on a tour that the logo was developed to symbolize the successful making of vinegar; three levels of flavor--taste, smell and acidity must be balanced for a round flavor.

In all of this reorganization, Mitsukan also has made the effort to explain its role in history and to tie its success to that 21st century global phenom: sushi.

Sushi, after all, requires good vinegar!

The above graph demonstrates how vinegar consumption during the Edo period skyrocketed as nigiri-sushi (what we in the west commonly just call sushi) became popular as street food. According to family lore, Matazaemon Nakano (get a load of that feudal name) first had the idea of making vinegar out of discarded sake lees; the Nakano family also made sake. This would have been back in 1804. To give you some sense of how business works in Japan, Mitsukan is still owned by the Nakano family!

There was even a reproduction of an Edo period sushi stand to demonstrate how people would have sold and purchased the food to go.

The actual vinegar making facilities can't be photographed. And I was so intent of tasting the vinegars that I was allowed to drink, that I forgot to photograph the charming man who gave a talk and showed us a little film. Needless to say, much of the company's focus seems to be on demonstrating how healthy vinegar is for the body, how it can release calcium from the bones of meat, how it relieves fatigue and lowers cholesterol. No wonder, then, that vinegar drinks are part of the line of products available--at least in Japan.

After visiting the sake factory, we wandered over to Nakano, which still makes sake and is run by a different brother in the Nakano family. Unlike Ichizawa Hanpu, the Nakano family outwardly still seems to be intact.

This is a lovely and historic neighborhood with pretty gardens and old-fashioned construction. I loved the atmosphere.

While the actual Nakano sake is no longer made in this facility, the tour does explain very nicely how sake is produced.

This photo demonstrates how rice is polished down from its natural brown state, to become white. "Daiginjo sakes" receives its honorary designation because anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of the exterior of each grain is polished away. The "waste" is used to make crackers or noodles--so waste is not an entirely appropriate term!

We had a nice tasting, which left me toasted. The day before, Gordon and I had really enjoyed Nakano's Daiginjo, and so were very happy to leave the tour with several bottles, two of which made it home to New York. I know one of these will be enjoyed with some special people.

Historically, businesses that dealt in sake hung a "ball" made out of cedar called a sugidama in the entrance to their shop. A green or fresh ball indicated that new sake had been released. The one in this photo is not green at all, as you can see! (It's hanging over our heads, in the window).

Note: In more recent news, Mitsukan has just acquired more brands, beefing up its North American presence.

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