Imagine a bottle of sake displayed like a stunning piece of art with a backdrop of water flowing down all across the wall. Ever since its foundation in 1666, Yaegaki Brewery has been making sake in the area of Himeji in Banshū, surrounded by beautiful nature. Their sake is sold directly in Tokyo at “Hasegawa Eiga Roppongi,” an exclusive store graced with an air of tranquility. It was Yusuke Hasegawa, leading the Yaegaki Group (which includes Yaegaki Brewery) as the CEO since 2016, who established this brand to mark their 350th anniversary. We spoke to him about his past journey and what awaits him in the future.
“Can I love sake as much as I love music?”:
Hasegawa’s Early Dilemma
“Hasegawa Eiga” takes its name from Hasegawa’s ancestor, who first began the brewery. The Hasegawa family are descendants of the Fujiwara clan, a powerful family that used to dominate the imperial court in classical Japan. Eiga Hasegawa was the 33rd descendant of Fujiwara no Kamatari.
Yusuke Hasegawa was born into this family in 1977. After completing a Master’s degree in business administration at Rikkyo University, he began work at an audio technology company in the international sales department. “I felt the need to broaden my experience working at a non-food-related manufacturing firm before I took on the family business. More importantly, I love music. It was a source of great pride for me to be part of making something linked to music.”
In 2007, he joined the Yaegaki Group, which operates in various industries such as liquor, food, and health care. “Just like music, sake can nourish your soul.” This belief is at the core of Hasegawa’s business ventures and expansion into the overseas market. “When I first started here, to be honest, I wasn’t sure whether I could love sake as much as I love music,” he laughs. “But now, I really do love sake.”
The Project that Transfigured Sake into Art
The Hasegawa Eiga brand is luxuriously brewed from the precious Yamada Nishiki rice harvested from the special A-grade district, known as a top-notch rice for sake. The water used in their brewing process is channelled from the underground stream of Hayashida River, a branch of the Ibo River, which flows from Shika-ga-tsubo, the deep waterfall pool known for its scenic beauty. The kōji yeast is prepared in a traditional method called “futa-kōji-hō,” and they employ the subtle “fukuro shibori” pressing technique for extracting the sake in order to achieve the most delicate, pure flavour. The whole process is the fruit of more than 350 years of tradition, technique, and experience. At the zenith of refinement, this sake represents the true Japanese art of brewing. It’s fitting that it came into being through Hasegawa, who has a passion for all the arts.
It is not only sake that he turned into art, but also the Hasegawa Eiga project overall. In 2018, he opened Hasegawa Eiga Roppongi, and its spatial design was shaped by his taste in art—well versed in both Western art such as Cubism and Picasso, and Japanese art such as traditional paintings—as well as his strong desire “to offer the ideal space for enjoying sake, where people can truly savour its rich flavours.”
At Hasegawa Eiga Roppongi, visitors can experience sake tasting in a Japanese-style room of about thirteen square metres under a lofty ceiling, lit by a soft light from the yukimi window (or “snow watching” window, a sliding shōji partition with the upper half covered in translucent paper and the lower half consisting of a glass pane, which affords a nice view of the garden from inside). In bespoke sake cups specially commissioned from ceramic artists, five kinds of Hasegawa Eiga are offered for tasting, each paired with a special side dish formulated by top chefs of Japan to match their particular flavours. Flowers arranged in a vase made by the same ceramicists adorn the alcove in a simple, elegant style. Stepping into this space, we feel a breath of fresh air, and, enveloped in the soothing sound of trickling water, we savour the sake along with inventive side dishes—it is indeed a feast for all the senses.
For this project, Hasegawa was careful to find true masters of their art for each collaboration: for the sake cups and flower vases, he worked with the ceramic artists Tsuyoshi Hotate, Ryuji Iwasaki, and Tasuku Mitsufuji. For the flower arrangement, he worked with the kadō artist Shungetsu Nakamura. Rising stars in the chef world, such as Tsuyoshi Fukuyama of La Maison de la Nature Goh and Natsuko Shoji of été, have worked on the side dishes for the sake tastings.
Hasegawa Eiga Roppongi:
Born out of a Moving Experience
“I’d like my customers to take home their memory of the time they spent here as an unforgettable experience,” says Hasegawa in a serene tone. “I hope they’ll feel closer to sake by coming here—not just our sake, I mean, but any sake.” If they felt inspired to pause, even at home in their everyday lives, and take the time to savour some sake in a refined cup, gazing at delicately arranged flowers, it would add a splash of colour to their lives.
Hasegawa himself has had an unforgettable experience. In his first work-training at the audio tech company, he had the opportunity to listen to a performance of Eric Clapton played in an audio room with equipment of the highest quality. “It was astounding how good the sound was, just because of the equipment and the surroundings,” he recalls. “It was as though Eric was standing right in front of me.” This mind-blowing experience—along with the realisation that all aspects of the surroundings are critical for maximising the effect—is also part of what drives the Hasegawa Eiga project.
“I hope there will come a day when sake will be recognised around the globe as something cool and attractive,” says Hasegawa. From ancient times, sake has grown out of tender veneration for nature and the pursuit of better quality through honing techniques without compromise. It symbolises the values and the pure soul of Japanese people. But Hasegawa feels that even within Japan, many people have yet to understand the true value of sake.
In order to reach international circles, to spread the love of sake as something that embodies Japan’s rich culture and aesthetics, Hasegawa is ready to break free from tradition and continue to expand the value of sake by collaborating with true artists: always striving to be more creative, more artistic. Hasegawa will challenge himself to keep innovating, for he holds a firm belief in the infinite possibilities of Japanese sake.