Fermentation Tourism in Hokuriku

Takashi Sato

August 15, 2022

Last October, American food professionals visited fermented food producers to deepen their knowledge of Japanese fermentation culture during the “Hakko Tourism in Japan” tour campaign. As part of the tour, organizers held a tasting session where guests gave candid advice from the perspective of the American market to food product manufacturers looking to enter the United States market.

My name is Takashi. I’m the president of San-J, a company that manufactures and sells tamari soy sauce. I’m also the co-host of this fermentation tourism project. The following is how I, a president of a tamari manufacturer in the United States, came to co-host fermentation tourism in Japan.

You can find the itinerary here.

Hiraku Ogura and Takashi Sato walking on the street in Hokuriku

The original concept from an exhibition

The idea for this tour program was originally conceived by another co-host, Hiraku Ogura from an exhibition he held in Shibuya, Tokyo in 2019. Based on the concept of “Re-discovering Japan through Fermentation,” this exhibition introduced various fermented foods from all over Japan. Japan is a small country, but each region has developed its own unique fermented foods. Because learning about these different foods makes you feel as if you were traveling all over Japan, the exhibition was titled “Fermentation Tourism.”

Although it was not a event based on a fancy theme, the exhibition was a huge success. 50,000 people visited the site. Foreign media also covered the event.

Interview article about Hiraku Ogura on Forbes
Article about fermentation tourism on The Cloud

As a result, Hiraku was invited to hold the exhibition in Fukui Prefecture. This will be the first time for the exhibition to be on tour. The exhibition will begin this September and will be on for three months. This time, Hiraku is attempting to redefine the concept of “exhibition.” The Art Museum as the venue to convey the theme of “The Joy of Learning = Exhibition” and the three Hokuriku prefectures as the stage to embody “The Joy of Meeting = Tourism.” Learning deeply, meeting deeply. He is extending the exhibition sites to the entire three Hokuriku prefectures, combining learning and travel through the theme of fermentation.

Invitation to Japan for a fermentation journey

Hiraku shared a YouTube video expressing his hope that people from all over the world would “check in” to an exhibit called Fermentation Tourism and go on a fermentation journey. Last July, I came across his YouTube video. I was very impressed because I was also interested in the concept of tourism organized around fermentation. So I sent a direct message on Twitter to Hiraku, whom I had never met before, and we began working together.

My views on the challenges that the industry faces

There are thousands of fermentation producers in Japan, but their number is actually decreasing. The chart below shows the trend in the number of soy sauce manufacturers in Japan. In 1972, the year I was born, there were 6,000 manufacturers; today, there are only 1,100. You will see the same trend for the sake or miso industry. This is mainly due to tough competition and the westernization of food. With significant decline in the Japanese population expected in the years ahead, majority of fermentation producers may be forced out of business in the future.

The graph showing the population decline in Japan

Looking at this overall market trend and the concerns for a shrinking market due to population decline, I think the Japanese ferementation manufacturers should look at the markets outside of Japan. In fact, we are a small soy sauce manufacturer in Mie Prefecture, but since my father expanded our business to the United States in 1978, our business has come to the point where we are today.

There are numerous approaches to appealing to foreign consumers. For example, it’s a good idea to publish articles in English-based media like Hakkohub.com. You also need to share information on social media. However, I feel that the most effective way is through real and direct interaction, especially the connections created from visiting production sites can be extremely strong.

Recreating “Napa” in Japan

Many of you have probably visited a winery at least once. Walking through the vineyards, talking to the winemakers, and drinking their wine in the sun. These experiences will create an attachment to that wine. Next time you see that particular wine at your local store, you will probably buy it. And if you bring that wine to your friend’s home party and tell them about your wonderful experience at the winery, your friends may want to visit the winery, too. I believe that such interactions have helped to grow the U.S. wine market to where it is today.

I want to recreate such an experience in Japan with a different product. Simply put, I’m attempting to create small “Napa Valleys” in Japan. Like wine tours in Napa Valley, visiting the vast fermentation producers around Japan may increase the number of foreign consumers interested in these fermented foods. Through these initiatives, I want to help these traditional producers continue to exist for the next 100 years.

That is why Hiraku and I are organizing this tourism program for the first time. If it turns out to be a success, we want to organize similar tours in the future. We already have many ideas. It may be interesting to add on new locations or manufactures that was not included previously, or to have the participants actually work for a few days at one of the producer site. Maybe we could focus on a specific type of industry, such as visiting only dried bonito (katsuo-bushi) producers.

Hiraku and I will participate in this tourism program at our own expense as it will help us better plan and organize future tours. Nakaji, author of “Koji for Life,” will also be participating as a volunteer.

Plans for the 3 days on tour

First, you will visit the fermentation exhibition in Fukui. At the exhibition, Hiraku, our chief curator, will personally take you on a “journey” through fermented foods from all over Japan.

Fermentation exhibition

After visiting the exhibition, we depart the exhibition site to visit the actual producers. All of these producers that we will visit are those with whom Hiraku has built relationships during his journeys in the Hokuriku region. In Japan, people visiting production sites is not very common as the producers are quite conservative due to the traditional nature of the food industry. Hiraku visited these producers one by one, talked to them and explained about the tour, and as a result they have opted to participate in this tour.

Hiraku and the man in the sake brewary
Hiraku and the woman in the kitchen

I also returned to Japan this July and traveled around most of the sites of the tour with Hiraku. Although this trip was for us to confirm the itinerary of the tour, it was the first time for me to visit these producers and it was very interesting and informative. I look forward to taking you all to visit these producers and reconnecting with them in October.

Takashi tasting liquid in a cup with Hiraku and the man in the brewary

While we will be visiting all of these producers, there are couple of things to keep in mind. Not all producers are always working on production on the day we visit. They may be out of season or have finished their work early in the morning. Also, the COVID-19 pandemic may limit where visitors can enter. With that said, I’m sure that visiting the actual production site and talking to the producers will be a very stimulating experience nonetheless.

Koji making machine

Various restrictions to the tour

COVID-19 still affects all countries worldwide and Japan is one of those countries with the strictest entry restrictions. At this time, Japan requires visas for foreign nationals entering Japan. And since visas are not yet granted for individual sightseeing, this tour is an extremely valuable opportunity for people to enter Japan. However, various paperwork is required to obtain a visa.

This tour will be organized as a packaged tour, and participants will meet and disperse on-site. We also considered a full packaged tour that arranges flights from the United States and a tour conductor to attend the transportation from Tokyo to the tour site. But we decided to meet and disperse on-site to give full flexibility for your schedule before and after our tour.

Access from Tokyo or Kyoto is not difficult, but it may be better to arrive at the tour site on October 7th because we will meet early on October 8th. Therefore, we include hotel suggestions in the itinerary for such cases.

Two men standing by the window overlooking the forest
President at San-J International | + posts

Takashi Sato, founder of Hakko Hub and President of San-J International, is an 8th generation soy sauce brewer. With a passion for excellence, he has elevated tamari soy sauce production to new heights. Dedicated to tradition and innovation, Takashi is shaping the future of fermented foods.