Inside Tsuki no Katsura: 350 Years Of Kyoto’s Most Prestigious Sake

The origin story of Tsuki no Katsura sake is a charmed and whimsical one.

During the Edo period, a court noble visited the house of the Tokubee Masuda clan in Fushimi, Kyoto. He recited the poem “the blooming moon reflected upon the clear of Katsura river’s water with our sake to flourish over generations.” Tsuki means moon, and Katsura is the name of the native Japanese tree which changes colors throughout the seasons. The people who drank this sake relished it so much that they felt as if it gave them eternal life—just like the katsura tree on the moon which never dies from Chinese folklore. This is how the prestigious sake brand, Tsuki no Katsura, got its name.

 

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Fushimi Kyoto
Fushimi, Kyoto. PHOTO NADIA CHO
Historic brewery
Historic brewery. PHOTO NADIA CHO

The brewery which produces Tsuki no Katsura, was established in 1675 and is one of the oldest sake breweries in Kyoto. The recently inaugurated CEO, Junichi Masuda, or Jun, is young, energized and ready with fresh ideas to move the brand forward. Jun is the 15th generation to take over the company, which has been passed down within his family for the last 350 years. Whenever a new generation of CEO takes over the entire company, it is his family’s tradition to take the original founder’s name, Tokubee Masuda. Thus, Jun will be changing the name on all his government identification and papers as the 15th generation of Tokubee very soon. Jun was also kind enough to share the story of his family business with us and show us around the historic brewery.

Tsuki no Katsura has always had a level of prestige attached to its name. The soft texture and delicately balanced flavor of the sake was highly favored by nobles, writers and sake devotees, ever since the Edo period.

CEO Junichi Masuda
CEO Junichi Masuda. PHOTO NADIA CHO
vintage sakes
Vintage sakes. PHOTO NADIA CHO

“We dig under 80 meters until we hit the water plate. We’ve been using this area plate’s ground water for over 100 years. The water is really, really soft so it’s really good for brewing melty and elegant sake. We always want to express the softness of the water into sake. This is our identity.” – Junichi Masuda

While their competitors may use modern technology to control all stages of production in order to manufacture sake all year round on a much larger scale, Tsuki no Katsura maintains its quality by resolutely sticking to the traditional methods of sake brewing. The brewery still steams rice in wooden vats, washes everything with boiled ground water and has its own special sauna-like chamber for fermentation. They stick to a strict ritual of harvesting and brewing only in the winter, for just four months out of the year.

The brewery
The brewery. PHOTO NADIA CHO

“Basically, sake can be brewed only in the winter because if it’s hot outside, we can’t control the fermentation. We start from November to next March, only four months. We plant the rice around April then we harvest the rice in October.”

By using time-tested methods and tools on a small scale, the brewery is able to continue producing the same taste for which the brand has been renowned for the past 350 years. However, Tsuki no Katsura has also survived for centuries thanks to the continuous innovation and evolution of its products. Sake aficionados will be fascinated to learn that the Tokubee Masuda clan were the inventors of nigori sparkling sake.

Vintage sake in ceramic bottles
Vintage sake in ceramic bottles. PHOTO NADIA CHO

The 13th Tokubee Masuda, or Jun’s grandfather, loved champagne and wanted to make a similar sparkling version of sake. This would require fermentation to stay in the bottle to produce the second yeasting which carbonates the alcohol. But back in the day, the government did not allow producers to sell unfiltered sake, in order to prevent civilians from taking the yeast to produce their own sake while evading taxes. In 1964, Jun’s grandfather invented a contraption which he showed to government officials to get around this conundrum. He cleverly made a filtering device with holes large enough to allow the fermentation to get through, while still claiming that the sake was being filtered. With this, Tokubee Masuda became the first to produce and sell Nigori sparkling sake in Japan.

Tsuki no Katsura brewery
Tsuki no Katsura brewery. PHOTO NADIA CHO
Original wooden vats for rice
Original wooden vats for rice. PHOTO NADIA CHO

The Masuda family is also pioneering the art of preserving vintage sake.

“My family really loves wine and champagne. We believe that sake can be aged. Right after we brew sake, we have to sell it as fast as possible in no time. But my family hates this. We kind of want to keep it for the right future for vintage… In the Edo period, people made vintage sake all the time and served it to high end samurais or emperor. We thought this was really cool and we thought we have to do the same thing with sake. So we started in 1965. It’s so different than fresh sake. It looks like a whisky color and the flavor and taste is like a sherry or madeira wine.”

Aged sake room
Aged sake room. PHOTO NADIA CHO

The art of aging sake had been lost for centuries and the family had to search for methods to revive it. As luck would have it, Jun’s grandfather found a cookbook from the Edo period right in their own home. The cookbook revealed long lost methods of aging sake, like using ceramic to store the alcohol and keeping it at a seasonal temperature. The family now has a significant collection of aged sake with the oldest one being 58 years old.

At the moment the brewery is not open to the public, save for a few bespoke tours. Although, Jun envisions creating a type of sake city in Fushimi, where the many sake breweries in the area will be able to showcase their products to visitors and offer an experience similar to those at wineries and vineyards. As the Fushimi area is the 2nd largest sake-producing region in Japan, offering a chance to visit sake breweries would add to Kyoto’s rich fabric of cultural attractions.

Old and new logos
Old and new logos. PHOTO NADIA CHO
Local organic rice for sake
Local organic rice for sake. PHOTO NADIA CHO

While some would feel immense pressure in taking over a 350-year-old family business, Jun doesn’t appear burdened or stressed about it.

“I was born in this family, so I feel a responsibility to keep my family business. I don’t feel too much pressure from my parents. I like drinking sake so I’m having fun taking over my family business.”

Cedar ball outside brewery
Cedar ball outside brewery. PHOTO NADIA CHO

Thanks to his personal passion for sake and lifelong preparation and learning, Jun is excited about continuing his family’s legacy. With a keen sense for branding and developing new products, like the invaluable vintage sakes that will be dropped very soon, there’s no doubt that Tsuki no Katsura will maintain its prestige and renowned flavor.

For more information about Tsuki no Katsura brewery and its products, check out its website.

Nadia Cho

Communications Associate

As the empowered female behind the blog: International Women of Mystery, Nadia reps Team JST traveling the world in search of exclusive features on hidden gems and cool hotspots. You can find her exploring metropolitan cities or lounging on tropical beaches.

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