NIIGATA, Japan Kyodo has released a product for an eye-popping 330,000 yen $2,400 a set of two 720 milliliter bottles of sake made from Japan's famous Koshihikari rice cultivated by hand and free of any agricultural chemicals and synthesized fertilizers.
The unusually high price tag shows the commitment of three people from disparate industries to create something lasting value through time and effort, especially in an age of mass production and consumption.
Rice planting had just been completed when this reporter visited terraced paddy fields deep in the mountains in Tokamachi, Niigata Prefecture in June.
There were no weeds growing between the rice plants, although Hideharu Tobe, 70, does not use herbicides in the paddy, totalling 0.66 hectares in area or 6,600 square meters.
He uses a wheeled vehicle to remove weeds. According to Tobe, the 0.66 hectare area is the largest manageable size for rice cultivation by manual work alone, yielding a crop of less than 60 percent of that which can be obtained from a conventional rice paddy of the same size.
Rice from the previous year, mixed into the soil to provide nutrients for the newly planted crop, is used as an alternative fertilizer. Tobe said he does not drain water from the paddy fields, so as not to kill the microorganisms.
After retiring from an automaker, Tobe began a life dedicated to self-sufficiency in a rural village. In 2002 he moved to his current home in the city of Tokamachi and started chemical-free rice cultivation. Production was poor in the first year due to blight.
Tobe continued with human power alone with chemical and fertilizer-free cultivation of rice. Five years later, a rice shop owner took note of Tobe's rice and asked him to ship it to the shop's outlet in a department store in Tokyo. To Tobe's surprise, rice fetched as much as 3,000 yen per kilogram.
Akane Shiba, a 39-year-old freelance editor in Minowa, Nagano Prefecture, heard about Tobe's high-end rice and was intrigued. She had been determined for some time to introduce a product that is truly high quality and exceptional, not something average that can be found anywhere, through her editorial work in magazines and mail-order catalogues.
Shiba thought of using Tobe's rice to produce quality sake, believing that its attractiveness could be maximized if combined with Japan's highly touted spring water, and proposed the idea to Tobe.
The Koshihikari brand of rice is usually not used for sake production. Yoshimasa Ono, 65, owner of Ono Brewery Co., also in Nagano, was initially skeptical when approached by Shiba.
Ono decided to produce sake under natural temperatures using a method that doesn't rely on machines such as air-conditioning, inspired by Tobe's example. The resulting product tastes a lot different from conventional sake made from rice that is suitable for the beverage.
It offers the taste of Koshihikari, with a mild body and elegant sweetness, Ono said.
Ono has received inquiries about the sake from abroad. He, Tobe and Shiba say they want to deliver the rare product to sake lovers around the world.