“SUGATA” is brewed in Tochigi City in Tochigi Prefecture.
Where the name “SUGATA” came from
Iinuma Meijo (Iinuma Meijo Co. Ltd.) is located in Nishikata-machi, in Tochigi.
Have you ever heard of the Obikuni legend*1, a story passed down for generations in Nishikata? It is a legend of a nun who lived for eight hundred years without aging.
One day, a girl named Yae accidentally drank a potion of immortality. After she left her home, she lived for eight hundred years without knowing that such a long span of time had passed. On her way home, she saw her reflection in a pond and realized that she had not aged.
This pond, where Yae saw her reflection, is locally known as "the mirror pond". A mirror which reflects a full length of one’s figure is called “Sugata-mi（姿見）” in Japan. The sake "Sugata" was named after this pond.
“Freshly pressed sake is the best. No filtration, no pasteurization. The sake as it is, the sake as it was born is what I recommend,” says Mr. Iinuma, the ninth generation of the brewery.
As the word “Sugata” has meanings including “appearance”, “feature”, “what it is”, and “stance”, Iijima Meijo has been conscious of this in overlaying the image of their sake, SUGATA.
Note 1: The legend of Obikuni
Once upon a time, a childless couple prayed to the gods and were blessed with a baby girl, whom they named Yae. When she was eight years old, she accidentally drank a potion that would give her immortality.
At the age of eighteen, the emperor heard a rumor that Yae had grown up to be beautiful and wanted to take her as his concubine. Yae learned of the rumor and decided to leave home.
Yae leaves her village and goes to live with a white-haired old man she meets in the mountains, but she misses her parents and tells him she wants to go home. The old man tells her that if she leaves, she will never come back and that he is a god, then disappears.
When Yae returned to her village, she realized that 800 years had passed and reflected herself in the pond, but she was still the same as when she was 18. Yae became a nun and set out on a pilgrimage, but she thought she had lived too long and took her own life by sinking into the Wakasa Sea.
Reference: Tochigi Prefecture Nishikata Shokokai
How SUGATA was born
The current head of Iinuma Meijo, Mr. Tetsunori Iinuma, is the ninth generation. Until the eighth generation, the brewery mainly made futsu-shu (ordinary sake) with a toji (master brewer) from Niigata. The representative brand at that time was "FUHKI". Every month, the eighth generation went from the Nishikata area, where the brewery was located, to Imaichi and Nikko on business trips, but he came to the conclusion that he wanted to brew specially designated sake*2 and started the "SUGINAMIKI" series.
Note 2: Specially designated sake (Tokutei Meisho-shu)
Specially designated sake is sake that meets the criteria of "Junmai-shu" (sake made only with rice, koji and water) and "How much rice is polished in making the sake". Others are called ordinary sake (futsu-shu).
The “Suginamiki（杉並木）” is the cedar road in Nikko stretching for about 35 kilometers, and is registered in the Guinness World Records as the world's longest highway of cedar trees. The trees were planted over a period of 20 years starting from the era of Ieyasu Tokugawa*3. Even now, 400 years later, more than 12,000 cedar trees still remain.
It is no wonder that the eighth generation, who used to pass this road every month, named their sake after the cedar trees.
Note 3: Ieyasu Tokugawa
Ieyasu Tokugawa established the Edo shogunate, which lasted 265
However, although they named the sake, "SUGINAMIKI," they are sometimes asked, "Is this sake from Nikko?” This is not exactly the case, because the Nishikata area is located south of Nikko and southwest of Utsunomiya.
In response to this situation, the brewery decides to make a sake truly rooted in their home town area, carefully selecting rice from the Nishikata area and subsoil water from the Daiya River*3, naming it after the legend that had taken root in the area. That was how the sake SUGATA was born.
Currently, SUGINAMIKI series is only sold in Tochigi Prefecture, and SUGATA is distributed throughout the country as a Tochigi’s sake.
Note 3: Daiya River
A river that flows from Kegon Falls in western Tochigi Prefecture through Nikko and Imaichi cities to join the Kinugawa River. Total length 29km.
About typefaces and bottles
The font of "SUGINAMIKI" is tightly written, reminiscent of a straight cedar tree.
The "SUGATA" has such an impact with one character that it is hard to forget at first glance, and it conveys the determination of the brewery.
Sometimes there are labels with playful names, so if you find one somewhere, please pick it up.
For instance, in recent years:
USHIRO SUGATA – meaning “SUGATA from behind”. It is a blend of five different types of rice using only the seme (the last part of pressing to bottling. The taste is deep but has bitterness, too.)of which a blend is not often seen.
GANBARU SUGATA – “Ganbaru” means “trying hard” or “doing my best” in Japanese. They chose the name to encourage people in light of the COVID-19 situation.
YAMATA-NO-SUGATA – referring to the eight-headed dragon (yamata-no-orochi*4), since eight types of rice were used.
Note 4: YAMATA-NO-OROCHI
A monster that appears in Japanese mythology. It has eight heads and eight tails. He is vanquished when he gets drunk after drinking strong sake prepared for eight heads each by Susanoo-no-Mikoto, one of the gods in Japanese mythology..
The bottle is also unique. The bottle on the left is a common sake bottle. The bottle on the right has a distinctive "anchor shoulder" shape which Iinuma Meijo calles “long neck”. When the bottle is opened, it is said to make a better sound than the normal "sloping shoulder" type. The only drawback is that it is not possible to put a strip label which is frequently seen on the bottle shoulder. This bottle will no longer be produced after the fall of 2022, so if you find it in a store, get it immediately and listen to the sound as you pour a glass.
About Iinuma Meijo Co. Ltd.
Iinuma Meijo is located in Nishikata-machi, Tochigi City, which has long been known for its fertile land.
Founded in 1811, the brewery has a history of over 200 years.
Iwajiro Iinuma, the first brewer, was born in Nagaoka City (formerly Koshiji Town), Niigata Prefecture. He founded Iinuma Meijo in the western part of Tochigi, where he was a migrant worker at the time. The
brand name at the time of establishment was "AKINISHIKI”.
For a long time, Iinuma Meijo has been brewing sake suitable for the times under the leadership of Toji Echigo, a group of sake brew masters, but times have changed and what is required of sake has also changed considerably. After the Toji retired, the president of Iinuma Meijo took charge of production, and today the company pursues its own unique style of sake brewing that is not influenced by the times, but utilizing its advanced traditional techniques.
“We use rice from outside the prefecture, but we also stick to rice from our district. We have our own rice fields. We contract with seven farmers in the city and Tochigi Agricultural High School,” says Mr. Iinuma. With three Kurabito from the local area, Iinuma Meijo now ships their sake not only nationwide but to Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, France and the UK.
“Sake is available all over the country, and people want to drink all kinds of sake. In such a situation, we want to make sake that will impress people.”
“At one time, we were trying to make a sake that drinkers would not get tired of drinking. That may have been "SUGINAMIKI”. But we changed. Now we also want to make a sake that would leave a lasting impression, not just a sake that is refreshing and tasty.”
“I believe that such sake can only be made when the materials, brewing process, taste, and how they look all come together.”
This is a message from Mr. Iinuma.
Interview date: January 15, 2022
Interview by ZOOM
Interviewee: Mr. Tetsunori Iinuma, President and nineth generation of Iinuma Meijo Co. Ltd.
Image data presented by Iinuma Meijo
Interview Note: When I first encountered the word "SUGATA", I wondered if it had anything to do with Sanshiro Sugata, a famous Judo player in a TV drama. But there was a deeper story than that!
The first thing Mr. Iinuma said was "I don't think we have anything interesting to tell you like other companies do..." No way! It was very interesting to hear about the story of the legend, the cedar road and the bottles. And when I heard his last words about what he is aiming at for his sake, I became more fascinated by SUGATA.
I would like to thank President Iinuma for accepting the interview in spite of the busiest time of the year for the brewery.