Dotted around Nanokamachi-dori in the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu stand a range of extremely old-looking buildings.
Coming to this area of the city feels like a step back in time, especially at quieter times of day, when there are few contemporary cars to remind you that you’re actually in 21st century. Many of the warehouses and factories that stand on Nanokamachi-dori are still used to this day, and some allow visitors in for a tour of the premises.
Even if you haven’t the slightest interest in Aizu Wakamatsu’s rich history, bursting with samurais, feudal lords and female warriors, a stroll along Nanokamachi-dori will still present you with a variety of sightseeing spots that you can enjoy during a visit to the city.
During my short trip to Aizu Wakamatsu I visited two of these factories. The first was Yamada Orimoto Company’s cotton factory.
Yamada Orimoto Company
Honestly, when I first saw this written on my itinerary, I wasn’t sure I would find it that interesting, but as soon as we approached the main building, I realised been a little hasty in my assumptions.
The Yamada Orimoto’s main office is tucked away down a long alley. When we first arrived, I couldn’t believe that we were in the right place. The main office space looks like an old Japanese house. We greeted the owner and he cheerfully introduced himself and told us a little about the company.
Yamada Orimoto’s history as a company dates back to the start of the Edo Period. For those who haven’t studied Japanese history, the Edo Period was between 1603 and 1868, meaning that cotton has been produced by Yamada Orimoto, under one name or another, for over 400 years.
Aizu momen (Aizu cotton) products are still greatly valued for their high quality and their traditional manufacturing techniques, and the Aizu momen weaved by workers at Yamada Orimoto is no exception. Everything produced is made using the same techniques that would have been practiced in the company for over 100 years, and the machinery in the factory is also quite old.
I asked the owner whether it would perhaps be more economically efficient to use newer machines for weaving, and he said that it would, and that with present day technology, there would be no need for so many people to work at the factory at one time. But the traditional way Yamada Orimoto’s products are made are one of the things that give them their charm, as well as the fact that a higher quality of weave can be achieved by hand than by a machine.
The main office of Yamada Orimoto also has a small shop in it, where you can view and buy products made at the factory.
Next, we were told we could go have a look in the factory, if we’d like. We weren’t supervised by the owner, but were told we could go, have a look and take as much time as we liked. What we found left me speechless.
I don’t quite understand why I was so surprised by the bustling factory at the back of the office. Around five women were working at the time of our visit, each women devoted to her task and part of the production process. Unlike any shop or office I have visited in Japan, there were no calls of “irasshaimase” (welcome) as we entered. It was like being a fly on the wall.
For fear of breaking their concentration, and because the noise of the ancient machinery made it impossible – I didn’t interview the workers, but I spent a lot of time watching them go about their daily tasks. It was a really fun experience and it made me realise that I have never been to anywhere like that before.
Suehiro Sake Brewery
The second factory that we visited was Suehiro Sake Brewery, which was just around the corner from Yamada Orimoto.
One of the largest and most well-known sake producers in Tohoku, Suehiro’s sake is of such a high quality that it has been designated the official sake of Toshogu Shrine in Nikko and has won numerous national and international awards over the years.
The brewery was founded in 1850 and has been passed down from generation to generation, and the method for making sake has also been continued over the years. Suehiro Sake Brewery uses a method for making sake called ‘yamahai’, which is a style of slow, open-fermentation.
Another unique feature of Suehiro Sake Brewery is their continued storage of certain sakes for longer than the traditional one year, which allows them to age and mature.
The brewery also produces a range of interesting sake-based products, including sparkling sake, spicy sake, bath lotion containing sake extract, curry sauce made with sake, amongst many others!
At the brewery, there are guided tours around the factory and the old residence attached to it every half an hour. However, please note that you can’t view the factory unaccompanied, but the tours are only in Japanese!
To be really honest, I didn’t understand too much of the technical details about the brewing process that were explained during the tour I took part in, because of my lack of booze and fermenting-related vocabulary, but I still enjoyed look at the different areas of the factory, the old equipment, and the residence that used to belong to an owner.
After the tour, you’re able to do a tasting experience, choosing from a range of sakes – and you’re allowed to keep refilling your cup!
The sake-tasting takes place in the shop section of the building, giving you ample time to browse gifts you could take home, whilst your friends are getting drunk with the rest of the tour group!
If you’re not completely drunk by the time you leave, there is a really cute little café right by the entrance to the factory which sells small meals and coffee and desserts, nearly all of which – believe it or not – have sake incorporated into the recipes!
Unfortunately, when I visited, after the brewery my colleague and I still had a number of places left on our itinerary, so we didn’t go in, but the café was really cosy and the menu looked delicious, so I would definitely go back again for that!
I really enjoyed visiting these two factories to see how cotton and sake have been made for hundreds of years. It made me reflect back to my own country, where business that specialise in one single trade are becoming more and more difficult to find…
The day-plan that my colleague and I did (Tsuruga-jo Castle, Yamada Orimoto, Suehiro Brewery, Iimoriyama, Sazaedo, Nisshinkan, Higashiyama) was too much to comfortably fit into one day of travelling, so I made a model itinerary of a more relaxed two day trip to Aizu Wakamatsu. Please take a look by clicking the picture below!