land of the crane: takayama and tsumago, part 1

For ten generations, the twin towns of Takayama and Tsumago have produced the finest sake in Tsurukoku. Samurai and shinkan, noble and peasant, human and kitsune alike have coveted the amakuchi, or sweet sake, of Takayama and the karakuchi, or dry sake, of Tsumago. It was only fitting, then, that a cask of each of Kurosawa's most valuable exports be offered to the fire crane, Tsurukoku's most potent spiritual guardian.

With his uncanny ability to track down sources of alcohol, Kakeru led the group directly to the Takayama brewery, at which point they introduced themselves to Takayama Takezo, the kuramoto.

"Welcome to Takayama Sakagura, Kurosawa-sama" he said as he bowed to the four representatives of his lord. "It brings us great honor to be able to offer our sacred spirit to the fire crane."

"It is our honor to be the ones to deliver this offering," Kakeru replied.

Takayama gestured to a short, elderly man dressed in a tattered headband and sweat-stained peasants' clothes. "Allow me to introduce Kenji-toji[1], our head brewer."

"Please, forgive my appearance, Kurosawa-sama," Kenji said with a wavering voice as he bowed deeply, "It is hot and very humid inside the brewery."

"Think nothing of it."

"Kenji-san has been with us for a very long time," Takayama interjected, "Even before my father ran the brewery."

"Yes, indeed," the old man smiled, "I started as an apprentice when your grandfather was the toji. He was the finest brewer I have ever known."

Takayama took a moment to smile to himself before continuing. "Oh! Perhaps Kenji-san would be so kind as to take you on a tour of the brewery. Would you like to learn about the process of brewing sake?"

"Absolutely!" Kakeru almost blurted out, before catching himself and responding with a considerably more polite, "It would be our honor."

Kenji spent an hour leading the four young travelers though the sake-making process. He began in the mill, where the hard husk of the rice was ground away, leaving only the pure starch center. Then he walked them past the springs, where the residue left from the milling process was washed away. Next, he showed them the shikomi: large wooden tanks where the rice mash fermented for nearly a month. At each point, he spent several minutes discussing the intricacies involved in getting each step just right. While Musashi, Fukasu, and Takashi listened politely, Kakeru hung on every word.

Finally, Kenji ushered the group into a small room that was warmer and far more humid than the rest of the brewery. Stacks of wooden trays lined the walls of the room, and the old toji tottered over to one stack. He deftly lifted the top of the stack and removed one tray from the center. "This," Kenji said with a smile, "is the secret of our sake."

He held out the tray to show the group. Inside was a layer of rice that looked like it was covered in a soft, black fur. "This is koji - rice that we have cultured with a very special mold. This is what is added to the rice and water mash that causes the fermentation."

Musashi looked at the moldy rice with disdain. It looked neither clean nor proper - certainly something a samurai would leave to others to employ.

That's where sake comes from? Takashi thought to himself with alarm.

Cool, thought Fukasu.

"Would it be proper for me to bless the koji?" Kakeru asked.

"Oh, that would be most gracious of you," Kenji replied, then put the tray back in its place in the stack.

Kakeru stepped forward, held his hand out in front of the stacks of koji, took a deep breath, and thought of all the wonderful sake that would eventually be produced. So much sake, he thought to himself. He imagined how long it would take to drink all of that sake, and realized with glee just how very, very drunk he could be the entire time. That could take years. The thought made him giddy.

"Um, Kakeru-kun?" he heard Fukasu say, "You're just standing there with your eyes closed."

The young shinkan snapped out of his reverie. He wondered how long he had been dreaming about the sake, decided it was best not to ask, and cleared his throat, "Great spirits, honorable ancestors, please protect and bless this sakagura, the people in it, and the sake it produces." Especially the sake.

Kenji was delighted. He smiled and clapped his hands. "Thank you Kakeru-sama," he said with a bow, "We can use the protection of the spirits with what's been going on here recently."

Musashi raised an eyebrow, "What's been going on?"

Kenji sighed, "Someone has been salting the rice fields."

Musashi knew little about farming, but he was pretty sure that wasn't good. "What effect does that have?"

"It kills off the rice and prevents the land from being used for a very long time."

"An assault upon these lands is an assault upon Lord Kurosawa himself!" Musashi cried.

"More importantly, an assault upon these lands is an assault upon the sake!" said Kakeru, aghast.

"Yes, I'm afraid so, on both accounts," the old man replied.

Musashi looked askance at Kakeru, and then asked, "Do you have any idea what kind of dishonorable dogs would do something like this?"

"Yes," Kakeru continued, "Who would try to harm the sake?"

Kenji just shrugged, "I can't imagine. Who doesn't like sake?"

With that, the head brewer of Takayama sakagura ended his tour. The four heroes talked to the kurabito, or brewery workers, for another hour before heading to the kuramoto's manor. "Kurosawa-sama," he greeted them, "I trust that you enjoyed your tour. Please join me for dinner."

"I like dinner," Takashi quipped.

Takayama introduced the four heroes to his wife, Keiko, and his teenage son, Ichiro. Both parties exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes before sitting down around a low, round, ebony table. Takayama's servants brought out bowls of steaming-hot rice, plates of pork cutlets, and dozens of wooden bottles of sake.

While Fukasu, Kakeru, and Takashi attacked their dinner with zeal, Musashi simply frowned and pushed the rice from one side of the bowl to the other. Finally, he could hold his tongue no longer. "Takayama-san," he said, "Why are your fields being salted?"

The kuramoto nearly choked on his rice as he looked at Musashi in surprise. "Who told you of this?"

"Kenji-san," Musashi replied, coolly, "He is concerned about the dishonor that this sabotage brings to our lord."

"And to the sake," Kakeru added in between bites of rice.

"Um, well, I" Takayama stammered.

"Do you have any idea who would dishonor our lord like this?" Musashi asked. "Could it be a peasant uprising? Perhaps a rival clan seeks to harm us?"

Takayama's son, Ichiro, slammed his bowl of rice and pork down onto the table. "It's obviously Tsumago-san!" he exclaimed. "That dog seeks to destroy us, I know it!"

"Ichiro! Mind your tongue!" the kuramoto said as he rose to his feet. He grabbed his son and ushered him out of the room. Keiko stood up, bowed politely, and exited the room, sliding the paper screen closed behind her.

The four heroes from Kurosawa looked at each other in confusion, and then they heard the three members of the Takayama family begin screaming at each other. After less than a minute of listening to the argument, Fukasu set her food down. "I don't think I'm hungry any more," she said softly.

Half an hour later, during which time Musashi, Kakeru, Takashi, and Fukasu all sat in uncomfortable silence, Takayama returned to the table. He bowed his head, "I am sorry that you had to witness that. My son believes that Tsumago-san is trying to sabotage us, but that explanation doesn't make sense to me."

"Why is that, Takayama-san?" said Kakeru.

"Tsumago-san and I have been on very good terms for many years, and we're not really in competition."

"Have you set out to catch these criminals?" Musashi asked.

"Well," Takayama looked uncomfortable, "I have asked the farmers to keep a lookout, and to report anything suspicious."

"This is no job for a peasant," Musashi said in disgust.

"Perhaps we can investigate this situation for you, Takayama-san," Kakeru offered. "Earlier, I took the liberty of asking the kurabito where this vandalism was taking place. They said that it was happening in your northern fields."

"That's correct."

"We can stake it out tonight and hope that we get lucky," Fukasu suggested.

"I would greatly appreciate that, but I can't ask you to put yourselves in the way of danger."

"You do not need to ask," Musashi said firmly, "We will do this for the honor of our clan."

"We will do this to protect the sake," Kakeru added. Everyone stopped and turned to look at him, and after a moment, he added, "Err, and to bring honor to the clan."

Later that evening, as the crescent moon reached the apex of its journey through the clear night sky, Fukasu, Musashi, Takashi, and Kakeru took up positions hiding alongside the raised roads of Takayama's northern fields. Each minute seemed to last an hour, as the four travelers strained to see the source of every flickering shadow and every fleeting sound.

Fortunately, they didn't have to wait long. Within an hour, three horse-drawn carts rattled down the road, each piled high with burlap sacks. The carts stopped in the middle of the field, and three black-clad figures descended. After a moment of whispered conversation, they began to unload their cargo. When the first figure sliced into a bag and dumped its contents into the water, the four friends nodded to each other in agreement.

"Fukasu and I have the best chance of surprising them," Takashi whispered. Musashi and Kakeru nodded in agreement, and Fukasu readied her ninja-tō.

"Ok," the young hanyō ninja whispered back. "Let's go kill the bad guys."

[1] A brief sake glossary.

  • Sakagura (also known as a Kura) - a sake brewery. There are hundreds of local sake breweries throughout Tsurukoku, but the breweries in Takayama and Tsumago are among the largest.
  • Kuramoto - brewer, head of the kura. He is the noble in charge of the operation of the brewery and the town that supports it.
  • Toji - the head brewer. He is responsible for making sure the brewing process is carried out correctly.
  • Koji - the rice cultured with mold.