Kamebishi Soy Sauce
Reflecting the sophisticated food culture of the 18th century when it first started in business, Kamebishi brews a refined style of soy sauce with a mellow and balanced flavor that is underpinned by a velvety, medium-bodied richness. Innovations in recent years include dry powdered and long-aged versions of its soy sauce to meet the needs of modern lifestyles and global cuisines.
Founded in 1753 by the Okada family, Kamebishi Soy Sauce, known as Kamebishiya, is one of Japan’s oldest soy sauce brewers. It is not, by far, the oldest soy sauce company in Japan. That ranking goes to Kani, a soy sauce brewer on the island of Kyushu, which started its business in 1600 at about the time that the Japanese recipe for soy sauce was perfected. Around 1600, after years of tinkering with the tasty liquid that pooled on top of fermenting vats of soy beans to make miso, Japan’s food makers created the country’s unique version of soy sauce—a magical all-in-one seasoning that harmoniously combines saltiness, sweetness, acidity, a touch of bitterness, a little alcohol, and a big dose of umami. Its entrancing aroma and rich flavor make it delicious in itself and a key ingredient in creating Japan’s light yet deeply satisfying, ingredient-oriented cuisine.
Still, Kamebishiya has several distinguishing features among Japan’s ancient soy sauce brewers. It is one of only a handful still run as a small, family-owned business and the company is currently headed by the 17th generation member of the family Kanae Okada. She is helped by her daughter Kaori, who is increasingly taking over management of the company, and ten other employees. They brew their soy sauce according to traditional methods. In particular, they are the only soy sauce brewer in Japan to use the old mushiro (woven mat) method of making the base soy sauce koji that is the foundation of soy sauce. This helps to produce a refined type of soy sauce with a rich yet well-balanced and mellow flavor. At the same time, the Okadas have been leading innovation in the industry. They pioneered the making of dry powdered soy sauce to enhance soy sauce’s versatility as a condiment at the table. They have also been aging their soy sauces, and offer five, ten, twenty, and thirty-eight-year-old soy sauces which have complex flavors and are extreme forms of concentrated umami in a bottle.
Kamebishiya is located in the small country town of Hiketa on the northeast coast of Shikoku Island facing the Seto Inland Sea. Now a somewhat remote place, it was once part of the two epicenters of soy sauce brewing that existed during the Edo period (1608-1868). There were ten soy sauce breweries in the area and even more across the straits on Shodoshima Island where large-scale soy sauce brewing first took place in the early 1600s. (The other epicenter during the Edo period was around the cities of Noda and Chosi north of Tokyo which remain Japan’s main soy sauce brewing areas.) While Shodoshima continues to be a soy sauce making center, Kamebishiya is the only brewery left in its area.
The Okadas were a samurai family originally engaged in brewing the noble drink of sake. The process for making soy sauce is very similar to that for sake. In addition, the large kioke wooden barrels used back then to brew sake were passed on after thirty years to soy sauce brewers who could use them for a much longer period of time and to much better advantage. The beneficial microbes that exist in the wood aid fermentation and also enhance the flavor of soy sauce during the two years it spends in the barrels. The attraction of the soy sauce business for the Okadas was that soy sauce had become the most popular seasoning in Japan by the mid-1700s. Its flavor powered the complex, rich-tasting cuisine that emerged during Japan’s Edo period to feed the appetites of the country’s increasingly affluent society. Its all-purpose quality made cooking easier for Japan’s increasingly urban lifestyles.
Kamebishiya applies all the best practices for making all-natural, artisanal soy sauce, and the elegant flavor of its soy sauce reflects both the hand of the brewer and the blessings of nature. It uses top quality ingredients starting with domestic whole-fat marudaizu soy beans, which it gets from Hokkaido because soy beans are not grown locally. Its wheat is the premium hybrid Sanuki No Yume 2000 grown nearby. Sanuki is the old name for Kagawa prefecture, where Kamebishiya is located. The region has been Japan’s prime wheat-growing region for 1,000 years, and the Sanuki no Yume 2000 hybrid was developed in recent decades to revive a local heirloom variety of wheat that was facing extinction due to a series of climate-induced crop failures and also competition from imports of mass-produced generic wheat from abroad. Sanuki no Yume 2000 is a highly fragrant and flavorful wheat and plays an important role in giving Kamebishiya’s soy sauce its distinctive flavor. One of the key breakthroughs in creating the recipe for Japanese soy sauce in 1600 was the addition of wheat in an amount equal to the soy beans when creating the soy sauce koji. The subsequent fermentation of the wheat introduced liquor-like qualities to soy sauce, improving its fragrance, adding sweetness to balance its saltiness, giving it a new acidic brightness, and thinning its texture. Before being added to the koji, Kamebishiya roasts the wheat in the traditional method over sand, which increases the umami in the final product.
The Okadas employ two practices that underpin the rich, yet balanced and mellow flavor of their soy sauce. The first is the mushiro method of making the soy sauce koji. Soy sauce koji is the mixture of steamed soy beans and roasted wheat that is cultivated with the mold Aspergillus oryzae for three days and nights. The Okadas do this on one-hundred and sixty-eight mats made of bamboo and rice straw instead of wooden trays (another old method) or in large stainless steel trays as is now the common practice. The mats allow for better air circulation, preventing the soy sauce koji at the bottom from becoming soggy and helping to maintain an even temperature. The soy sauce koji is the essence of soy sauce, and the Okadas carefully tend it, checking it every two hours during its gestation period.
Once the soy sauce koji is ready on the morning of the fourth day, when it has become firm and sweet, it is mixed with salt and water and becomes the moromi mash that will ferment in the kioke wooden barrels. The salt Kamebishiya uses is natural sea salt. The local water is soft water which, in general, produces a richer, mellower type of soy sauce. Some of Kamebishiya’s kioke wooden barrels are 150 years old. The brewery, which is the original structure, is also laden with flavor-enhancing microbes, some two-hundred and thirty different varieties that coat the walls, trusses, and ceiling of the ancient building.
The second key practice that Kamebishiya employs is to press the moromi mash to extract only the first 65% of its liquid. This leaves the strongest flavors and nearly all of the potentially off-tasting oils and sediments behind. Kamebishiya’s base koikuchi soy sauce is pressed after it has fermented and aged for two years. It is an all-purpose soy sauce that is perfect for cooking and can also be used as a finishing sauce. Its medium-body, rich yet balanced and mellow flavor pairs well with the region’s cuisine—seafood, seasonal vegetable dishes, and light cooking techniques.
Kamebishiya’s other main soy sauce is fermented and aged for three years. It is a double-brewed, re-fermented soy sauce in which new soy sauce koji is added to moromi mash after one year and the combined mixture is then aged for another two years. It is richer, sweeter, and even more mellow and balanced in flavor than the koikuchi soy sauce. Its salt content (embun) is 14.5% vs. 18% for the koikuchi. It should primarily be used to finish foods and is good on sashimi of tender white fish and also sweeter, stronger tasting seafood like octopus and squid.
Both the two-year koikuchi soy sauce and three-year soy sauce work well as seasonings in non-Japanese cooking and pair well, for example, with medium-fruity to more intense olive oils, fresh and soft ripened cheeses, and beef.
When Kanae took over the family business it was on the verge of collapse, a fate that many small artisanal soy sauce brewers have faced in the past century. She left a career in the travel industry in Tokyo but brought her skills and knowledge of modern lifestyles and international cuisines with her and also a passion to make her family’s artisanal food tradition a success. Through product innovations she has worked to ensure that Kamebishiya’s soy sauce stays relevant, interesting, and fun as well as delicious. Freeze-dried versions of Kamebishiya’s soy sauce were developed as Kanae says “to make it easier for people to take soy sauce with them when they travel.” Maybe more importantly, Kanae recognizes that soy sauce is essentially a concentrated form of umami and a dry, powdered version of it extends its usefulness by giving it texture and making it easy-to-use at the table as a condiment for a wide range of foods. Called soy salts, Kamebishiya’s freeze-dried soy sauces are available as koikuchi, 3-year-old soy sauce, and usukuchi soy sauce and also flavored soy sauce salts, including onion and garlic, green pepper and garlic, hot togarashi chili, and a balsamico vinegar soy sauce combination that was created in collaboration with an Italian chef. Several of these come in small blocks so that you can grate them yourself. They can be used to add a touch of umami, as well as a saltiness and other flavorings, to salads, fresh and cooked vegetables, tofu, pasta dishes, and okayu rice porridge and other kinds of soups and stews. Because of their quality and ability to enhance the flavor of a range of foods, Kamebishiya’s soy salts have been chosen by a panel of experts, consisting of chefs, artists, designers, and writers among others, for inclusion in “The Wonder 500,” a government-sponsored program that identifies and promotes a select group of “local products that are the pride and joy of Japan.”
Kanae also began to long-age Kamebishiya’s soy sauce inspired by the quality and flavor of high quality, long-aged balsamic vinegar. One kioke wooden barrel has been aging since 1981 and is now a 38-year-old soy sauce, and its contents will continue to age until it is depleted. Others are aged for five, ten, and twenty years. Aging highlights the underlying richness and umami of Kamebishiya’s soy sauce and gradually increases its bitter-sweet taste and viscosity. The older they become, the more there is a Maillard reaction or “browning” of their flavors. The 20-year-old and 38-year-old soy sauces are the most complex, and the 20-year-old sauce has a chocolatey taste while the 38-year-old has a distinct caramel flavor. It is particularly good at providing the deliciousness of caramelization to quick-cooked goods like a wagyu steak that is seared at most for a minute on each side. The 20-year-old soy sauce is excellent on tofu and fresh and surface-ripened cheeses. Only a drop or two of these aged soy sauces should be used on foods, and they are as delicious on fruit and sweet confections as they are as condiments for savory foods.
The 20-year and 38-year-old soy sauces are only available as special orders on written request. Time is needed to prepare them as it takes a day to fill a small bottle of 20-year-old soy sauce by submerging it into the moromi mash and letting the thick liquid slowly filter into the bottle. It takes three days to fill a small bottle of the 38-year-old soy sauce. It is also necessary to prepare these bottles only on demand as the soy sauce must be kept refrigerated as soon as it has been extracted from its nurturing environment. The aged soy sauces are essentially concentrations of living organisms with flavors that are the essences of the earth, air, and time.
Story: Tom Schiller
Photos: Tom Schiller
2174 Hiketa, Higashikagawa City, Kagawa Prefecture 769-2901
Tel: +81 (0879) 33-2555
As part of Kanae Okada’s efforts to promote the quality and values of a well-made, small-town artisanal food product like the soy sauce made at her family’s brewery, and also reflecting her former career in the travel industry, she has made Kamebishiya a destination. Open from 10:00 to 17:00 every day except for the New Year’s holidays, Kamebishiya has a shop and tasting room, a small cafe where one enjoy a bowl of udon wheat noodles (a local specialty) topped with soy sauce or Kamebishiya’s more intensely flavored and thicker moromi mash, and, by appointment, tour the brewery and preserved rooms of the family home. A couple of rooms in the brewery complex have also been turned into an apartment that can be booked for overnight stays so that visitors can spend time in Hiketa and visit the other artisanal food and craft makers in the area.
The town of Hiketa is about a 45-minute ride on the local JR Kotoku Line from Takamatsu, the main port and largest city of Kagawa prefecture. From Hiketa station it is about a 10-minute walk to Kamebishiya.
Takamatsu, in turn, is served by JR Seto-Ohashi trains coming from Okayama City on the Honshu mainland as well as by ferry boats from Honshu that also make stops at several offshore islands in the Seto Inland Sea, including Naoshima and Shodoshima. In addition, Takamatsu has an airport, and there are regular daily flights from Tokyo.
Takamatsu & Nearby Travel
Takamatsu is a modern town, almost entirely rebuilt after World War II, but is a great starting point for travel in the area given how conveniently located the main train station is to the ferry terminal, good choice of hotels, and many local restaurants. From Takamatsu, you can take a regular or high-speed ferry to several different ports on the soy sauce making center of Shodoshima Island or go to the art islands of Naoshima, Teshima, and Inujima, which are all part of the Benesse Art Site complex.
From Takamatsu you can also go inland, continuing on the JR Kotoku train line to the town of Tokushima City, which is the gateway to the rugged mountains, steep valleys, gorges, ravines, ancient forests, and charming villages of Tokushima prefecture. The remote Iya Valley and the mountain villages of Kamikatsu and Kamiyama are particularly spectacular and great places to wander, hike, and stay due to local residents’ efforts to provide interesting restaurants and accommodations and lead Japan in the preservation of the local environment. A member of The Association of the Most Beautiful Villages of Japan, Kamikatsu was the first town in Japan to promulgate a zero waste policy. It is also famous for being the center of production in Japan of tsumamono, the decorative leaves and flower buds used to season and adorn dishes of Japanese food. Kamiyama, in turn, has a number of trendy cafes, restaurants, shops, and inns as a result of its “Green Valley” project, which includes an artist-in-residence program and the installation of a high-speed fiber optic network so that young people can live and work there remotely.
Takamastu City also has two extraordinary attractions that make it a destination in itself—Ritsurin Garden and The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in the nearby town of Mure.
Completed in 1745 over a period of one-hundred years, Ritsurin is Japan’s largest garden and also one of its best and most famous. It is a large landscape garden designed in the style of a kaiyu-shiki-teien, or four season stroll garden, which is a design that reached its zenith during the Edo era. It includes all of the classic elements of stroll gardens to surprise and delight the senses, including seasonal plantings, garden scenes that are hidden and then revealed, and shakkei “borrowed scenery” by incorporating adjacent Mt. Shiun into the overall design. Although built by the local feudal lord as an elegant pleasure garden, it is a garden that also has introspective and contemplative qualities which are created by the abstract forms and arrangements of the over 1,400 pine trees in the garden. You can get to Ritsurin by the same JR Kotoku train that takes you to Kamebishiya in Hiketa.
The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Japan
In 1969 Isamu Noguchi, the Japanese American sculpture who is as famous for his furniture and landscape designs as he is for his monumental works of art wrought out of rock and stone, established a summer studio in the village of Mure outside of Takamatsu City. His main residence and studio was in Long Island City, New York, which is a partner organization to the museum in Mure. The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Japan consists of Isamu Noguchi’s house, studio, sculpture and stone yard, and an informal landscape garden—all exactly as they were when the artist died in 1988. Being somewhat off the beaten path, the museum is usually an empty and quiet place, giving the visitor a chance to not only appreciate Noguchi’s beautiful works of art but also to experience the Japanese belief in the spirituality of stone, which Noguchi captures in all of his work.