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Fukushima Sake Brewer Celebrates 10 Years in Seattle Area

By Chisaki Sato
For The North American Post

Next Monday, March 11, will mark the 13th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Fukushima Prefecture, which suffered damage from the nuclear power plant meltdown, is still in the midst of various reconstruction efforts. But one byproduct of the devastation is that Shirafuji, a Fukushima sake brewery with over 300 years of history, has relocated from Futaba to Woodinville. In this issue, we talk to the brother and sister team, Mamoru and Mari Tomisawa, who now head the sake brewery.

▲Shirafuji brewers Mamoru Tomisawa and Mari Tomisawa pose with their father.The brewery has been the family business since 1650.

◀︎ They moved their business from Futaba (circled in red below) to Seattle in 2014 because of the March 11, 2011, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that left Futaba devastated.

After the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, the staff at Shirafuji was forced to evacuate Futaba and close the brewery due to exposure to radiation. The brewery, run by the same family for 21 generations, faced an existential crisis. They searched for a place to brew their sake in Chiba, Saitama, Tochigi, Osaka, Mie, Hiroshima, and Shimane prefectures, hoping to purchase a brewery and continue their craft. However, they also ran into restrictive sales laws. The brewery was only legally licensed to sell sake in the town of Futaba. Mamoru and Mari struggled to find a way out of this conundrum.

Then, through a chance encounter, Mari met a sake brewer who was touring abroad and talked to her about possibilities in the U.S. In 2012, Mari came to the U.S. to check out the scene. After the trip, she and Mamoru decided that moving to the U.S. was the best way to restart their sake brewing business.

At the time, an increasing number of businesses were leaving Japan to start operations overseas, the Tomisawas said. They were fortunate enough to have plenty of mentors and advisors who helped them figure out U.S. laws and regulations governing sake brewing, which are very different from those in Japan. But even with the help of others, the process was difficult.

The Tomisawas studied American business rules, visited U.S. supermarkets and conducted research on sake drinking patterns in the US. In those days, Japanese products weren’t sold much at Costco, as they are now, so the research was daunting.

While their hometown struggled to recover after the 3/11 devastation, the siblings pondered a return to Futaba. But today’s Futaba is very different from the Futaba they left 13 years ago. People have moved away because of the effects of continued radiation, and the town is mostly home to decontamination workers. The siblings decided to establish their roots in Seattle.

This year, Shirafuji celebrates its 10th year in the greater Seattle area. Two years ago, they opened a brewery in Woodinville. They use Yamada Nishiki rice imported from Arkansas, which has water quality similar to that of Futaba before the 3/11 disaster. “The goal for the future has changed from ‘reconstruction’ to ‘challenge,’” says Mamoru.

In recent years, the popularity of sake in the U.S. has continued to grow, and Japanese sake is now available at local supermarkets. . But the difficulties are not over yet, Mamoru says. The sake that Japanese people want and the sake that Americans want are very different. “Being in the U.S., we have to research the demand and continue to make products that meet the demand,” he says.

But one thing has not changed: the family is back to doing what it has done well since opening in 1650: brewing high-quality sake.

The Shirafuji tasting room–located at 18800 142nd Ave NE, Unit 1A, Woodinville–is open from 3-6pm on Friday and 2-6pm on the weekends. Ask about joining the brewery’s sake club to receive special offers and discounts. And you can buy gift cards, beautiful sake cups and pitchers and a nifty sake brewing apron at its website, https://shirafuji.com/.