Shodoshima island, the second largest island in the Seto Inland Sea, is Japan’s leading producer of shoyu, or soy sauce, with 22 firms currently in operation.
Production of the condiment is said to have begun in the 16th century on the island, where salt was made from ancient times. The entire district of Hishio-no-sato in the southeastern part of the island, where many soy sauce makers are based, is enveloped in the fragrant aroma of soy sauce.
Although soy sauce is produced throughout Japan, Shodoshima island is known for the large number of manufacturers that stick to the traditional method using wooden barrels. As most makers around the country have switched to stainless steel tanks, only about 3,000 wooden barrels are in use. About 1,000 of them are still being used on Shodoshima Island.
Yamaroku Shoyu, located at the foot of a mountain in the southeastern part of Shodoshima island, is one of the manufacturers that has stuck with this age-old process, free of food additives, for hundreds of years. All 60 of their barrels, which line the black-walled storehouse, are made of cedar. The larger ones, measuring about 2 meters high and 2.3 meters in diameter, hold as much as 6,000 liters. The oldest barrels are said to be in use for nearly 150 years.
Soy sauce fermenting in the barrel. The temperature and humidity are left to nature for two and a half years. (Atsushi Yamanishi)
The dark storehouse has no air conditioner or dehumidifier. “The cedar barrels and earthen walls that seem on the verge of crumbling are indispensable to making good soy sauce,” says Yasuo Yamamoto, owner of the firm.
The storehouse lined with Japanese cedar barrels was built about 200 years ago. Microorganisms that are indispensable to soy sauce production inhabit the interior of the storehouse and barrels. As the makeup of the organisms is not known fully, it is impossible to recreate the environment artificially. (Atsushi Yamanishi)
Soy sauce is made from simply blending and fermenting soy beans, wheat and salt. The flavor is determined by invisible microorganisms including “kobo-kin” yeast and lactobacillus. “More than 100 beneficial microorganisms inhabit the barrels and walls, and produce the soy sauce,” says Yamamoto.
At Yamaroku, the oldest part of the storehouse dates back 200 years. A white portion of the ceiling is proof that microorganisms indispensable to soy sauce production are taking root and breathing, he says.
Yasuo Yamamoto is the proprietor of Yamaroku Shoyu. He is trying to make new barrels to hand down the traditional soy sauce making to the next generation. (Atsushi Yamanishi)
Production begins in winter when the ingredients are heated, mixed and poured into the barrels. From then on, besides occasionally mixing the content of the barrels, the rest is left to nature. After two and a half years, the soy sauce acquires the unique aroma and flavor that characterizes Japanese cuisine. “All we do is help the maturation process. If humans try to control the process, we fail without exception,” says Yamamoto.
Unfortunately, traditional soy sauce makers like Yamaroku are facing a common crisis. The craftsmen who could make special tools to produce barrels went out of business a few years ago. As a result, the number of wooden barrel makers has dropped sharply. The only one that remains is in Osaka.
In 2009 Yamamoto borrowed money to have nine new barrels made. When he placed an order for another three in January of last year, he took a carpenter on the island with him to Osaka to learn barrel-making. This fall, he is going to try and make barrels on the island. “I am prepared to preserve the traditional production method even if I have to turn my two children into a soy sauce maker and a barrel maker,” he said.
The two main products of Yamaroku are Kikubishio, right, and Tsurubishio. The two may be used in different dishes that suit their flavors. (Atsushi Yamanishi)
Yamaroku offers two types of soy sauce: Kikubishio and Tsurubishio. If you lick the former, the flavor spreads lightly in your mouth. To make Tsurubishio, a completed soy sauce is poured back into the barrel and left to mature for another two years. It is known for a deeper aroma and taste.
“Japanese cuisine is becoming popular around the globe today. I want people around the world to also enjoy real soy sauce, which is its basic seasoning,” says Yamamoto.
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