These two different-looking water scenes have something in common : the temple near which the picture above was shot, and the sake brewery where the pic on right was shot, were both founded in a similarly pure surrounding where the water was reverred for its pristine quality. Don't focus on the aging concrete of the Himonoya sake brewery, this water on the right is one of their most valuable asset, the other being their human expertise.
I think that the Japanese have a deep-rooted love affair with pure water and untouched nature, something that predates the fashionable eco-conscience of our modern times. It translates for example into their modern embracing of costly offshore installations to pump deep-sea water (from sea-bed springs or plain sea water) and sell bottles of it to demanding consumers. This longing for purity and holyness may explain why many of these temples and sake breweries were built in beautiful mountainous settings with abundant spring water of pristine quality. Call it intuition or empirical experience, sake brewers quickly understood that there was something in the water that was a decisive factor behind a good (or a bad) sake. This was long before mineral analysis and scientific research, but the taste of the resulting sake guided the early sake-brewery founders, and by our modern scientific standards, they had a very good taste : The best sake producing regions and towns sit on water beds and springs that have been proved to fit exactly what the fragile quality of a good sake needs : Some hidden mineral factors are decisive for a good sake, and elements like potassium, magnesium, phosphoric acid, iron or manganese can help make the best sake or result in barely drinkable booze.
The men on the pic above are doing a very important step in the pre-steaming preparation of the rice. Here, the rice has been recently milled and reduced from 70% to 30% of its original size depending of the desired quality of sake. We'll address the milling factor later, whatever, the recently-milled rice is still covered with white dust and this dust has to be removed before beginning the brewing. That's where rice washing comes. Here at the Himonoya sake brewery in Nihonmatsu, everything is done in a traditional way, including rice washing. Bags full of milled rice are plunged in water buckets and stirred several minutes to let the water flush the powder and impregnate the inside of the rice kernels. The modern breweries have long ago automated this operation to save time, handwork and raise volumes. It does not btw necessarily lowers the quality of sake but many sake experts consider that the manual washing of sake is necessary for the best sakes, as an experienced Toji will pick up slight differences in the weather, rice and air conditions and adapt accordingly the washing time : This stage is minuted and its timing is modified with the rice conditions and other factors, too much water impregnation could affect negatively the inside of the kernel, and a too short one could samely endanger the correct fermentation that is to follow. This operation is done in the morning time in these artisanal sake breweries. The one we witnessed lasted exactly 8 minutes, an electronic timer being here the only technology item that parted with the ancient way. Half a dozen workers did the job silently and expertly, and it looked like a well-practiced ballet, performed since immemorial times. Really impressive. Hard manual work and art at the same time. Look at the pictures on left and right to have the full picture : on the left, the very first second of these 8 minutes, when the bags are going to be plunged in the buckets, and on the right, the very last second as the timer rang, when the workers hold the bags out of the water simultaneously.
Like for washing, soaking time is measured with precision in order to achieve the desired water content in the kernels. The Himonoya sake brewery is doing it the artisanal way here too, in small batches, with clean sheets and small vats, while in large breweries it is done on fully automated lines (and year around). it is of course a time-consuming task but the human experience and intuition can't be easily replaced by machines.
This is not the last water addition as water will be repeatedly added in the vats during the fermentation, and most sakes will also receive a final 20% water addition to lower their alcohol from about 20% to 16%.