A venerable sake brewery in Shiga Prefecture is looking to the rest of Asia to save a tradition.
Tetsuya Fujii is the seventh-generation head of the Fuji Honke brewery, which uses premium local rice and water to bring out its signature flavor.
Fujii has been committed to making high-quality sake his entire life. But with domestic sake consumption down to less than a third of its peak 50 years ago, that's no longer enough.
"People's lifestyles and eating habits have changed. I think we have to react to that and move on to a different stage," he says.
Fujii set his sights on charting new territories in Asian countries that have been enjoying rapid economic growth. He wanted to grow his business abroad, but also to keep his brewery's good reputation, so that meant making some adjustments.
"People in Asia eat rice regularly, so our sake could become popular in the region. We hope to expand our sales by entering markets in ASEAN countries," Fujii says.
In order to produce sake that appeals to other parts of Asia, Fujii first teamed up with a local university. Professor Satoshi Chikakane of Shiga University agreed to help him figure out new strategies.
Chikakane began by surveying tourists and foreign students about their preferred flavors of liquor. Many of the 120 people polled had a taste for sweet sake.
"We may be able to expand the market for sake abroad if we come up with one that goes well with Chinese or other Asian cuisines," Chikakane says.
Fujii took these findings to heart and embarked on making a sweeter sake that would fit with spicy Asian meals. He figured out a way to retain more sugar content while keeping sake's distinctive rice flavor. The secret was to use a mix of yeasts and to adjust the fermentation process.
His efforts bore fruit, with the crisp taste of the sake designed to go well with spicy foods. Yet when you take a sip, you still instantly savor the distinctive flavor of rice.
Another change in this sake is alcohol content. It's about 3 times higher, to prevent flavor from thinning when ice is added to a glass, which is common in hotter climates.
A student from Malaysia named Tan Xue Ning was the first to sample the new product.
"It slips down easily and it's very sweet. I like it. I've tried other types of sake, but this one is delicious," he said.
Can this innovative sake capture the hearts of consumers across Asia? Like Fujii's brewery, many other traditional Japanese businesses may need to come up with global strategies in order to survive.
"My top priority is to showcase our regional sake culture, but we're still in the developing stage. I'll do everything I can, step by step," Fujii says.