--I hear that the Shiseido Creative Division has been involved in the surprising field of packaging design for Japanese sake. How did this project begin?
Hirokawa: Our partner on this project was Suisen Shuzo, which has been brewing sake for generations in Rikuzentakata City of the Kesen region, southeast of Iwate Prefecture, since its founding in 1944. After the Great East Japan Earthquake that struck in 2011, the company suffered severe damage as its brewery and office buildings were all swept away in the tsunami. Nevertheless, it used the small amount of yeast left in storage to resume sake brewing in the adjoining Ofunato City later in the same year of the earthquake disaster.
Shiseido's CSR department first became acquainted with Suisen Shuzo through the reconstruction support activities that it was carrying out in Rikuzentakata. After that, the CSR department approached the Creative Division, looking at the possibility for the two companies to collaborate on something together. Hence, this project was born from the framework of volunteer activities rather than business.
--What did the brewery hope to achieve through the collaboration?
Hirokawa: Suisen Shuzo expressed its desire to produce a celebratory sake for special occasions, which can be sold in the Tokyo Metropolitan region. It also wanted to use the name of Mt. Hikami, which straddles Rikuzentakata City and Ofunato City.
Kobayashi: Mt. Hikami has a very important presence in the Kesen region, and Suisen Shuzo has always made its sake using the underground waters of Mt. Hikami. This has not changed even after it relocated from Rikuzentakata to Ofunato after the earthquake disaster. It seems the company had long wanted to produce a sake with the important "Hikami" name.
--This is a field of work that is completely different from your usual work. How did you begin with the project?
Hirokawa: We spoke in April 2017 and visited Suisen Shuzo in Iwate Prefecture in May. Mr. Miura, the brewer whom we met with, was passionate about sake brewing and had a strong commitment toward producing good quality sake. He told us that he would like us to create something that has never been seen before. Hence, while taking market research into consideration, we proposed a design with a distinctive look that makes use of the generosity that characterizes the original flavor of Suisen Shuzo's sake.
While placing great importance on the simplicity, warmth, and vigor that we had felt when we visited the region, we based the design on the concepts of prioritizing the "Iwate character" and "Hikami character," creating a simple yet distinctive look, and ensuring that it is "made in Iwate." We took a long time of about one year to complete the design with great care through a repeated trial-and-error process.
--The result of that work is a packaging that consists of a transparent bottle with a cork stopper. That is not a very common design for Japanese sake, isn't it?
Hirokawa: We proposed using an uncolored, transparent bottle that would allow customers to see the natural color of the sake itself. A transparent bottle is not usually preferred because there can sometimes be dregs floating in the liquid. However, Suisen Shuzo is confident of the quality of its product, so we were able to realize the use of an uncolored, transparent bottle.
Kobayashi: The use of a cork stopper is said to be difficult from the perspective of quality management, based on common practices in the brewing of Japanese sake, but after consulting with the company and through adjustments made by the factory, we were successful in transforming it into reality.
The square graphic printed directly onto the bottle depicts the shadows of animals living in the environment surrounding Mt. Hikami, such as deer, octopuses, monkeys, and snakes. The color of the print was selected to match the color of the rice used to brew the sake, by ordering the actual rice used and comparing the colors.
--What inspired you to come up with the idea of depicting the animals in a style that resembles papercut art?
Kobayashi: Mr. Miura's family is also in the agricultural business, and the rice used in the brewing of this Japanese sake was produced by his family. Sake brewing takes place in the winter, so they farm in summer, enter the brewery in winter, and return to the fields in spring. We wanted to visualize this lifestyle that takes place in tandem with nature, so we considered sketching the animals as a symbol of life that is enabled and sustained by the underground water of Mt. Hikami. The characters for "Hikami," which are incorporated into a part of the graphics, are borrowed from the exact characters put up at Hikami Shrine.
Hirokawa: I believe that the spirit of cherishing nature and mystical things that are invisible to us is alive in the Tohoku region, and I wanted to utilize that in the design. Kobayashi made countless adjustments to the sketches while harnessing the style of hand-drawn sketches. We also kept in mind the connection between the sketches drawn by hand, and the manual processes of sake brewing and rice production.
Kobayashi: I wanted to realize the most beautiful and mystical look of the animals of Hikami. The bottle is wrapped with a very thin sheet of washi (Japanese paper), but because washi is translucent, the sketches of the animals are etched in relief like silhouettes. I think that this creates a sensuous understanding of the richness and depth of Hikami's natural environment.
--I understand that this washi is also produced by a local washi producer.
Hirokawa: In our commitment to the concept of "made in Iwate," we searched for a locally produced paper to use, and found out that there is a washi producer, Touzan-washi, located nearby, which has a long history of 800 years. The washi used for the packaging is an original product made for this purpose, and is made primarily using kasugami, a type of material that has been designated as an intangible folk cultural property of Ichinoseki City. As its raw material, kozo (paper mulberry plant), is a plant with long fibers, the resulting paper is thin yet strong.
As the kozo used is 100% cultivated in-house, we let nature take its course for the color of the washi. To take advantage of the texture of patterned paper, with pieces of the black epidermal tissue of the plant scattered across the kozo paper, we did not print anything on the paper except for the logo mark.
--Has any special meaning has been woven into the logo mark?
Kobayashi: Since the rice-polishing ratio is 40%, the image that Suisen Shuzo had in mind was to use four circles in the logo mark. We made use of this idea and placed a motif of Mt. Hikami on top of four circles.
Hirokawa: The packaging was made individually by hand by the factory workers. Working directly together with the factory workers in a team, we proceeded carefully while consulting with them even on details such as how to print the logo and the selection of the adhesive. Usually, Shiseido's packaging is mass produced and therefore involves many people and factories. This time, however, the number of people involved was small, as it was a small-quantity production. I think it was a valuable experience made possible only because most of it was handmade.
One year of learning from the sincere and earnest attitude toward creating things in Iwate
--You mentioned that it took repeated trial-and-error before arriving at this design. What was the final decisive factor?
Kobayashi: I think it was because this was the simplest and most genuine design. With adding no fancy embellishments, it depicts the living creatures of the mountains and seas, uses the color of rice, and uses the characters put up in the shrine. This was the proposal that kept the necessary elements simple, and successfully incorporated them without any sense of awkwardness. A major decisive factor was also the fact that it was created together with the local people, rather than something that we came up with through just verbal discussions.
--Since it took about one year to produce, this duration that covered a cycle of the seasons was probably also an important factor, wasn't it?
Hirokawa: That's right. As the local character was important to this project, carrying out fieldwork to deepen our understanding of the region was very important in the design process. We visited the factory, shrines, and fields, and spoke to various people. In this way, we collected hints and ideas for the design and brought them back with us to break down the elements and review them. This process was carried out repeatedly.
Sometimes, when we were carrying out discussions through e-mail or Facetime, the people of Suisen Shuzo would tell us about the growth of crops, the sense of the seasons, and the condition of the sake. Waiting for the sake to reach its best condition before shipping and selling it also gave us sense of the dynamic character of this project, which is different from the usual projects where products are shipped on a pre-determined launch date.
--This was a project with a completely different merchandise and process from your usual projects. Could you tell us once again your impressions and thoughts on the project?
Kobayashi: Everything that we saw and heard was new and fresh. We have been allowed to work together with the local people on various processes from rice production to brewing, and the creation of packaging paper together with the washi artisans. We even helped a little with the work of transplanting the rice seedlings. Thanks to these processes, we were able to participate in monozukuri from the same viewpoint as the local people, rather than from our own usual perspective, and it was very interesting.
--Were there any discoveries that you could apply to your regular work?
Kobayashi: I felt that it is important to do your work positively and cheerfully. The artisans of Suisen Shuzo were all positive and exuded an air of always moving forward. I felt that they do not regard their everyday jobs as routine work, but strive to complete each task cheerfully and positively.
Hirokawa: This sake is filled with the pride that these artisans take in their job of producing sake, and the sincere and earnest attitude that the people of Iwate take toward creating things. I am glad if, by visualizing these aspects, I have been able to help in conveying their sentiments to even more people.
It was 19 years ago when I moved from Kanagawa to Iwate after my mother had fallen ill with cancer. I realized anew the importance of food, and we began farming in an attempt to produce safe and reliable vegetables and rice by ourselves. I had always enjoyed nature, and I think that this is the perfect vocation for someone like myself, who used to spend entire days in the mountain during my childhood.
When I began to realize that it would not be possible to be successful in farming without a good understanding of microorganisms, as well as working as partners with nature, I was approached on the subject of producing sake. I decided to learn about it, because I discovered the commonalities between farming and sake, which is similarly produced using microorganisms.
About 10 years have passed since then, and I have learnt diligently about sake brewing from my seniors. During that time, I carried out experiments in various ways to find my own unique method for making the sake more delicious, or to create different tastes by changing the process.
Amid such a situation, I spoke to my predecessor, Mr. Mori, about wanting to make my own sake, and he told me to keep trying until I was satisfied. It was about five years ago, but I remember it as freshly as if it had happened yesterday. Approached by someone in the most junior position who had suddenly voiced the desire to make his own sake, Mr. Mori had allowed it. His spirit left a deep impression on me.
However, when I actually got down to making the sake, I experienced a series of failures. Once, I even completely wasted an entire 500 bottles of sparkling wine.
The one year spent on producing Hikami together with Shiseido may seem long, but it went by in a flash. For myself, who rarely has the opportunity to come into contact with professionals of other fields, the time spent was very precious. It was also a period of time that allowed me to rethink how I confront my work.
In order to be fully committed to the sake brewing process, we even produced the rice on our own. In reality, there are very few sake breweries today that produce sake using rice cultivated on their own. As we imagined the quality of sake that we ultimately wished to produce, we spent about six months growing the rice through a special cultivation method, shaved it down to 40%, and produced the sake under thorough low-temperature control.
As Hikami is a top-quality sake made without added alcohol or sugar (known as "junmai daiginjo"), we paid careful attention to the sake brewing process. We had to watch over it day and night for close to two months, and battled anxiety over whether or not it will turn out well. It was a two-month period spent by putting firm faith and confidence in rice and microorganisms. As I have experienced more failure than others, I felt that somehow things would turn out alright.
Even so, I was very nervous during the first press. After drinking the sake that had been produced, I was certain that everything I had done so far had not been a mistake. Even now, I can remember this clearly. We were fortunate to receive the gold award in the National Seishu Competition and the bronze award in the International Wine Challenge.
I feel truly happy that so many professionals and artisans have been involved in the creation of a single product, and that we have succeeded in producing something wonderful.