Woven Into Each Other

Photo credit: Shigeta Kobayashi

We began as strangers. First-timers enter the compound with stacks of business cards in tow, presented with both hands, heads bowed, and polite distance maintained, while repeaters barge in with handshakes, hugs, and emphatic slaps to the back. When repeaters see each other—often for the first time since last year’s gathering—they greet each other with such fervor that the collective task of building ‘kioke’ barrels stop entirely. It’s hard not to notice the warmth in the otherwise stoic murmur of formal Japanese culture. These friendships emit the kind of camaraderie I’ve seen in theater casts and large family reunions, not at all what I’d expected from an annual gathering in its eighth or so iteration, let alone in rural Japan. Seeing the hearty welcome eases my tension, both because I am a first-timer but also because I am a nervous bundle of academic restraint, out on a limb to study fermentation vessels being made in situ. I try not to retreat into my head (an academic’s safety zone) and I try not to feel out of place as a woman, as a half-blood, as a researcher. 

But my insecurities soon dissolve as the antics begin: our morning huddle ends with a cheer that I innocently botch, eliciting what I now recognize as the kind of self-effacing humor and unscripted jest that binds us. The cheer is a play on words. The leader cries, “Yat-taru-de!” which loosely translates to “Let’s do this!” or “We’re gonna do this!” in a phrasing particular to the western Kansai region. (I had mistakenly omitted the final -de, leaving everyone hanging until someone realized my unfamiliarity with the dialect and burst out in laughter.) The response is a hearty “OK!” accompanied by an upward fist to the sky. The cheer references the two objects for which we are gathered, the taru and oke (pronounced oh-KAY) which are the two kinds of barrels traditionally used in Japanese food cultures. This cheeky but earnest mood characterizes the Kioke Revival Project for which we are gathered. 

Photo credit: Shigeta Kobayashi

Japanese kioke (lit. trans. wood oke) barrels are unique in that they are held together by bamboo hoops called taga. No glue, no nails. Just meters of bamboo that are intricately cut, angled, and woven to make sure that everything seamlessly maintains a circular shape. (I asked the dumb question about why one even bothers with making the vessel into a cylinder. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if everything was at a right angle? The answer: Building a square vessel might be easier, but in terms of physics, the cylinder can withstand more pressure from the weight of its contents.) Besides, the natural fibers of bamboo tend to dry out in a curve, not at a linear angle. These bamboo hoops must fit the barrel snug enough to hold liquids like shoyu and sake to keep them from leaking while they ferment for months, sometimes years. 

Photo credit: Shigeta Kobayashi

But these barrels also hold histories of Japanese foodmaking and tradition. Shoyu and sake breweries used to have a resident cooper on hand who would build and maintain these fermentation vessels. With Japanese climate so humid, the ebb and flow of seasonal warmth would moisten and dry the wooden staves. To avoid leakage, the cooper would have to reweave the bamboo hoops to a tighter or looser setting. 

And it is precisely this temperature fluctuation and breathability that kioke barrels excel in fermentation: microbes thrive and persist in the microscopic pores of the wooden staves, and their slower metabolism over a longer period of time allows for more complex flavors to emerge. In particular, kioke shoyu produces the highest amounts of umami compounds, which is what establishes the grade of shoyu quality, giving it distinctions like tokusei and chou-tokusen.  

Although their build may seem precarious, the barrels were made to be taken apart easily in the event of maintenance or decommissioning. Unlike the steel or enamel tanks introduced in the post-war era, the wooden barrels can easily be upcycled or repurposed, resulting in fewer and less toxic wastes. Especially in the case of shoyu, using natural materials like cedar and bamboo were preferable over metal hoops and nails because the high salt concentration would cause erosion and rust that would threaten the barrels’ integrity. 

Woven bamboo became the intricate answer to the practical problem of creating salt-based seasonings in a humid climate.

Each barrel can last up to 150 years, beyond the lifespan of the cooper who made it. (A carpenter pointed this out to me when I made a soft complaint about how tedious it was to bevel the bamboo for a tighter knit. He gently reminded me that our work now is meaningful for a future we cannot even imagine.) While 150 years is impressive, this also meant that the techniques and know-how of coopers faced an unprecedented knowledge gap when stainless steel became the standard for consistent and convenient brewing in the early 20th century. In fact, the industry faces an extinction moment right now with the last of the large oke coopers retiring this fall. While a few coopers remain who can build smaller barrels, the expertise in building 20-koku and 30-koku barrels (holding capacities of 3,600L and 5,400L respectively) has the potential of disappearing. For the sake of future generations, the Kioke Revival Project attempts to corral those who are vested in relaying the tradition and keeping the craft alive. 

Held annually, the Kioke Summit gathers folks from across sectors, including carpenters looking to diversify their repertoire, foodmakers who use (or want to use) kioke barrels in production, chefs and consultants who cook with the fermented end-products of kioke processing, fermentation meisters attuned to the specificity of kioke fermentation, and the generally curious who heard about Shodoshima barrel-making through word of mouth. The Summit is hosted by Yamaroku Shoyu, who has been exclusively using old barrels out of financial necessity (“it was all we had”), and foresees the need for kioke maintenance when sons and grandsons inherit the family business. Others see kioke revival as something to newly integrate into business models. Sake breweries like Aramasa Shuzo and shochu breweries like Satsuma Shuzo are trying to move towards Japanese kioke in the name of place-based brewing and self-reliance (that is, self-sufficiency which doesn’t rely on foreign imports for tanks or lumber). In other words, the Summit was a gathering of those who make the barrels, those who use it, those who benefit from it, and those who enjoy its taste. The wide range of participants come to learn and celebrate its making, and the days are peppered with hands-on building, sit-down lectures, and side-splitting giggles. 

Photo credit: Shigeta Kobayashi

We are all in this together, yet we don’t know this we were until well into the Summit. The room goes silent every time the statistics are read aloud, and we gradually catch on to the gravity of the situation: we are living the extinction moment of a food culture—our food culture—and we may witness in our lifetime the moment when Japanese kioke becomes obsolete. One of the project’s tangible goals is, for as much as possible, to delay this moment. Ideally, it is to completely revive the practice on a timeline as a V-shaped bounce back, which makes advocacy and knowledge dissemination crucial components to the weeklong event. Media partners pose with cameras; some even join in on the antics, pushing their gear to the smalls of their backs and donning work gloves. We collectively recognize that the serious-but-fun sentiment is infectious. Perhaps it is because these shenanigans help keep the weight of extinction from completely crushing us. 

We spend the week more or less under one roof as the island only has a few places for lodging. We greet each other in the mornings, pour each other tea, and serve each other rice at the breakfast table. By the second and third day, this rag-tag team of the food-obsessed starts to congeal like chosen family. We pour each other drinks at night, we walk each other home as one gaggle of laughter. We lift each other up, sometimes literally, when one departs for the island ferry. We hug, we high-five, we completely let our guards down because there’s just too much to lose.

Photo credit: Shigeta Kobayashi
Photo credit: Shigeta Kobayashi

Despite the deeply hierarchical nature of Japanese culture, the dire reality allows for free-flowing information and lax social exchange. The word for this hierarchy is tate-shakai (lit. trans. vertical society) and it has been historically ingrained in ageist, sexist politics. But the Summit is characterized by lateral conversations, going so far as to proactively teach (e.g., how to braid the bamboo hoop) as opposed to safeguarding trade secrets or following the craftsman expectation that apprentices learn by only watching from afar. This bamboo braid would otherwise unravel if not for the intricate weavings in and out of certain crossings. It is braided first by two strands of bamboo at 13 to 15 meters each, then two more strands follow to form a chevron like pattern. This is embodied knowledge; it is practiced by and stored in the bodies that learn it. Part lariat and part puzzle, the bamboo only bends in one direction which cannot be mimicked with string replicas. This knowledge would disappear if not for the know-how that gets passed down from one generation of crafts-folk to the next, if not for the first-timers who learn the braid, and if not for the repeaters who teach it. 

Photo credit: Shigeta Kobayashi

One afternoon, I see a staff member of the Summit poise her camera in a hurry.

“Goodness! This is incredible!” 

I turn and realize she’s talking about the three men braiding a bamboo hoop in a nearby parking lot. 

“Just incredible!” She repeats. 

Hesitant, I ask her for clarification because by this point, at day four, the sight of folks trying to braid bamboo loses its novelty. 

“I mean, look! It’s Yugeta Shoyu from Saitama prefecture. There’s Taihei from Chiba prefecture, and Morita Shoyu from Shimane prefecture. Three shoyu brewers you’d never see in the same space, let alone… working together.” She snaps a few photos to commemorate.

Indeed it is an open space. Unlike most workspaces in Japan, social hierarchies are barely pronounced (if at all). As another core member comments, “We see each other’s B-sides. We don’t carry a front when we’re here.” Later I hear a similar remark by one of the board members, and he confirms the impressive nature of their collaboration. Competition dictates most social relations, and brewers are often kept out of each other’s work spaces. In the world of shoyu brewing, kioke fermentation sits at 1% of the industry making it niche in its limited production. Rather than fight over that one percent, the goal is to spread the word and collectively reap the benefits of a 2% market share. By increasing kioke visibility and promoting its cultural and taste-based benefits, the idea is to provide steady work to coopers and carpenters, reinforce kioke’s place in Japanese cultural heritage and food production, and continue developing complex flavors in the basic seasonings of a Japanese pantry (e.g., sake, shoyu, miso, all of which used to be exclusively fermented in kioke barrels). The Kioke Revival Project sees this as a win-win-win situation. 

What limits the triple-win is a combination of natural resources (since trees specifically cultivated for kioke building take decades and centuries to grow) and the difficulty of coordinating manual labor. Because of the kioke’s sheer size (a 20-koku barrel stands at about two meters tall), most of the tasks are conducted atop makeshift scaffolding of oil drums and wooden planks. Tasks like hammering in the bottom of the barrel require at least five sets of hands to accurately and forcefully ram in the base: two perched on the barrel’s lip to produce force, two inside the barrel guiding the ram downward, and one more inside the barrel measuring and directing where to hit. Extra hands spot the two perched rammers in case they teeter. Smaller and more frequent tasks (like fitting the bamboo hoops) need a handful of folks to pound at the same time. The use of brunt force is coordinated with shouts that often poke fun at participants in attendance. Instead of “1-2-3!” the calls change frequently, referring to playful nicknames (“Kato-chan-pe!”), variations on those nicknames (“Iwa-chan-pe!”), and the hope of finishing (“Almost there!”). 

Photo credit: Shigeta Kobayashi

In conversation with the Summit organizers, I commented on how the event felt like a festival instead of a work gathering. Yasuo Yamamoto, the original impetus behind it all, explained that the bottleneck of barrel-making is that it’s lost its charm, even cumbersome. 

“It’s an impossible task if it wasn’t made to be fun.” 

He poses a riddle to me: Let’s say you had two kinds of work. If you had to do simple work but it was boring or if you had difficult work but it was fun, which would you choose? 

I choose the difficult one. 

Why? He leans in with a grin.

Because… it’d be more fun. 

Exactly, he sits back. “You’ll be back for more next year, right?”

Laughter and humor bind us in ways that help us stay connected. Our jests evolve with each iteration so that everyone gets in on the inside joke. Before we know it, we have our own repertoire of laughing material, starting with the call-and-response of coordinated workmanship and ending with the farewell ritual. Our stakes are shared and we need each others’ perspectives and expertises in order to delay the moment we’re all dreading. 

The integrity of the bamboo braid determines whether a barrel will end up holding (or leaking) the contents of the future. All of the contact zones—between braid and stave, between hand and bamboo, between hands and hammer, between voice and laughter, between liquid and barrel—are made to be seamless in order for the barrel to survive. These surfaces are what determine the tenacity of the eventual product. Our relations are no different, predicated on the contact zones between people, between knowledges, and between encounters. We are held together because we are woven into each other.