April 21, 2023
Old townscape and ‘Rabbit Island’ one of Japan’s three great sake areas
Visiting the old townscape and “Rabbit Island”
Known as “the little Kyoto of Aki” (the old name for part of present-day Hiroshima Prefecture), Takehara is a tranquil town retaining a historic streetscape designated an Important Preservation District in Japan for Groups of Traditional Buildings. In the Heian Period (794 to the beginning of the 12th century), Takehara flourished as a domain of Kyoto’s Shimogamo Shrine. In the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), the town’s port became widely known as an important transportation hub in the Seto Inland Sea.
In the course of its long history, the town reached the peak of its prosperity with the salt fields established there in 1650. The salt was transported from Takehara’s port throughout Japan, and the ships returned loaded with rice and other commodities. The distribution of rice led to the start of sake production in Takehara, and the town’s maritime transportation industry expanded while the port prospered as an outbound hub for shipping salt and rice.
The old streetscape that remains today is a vestige of Takehara’s age of prosperity. The majority of its machiya (traditional wooden houses) were built between the mid-Edo Period (18th century) and the Meiji Era (19th to early 20th centuries). The oldest is the Yoshii Residence, built in 1691. (The house’s interior is not open to the public.) The special characteristic of Takehara’s townscape is that each block is made up entirely of traditional buildings, as in the past. Looking north and south on the main street (Honmachi-dori), with its rows of traditional merchant house structures, gives one the illusion of having time-traveled to one of the traditional merchant towns that used to exist throughout Japan.
No trip to Takehara is complete without a visit to Okunoshima, popularly known as “Rabbit Island.” Taking the ferry from the little port near Takehara, you no sooner disembark on the island than scores of cute rabbits appear before your eyes. (There are about 1,000 rabbits on the island in all.)
But there is a dark side to Okunoshima’s history. Between 1929 and 1945, the Imperial Japanese Army secretly developed and produced poison gas on the island. At the time, rabbits were kept for the purpose of animal testing of poison gas. None of the rabbits on the island today are descended from those rabbits, all of which were euthanized when the poison gas-related facilities were dismantled after the war. It is said that the current rabbit population is descended from rabbits that were released and returned to the wild in the 1970s. Nonetheless, the island’s cute rabbits do recall the poison gas experimentation of the past and underline a dark side of history. A museum about the development of poison gas, and the remnants of military facilities, remain on the island today. A visit is an opportunity to learn more about Japan’s history.
One of Japan’s three great sake production areas
The town of Saijo is regarded as one of Japan’s three great sake production areas, along with Nada in Hyogo Prefecture and Fushimi in Kyoto Prefecture. Just steps from Saijo Station is the 800-meter-long Sakagura-dori (Sake Brewery Street). To this day there are seven breweries producing sake in the vicinity of the station. When the San-yo Line was opened in 1894, the station was built near where the Hakubotan, Kirei and Kamotsuru breweries already stood. Why are so many breweries concentrated in such a small area? When they were established, this was the only district blessed with water ideal for sake brewing. A brewery district tour offering chances to view the sake-making process and purchase various types of sake will delight anyone who loves sake.
Saijo is about 40 minutes from Hiroshima Station on the San-yo Line. With Hiroshima University’s relocation to the area in the 1970s, Saijo was developed as an academic center and commuter town, and underwent remarkable growth. It was in the late Edo Period in the 19th century that Saijo became widely known for sake production. The area is a basin surrounded by mountains, and the soft water brought in from these mountains is indispensable in producing Saijo’s delicious sake.
In the early days of sake production, however, the softness of the local water was a problem. From the late Edo Period to the early Meiji Era, the town’s sake production was modeled on brewing methods used in Nada, Hyogo Prefecture. At the time, even the yeast was sent in from Nada; but with the use of soft water instead of Nada’s mineral-rich hard water, fermentation was slow and all of the sake turned out cloying and sweet. What is more, preservation methods were ineffective and the sake spoiled quickly. In sake making, minerals like calcium and magnesium become nutrients for yeast, activating fermentation. Since soft water has few of the nutrients required by yeast, sake production with soft water is characterized by slow and gentle fermentation. Through trial and error, a brewing method for making delicious sake with soft water was established around the middle of the Meiji Era. Thus, a mellow, well-rounded “feminine” sake, as opposed to Nada’s “masculine” (dry, sharp-tasting) sake, was born in Saijo.