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Where we are is who we are

Some reflections on Suwa by Masumi president Naotaka Miyasaka

Masumi sake is at heart a product of our place and the people who live here. That place is known as Shinshu Suwa, a highland basin surrounded by the Yatsugatake “Eight Peaks” Range, Mount Tateshina, and the Kirigamine Highlands. Our sake benefits directly from the region’s clean air, pure water, and long cold winters. Beyond what’s good for the sake, we take great pride in all else Suwa has to offer: cool, dry summers, natural hot springs, the basin’s crown jewel Lake Suwa, and the unique festivals, shrines, and ruins that date from the dawn of Japan’s history.

Our beautiful yet fierce environment seems to have etched concern for detail and insistence on quality into our very DNA. In the past the people of Suwa built a thriving silk industry, and the region has since developed into a major center for high tech and precision manufacturing. Suwa is also famous for its agricultural produce and traditional food industries such as miso, kanten, and above all sake!

Sleepy backwater, home sweet home

Stepping off the express train onto Suwa station platform after the two-hour ride from Tokyo, my first breath of cool night air carries away the fatigue from a long day in the city. Though Suwa is often maligned as a “sleepy backwater,” I can’t thank my ancestors enough for deciding to settle here.

Cold winters

Suwa’s cold winters are legendary. A mopped floor would freeze before it dried, and during the war they used to practice tank maneuvers out on the frozen face of Lake Suwa. There were even times when our sake would freeze in the warehouse. Recently it seems that global warming has made our winters a shade less fierce.

Hot springs

The gods have made up for our cold winters by endowing the region with an abundance of natural “onsen” hot springs. Many of the older houses in Suwa get the hot water for the kitchen and bath directly from the hot springs. There is a hot spring foot bath on the platform of the train station, and even the Marumitsu department store across the street has a traditional onsen bath for the weary shopper. My elementary school had an onsen, too, so getting naked with classmates and teachers was a regular part of school life.

Gods and men

In both Shinto myth and the world of real men, Suwa has served as a retreat and as a place of exile. According to a story in the ancient “Kojiki” book of Shinto teachings, the god residing at the Suwa Taisha shrine vowed never to leave the Suwa basin after having lost an argument with his father over who should take possession of Japan. In the real world, historical figures such as Tadateru Matsudaira, sixth son of the first Tokugawa Shogun, and Yoshichika Uesugi, Kozukenosuke Kira’s adopted son, spent years of comfortable exile in Suwa.

“Onbashira” great pillars festival

This festival, the largest and most famous in Suwa, takes place once every six years in the years of the Tiger and the Monkey, and represents the symbolic renewal of the area’s Shinto shrines. Massive trees are pulled by hand from the surrounding forests, ridden down treacherous slopes, dragged across rivers and through the streets of Suwa’s villages and towns, and finally erected in the four corners of the major shrines. The event draws visitors from all over Japan and is a riotous festival that I’d always shied away from. But last time when I took hold of the rope to help pull our shrine’s pillar, I felt an unexpected rush of pride and enthusiasm that changed my mind about this ancient tradition.

Invention

They say necessity is the mother of invention. That seems to hold true for Suwa, since the fact that we are high in the mountains, away from wide plains and rich seas, seems to have made the people here unusually inventive and vigorous. I think of my elderly neighbor, whose precision parts business is so innovative that orders come in from all over the world. I think of the farmers who have made this area one of Japan’s top producers of everything from apples & apricots to tomatoes & celery.

Longevity

According to official surveys, people live longer in Nagano Prefecture than anywhere else in Japan. Several reasons have been postulated for this—the thin mountain air strengthens the heart and lungs, the rural lifestyle means people stay active longer, and so on. All certainly true, but I think another reason is that miso soup and a good cup of Masumi sake have always been an indispensible part of daily life in these mountains!