A Japanese man in his seventies who laughs heartily welcomes us, it’s Tsuneoka san, 70 years old. For his second stop at the heart of Japanese know-how, Poulpy is invited to enter his artisanal factory of shōyu (醤 油), the famous Japanese soy sauce essential to any self-respecting Japanese cuisine. For those who don’t know, it’s the sauce we eat sushi with, but it would be rude to reduce it to that. Small intimate visit.
In his workshop over 100 years old, with blue tiles frozen in time, typical of the Edo period, Tsuneoka san produces the delicate soy sauce as did his ancestors before him. A long, whole-year process that follows the earth’s slow cycles from spring to winter. A sweet slowness very necessary in this hectic world which will make all the quality of the final product.
To take advantage of this unique atmosphere and the stories it abounds in, Poulpy went to Imaicho, a small village preserved from time, one hour from Nara. This place remains little known to tourists and has been completely deserted since the health crisis. There are very few of us there. Tsuneoka-san shows us around this space where the magic has been operating for centuries.
Recipe ? Natural foods, time and know-how.
Soy sauce is believed to have reached from China to Japan over a millennium ago through importation of Buddhism. It’s the vegetarianism cultivated by the monks which would have favored the diffusion of this sauce rich in vegetable proteins, excellent to replace the extracts or the juice of meats in the preparations. One thing is certain: the Japanese version of this juice, called shōyu, is considered lighter than Chinese jiàngyóu, although strong in taste. Maybe that’s what made him so popular around the world? Far from international exports, let’s dive into its original preparation, with our host.
Like all good things, it is from the simplicity of the ingredients that shōyu will be born. Salt, soybeans and wheat. Nothing more ! If not a few old secrets … Methodically, Tsuneoka-san mixes these ingredients with water and yeast from rice kept in giant barrels of 5,400 liters, too, 100 years old. A word of advice, watch where you step at the risk of being swallowed by these wooden monsters … Unless it is not them that we should be wary of?
In the shōyu’s lair, the monsters are not what we think …
Tsuneoka takes great care of these impressive barrels because, he knows, they will one day disappear with him. Because, the craftsmanship needed to manufacture these exceptionally large containers no longer exists, neither in Japan, nor elsewhere. Industrialization, this other monster that we no longer pay attention to as it has invaded our daily lives, has, for its part, really swallowed everything …
Until when ? How far ? Because even the art of soy sauce undergoes the ardor of this mechanized giant that is chain machining : today, names like the giant Kikkoman invade the market. The Japanese group listed on the stock exchange, also established in Europe (the Netherlands), produces no less than 14.2 million liters of sauce per year and keeps expanding. The gigantic metal vats, called tanks, have a much more frightening look than that of our dear wooden barrels. These suddenly seem to become creatures much more accessible and benevolent.
In the latter, above which Tsuneoka-san balances, ferments a strange viscous reddish mud that you have to mix regularly with a large wooden spatula. Could this therefore be the entrance to Japanese hell? His host seems very friendly in any case. In the twilight and humidity, the fermentation of the mixture will last all fall, giving off an odor of the most singular which one will not dare to describe.
Winter come, the mud is then pressed to get out the famous delicious juice: the shōyu. We can use this salty, but dense condiment, like a vinegar or an oil in a salad, or to make umami (う ま 味, smooth, tasty) our evening broth. Tsuneoka-san is happy. His face shows it. The man helps to preserve a unique and precious know-how which flirts with magic. More than a story of sauce, it is a moment of sharing that the lucky Poulpy was able to taste.
It’s only a good bye…
Crafts are everywhere threatened by our desire for speed and productivity sometimes we don’t even understand the meaning anymore. Why is time shrinking like this? While waiting to understand it and free ourselves from it, some workshops still cultivate this rare wealth that is slowness : rare to the point that it now seems prodigious to those who are exposed to it. Only chance to ensure the survival of this tradition and the unique aromas that it offers to our palates, these cavities of discovery and curiosity? Probably to visit this maker and leave with a bottle of his precious nectar. And to make you wait until then, two more encounters with Japanese history and tradition will be waiting for you in the coming days, far from the tumult of the city, in the hands of the Archipelago.
More info about this place here: https://www.visitnara.jp/venues/S00977/
Do you like our little stories live from Japan? Order a souvenir from Japan on Tipeee: https://fr.tipeee.com/mr-japanization
The source concerning the Kikkoman industry: https://www.usinenouvelle.com/article/la-sauce-soja-dans-tous-ses-etats.N134093