In February, snow flurries down like feathers, blanketing the mountains in white. Even when the cloud cover grows thick and the Lake Biwa waters turn a charcoal grey, the monochromatic landscape is bright and cinematic. In this light, it seems deceptively still, as if life moves in slow motion. In reality, there is much activity and energy radiating all around us, but it’s much harder to see.
On the fungal level, there’s activity on the stacked logs in the partially shaded forest at Minakuchi Farm. Shiitake mushrooms that have been inoculated around 20 months prior are ready to harvest. Their growth is left to the will of nature, which tends to act a bit differently each and every year. The shiitake grow on logs from local trees and can be used for three years, after which they are ground into compost and return to the land into Minakuchi Farm’s fertile soil.
While the snow-covered land seems empty on the surface, if you dig beneath, you will find daikon that has sweetened in the cold temperatures and is prime for picking. Daikon raises its sugar content in winter to prevent freezing. It is delicious raw, but can also be cut and dried as kiriboshi daikon, which sweetens it further, and keeps in our pantry for the coming months.
Meanwhile, behind the centuries-old wooden doors of the town’s sake brewery, sake specialists are milling with activity from before dawn until late into the night. Steam is in the air, stacks of rice get carried from one station to another – first in its brown paper bag, then in a metal jug, then into a mesh strainer, and finally into cloth bags. Uehara-san mills rice for 48 hours at a time, using strains from small and large producers alike. The milled rice is then washed, soaked, and dried through a meticulous and highly time-sensitive process whereby minutes and seconds change the type of sake that will be brewed. Balanced barrel temperatures are also paramount to allow bacteria to thrive at the desired rate. This fervent microbial activity creates alcohol via fermentation and results in a particular sweetness.
Invigorated from a newfound appreciation for the invisible activity around us, we return to Fukudaya, where a hotpot of wild boar and Minakuchi Farm’s shiitake mushrooms await. The warmth from the hotpot glows out from within and soothes us from head to toe. Warmth invigorates life all around, however small or large a form it may take.
Uehara Sake Brewery