A Day at a Soy Sauce Brewery

First on the itinerary bright and early at 7am after a Roppongi night out was the ultra high tech and immaculate factories of Yamasa Shoyu in Narita, newly built in 2011.

It’s a very auspicious start to the day as Endo — despite being Japanese — is 10 minutes late, and I, a whopping 15 freaking minutes… for the first meeting with the patient representatives of Yamasa Soy Sauce at our lobby. Whoops. Oh the horror and the shame. Wing Tam saved the day by not bothering to sleep after his first big night out in Tokyo and woke both of us up. Somehow, my iPhone 4S alarm never did its job but thank God I heard Wing knock ever so subtly on my door on his third attempt (Apparently I did not hear his first two times trying to wake me up). He couldn’t ask concierge to wake us up as he doesn’t speak Japanese…

I’m utterly ashamed but amazed that I actually have the uncanny ability to put myself together and get out the door in five minutes flat whilst in a hungover stupor. Thank you adrenalin and the mad styling skills that I’ve honed since senior year in high school. I also have to thank my university’s excellent Japanese program for their “Core Conversation” language drills. Now at every correct moment, six or seven forms of apologies in keigo falls out effortlessly from my lips, quivering with sincerity. Those and a succession of well-executed 40 and 45 degree bows placated the Yamasa representatives and ensured smooth relations for the long day ahead.


Tokyo view from a van

After an hour of driving and ritualized small talk on a comfortably spacious van (Chef and Sous Chef dozed off), we arrive at Narita. The superior has lived and worked in Brazil for years, so we converse a bit in Portuguese (he’s really good for a non-Brazilian Japanese!) and muse about bossa nova and Brazilian culture. The young minion is obsessed with rāmen so I tell him how the rāmen at Ichiran last night never tasted so damn good. We get out of the van and the fresh air hits us like a sledgehammer of purity. It feels like America! And then we enter the pristine premises of the Yamasa Shoyu factory.


Endo taking a snap of the Yamasa logo.

Most housewives favour Kikkoman, however Yamasa is the premium soy sauce eminently preferred by almost all professional Japanese chefs.

After a bit of bowing and briefing in a meeting room, we go though a high tech air shower and enter the cathedral-like space purified. Despite being covered up from head to toe like ninjas, the acute aroma of soy permeates our facemasks. Delicious.

Ninjas ready to infiltrate Yamasa

Nothing is allowed in, but as the journalist, I get to wield an authoritative clipboard and a pen. The regulated Zen of zigzagging conveyor belts and the repetitive sounds of shoyu being bottled, capped and boxed is surprisingly calming. Especially for those suffering from throbbing hangover headaches.


A meditative soy sauce packing space

The soy sauce isn’t produced in the Narita factory, but at their breweries in Choshi, Chiba.

Me, Endo & Wing in an old soy sauce barrel

Me, Endo & Wing in an old soy sauce barrel

After a comforting seafood lunch at a rustic seaside restaurant (thank God for beer) overlooking crashing waves, we passed through Ibaraki Prefecture to the Choshi Peninsula, where cold northern currents meet the warm Kuroshio from the south, producing the perfect environment for koji.

This mould, koji, is the national fungus of Japan, used to create of all its iconic food products — from fermenting soybeans for soy sauce and miso, to saccharifying grains for sake and rice vinegar.


Funky koji


Unlike Chinese soy sauce, Japanese shoyu contains wheat (sorry gluten-sensitives), imbuing it with yet another level of fragrance. It’s evident when walking around the silos where the cereals are roasted—profoundly satisfying smells like freshly baked bread waft through the air.

Wheat also gives Japanese soy sauce its reddish tint, and the deep aubergine hue bequeaths shoyu its poetic sushi bar epithet: “Murasaki” (purple).

Yamasa brewey in Choshi, Chiba Prefecture

Our guide walking backwards through the brewery


Looking up

Moromi (soya bean paste) at different stages of fermentation.

Moromi partying at different stages

Moromi is the thick mash of cereal & soy bean undergoing slow fermentation with their own special blend of bacteria, yeasts and moulds, all partying at different stages.

In the tasting room, we are given plate after plate of sashimi to see which soy sauce was sweeter, more delicate, full-bodied or with extra umami depth for fish. Their shoyu ice cream from the stall outside really hit the spot after all the pieces of raw tuna we ate, dipped in various blends of soy sauce.


Savory sweet treat

Bit too cold a chilly Chōshi afternoon

We end the day back at Yamasa Soy Sauce’s Tokyo office for a meeting with their president, Mr. Hamaguchi. He’s a very soft-spoken and cultured man, even after endless pourings of beer and sake. For dinner, he took us to Ishii, a restaurant in posh Nishi-Azabu for soft-shelled turtleExactly what I had manifested.

Here’s my post on our turtle soup dinner.

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