The city of Tsukuba in Japan's Ibaraki prefecture gets its name from the area’s famous and beautiful Mount Tsukuba. Made up of two converged peaks (where, according to legend, the sacred male and female divinities that created Japan are enshrined), it is often compared to Mount Fuji, which represents the west, whereas Mount Tsukuba represents the east. The Inaba sake brewery is located in the cool highlands at the foot of the mountain’s southern slope, a 30-minute drive from the academic city of Tsukuba (home to over 300 scientific research institutes and companies).
Founded in 1867, Inaba’s flagship brand name, Minanogawa, comes from the name of the river that flows between Mount Tsukuba’s two peaks and then merges into the Sakura River.
The brewery has been run by the Inaba family for six generations and is now managed by Yoshitaka Inaba (pictured above), who adopted the Inaba name after marrying Nobuko Inaba, who works as the brewery’s toji [brewer]. It wasn’t easy for Nobuko to be accepted into her family’s business. “My father, Kazutoshi Inaba, never asked me to take over the family kura [storehouse],” she recalls. After graduating from university she found her first job in the city, working at a department store. There she met the love of her life, Yoshitaka, and they married. Having moved to the hustle and bustle of the city, her memories of growing up in a countryside kura seemed like the distant past, but sometime in her early thirties, while drinking at a local bar, the delicious polished taste of the local choice sake brew brought back a flood of childhood memories. She remembered calling toji her ‘Kura Uncle’; the craftsmen who tended to the barrels; the smell of the fermenting mash and how it changed with every passing day; and how she was loved and taken care of by her brewery family.
From that moment on, she knew that brewing was what she was meant to do. Anyone could fill her place in the job she was currently doing at the department store, but if she did not take up the mantle at her family brewery, nobody else would. After talking it over with Yoshitaka, she spoke with her older sister to make sure she was not interested in taking over the family business. Finally, she told her parents her plan to continue their work. Expecting them to happily welcome her into the business, she was in for a rude awakening. Both her mother and father strongly opposed Nobuko taking over. “You are not up to it. Working and running a brewery takes painstaking effort and dedication,” they told her. Yet despite their arguments, Nobuko was already set on quitting her job and learning about brewing. From 1999 to 2000, she attended lectures on zymurgy at the Industrial Technology Institute of Ibaraki Prefecture. At the time, no matter the opposition, she says she knew with confidence verging on naïveté that she could do it. In 2001, she began making sake at her father’s kura in a specially built 700-litre brewery tank, smaller than the standard 6-ton tanks, to suit her stature, and she decided to steam only 5 kg (11 lb) of white rice at a time, as a manageable quantity. She bought used tools and equipment, opting out of using the large old brewing diaphragm and using the ‘hanging bag’ method with cotton bags to strain the liquid from the rice. The name of the brew Nobuko invented, Stella, means ‘star’ in Latin. The Inaba Brewery’s nickname, The Star Hometown Brewery, is full of Nobuko’s love for her brewery, and for being back from city life, under the starry night of her hometown.
Adding one tank after another, slowly over time, she painstakingly developed her hand-strained sake. As Nobuko’s brew began to gain popularity, it started attracting more and more new customers. In 2007, she and Yoshitaka started managing the brewery as a couple, and her father would come by to see how things were going. Then in 2010, Nobuko’s father passed away. “I still had so much to learn from my father,” she says. She spoke with reverent praise of her father, who had told her stories of generations past as he polished the Buddhist mortuary tablets. Although his loss was painful, her father’s passion for brewing lives on in his family while his spirit continues to watch over his brewery. Nobuko’s love for brewing is her love for her father. “Just do what you can. Have no regrets in anything. Be ready to get your hands dirty in order to get results.” Nobuko takes to brewing with everything she has, so that at the end of the day she has no regrets. Minanogawa, the ‘men’s and women’s river’, connects a father and daughter, as well as a husband and wife.