Kikkoman Factory

Kikkoman Factory (Takahiro Takiguchi)

I can’t live without soy sauce. I can’t help but sprinkle it on virtually anything. From sushi, tempura and other Japanese dishes to rib steak, cutlet, pasta and even, salads, soy sauce is a must regardless of what I’m eating.

Whenever I go overseas, I don’t forget to take a small bottle of soy sauce with me. This bottle of liquid gold makes trying unknown, strange local dishes palatable and more enjoyable for me. And I’m not alone, many people love soy sauce and use it to enhance the flavor of their food.

Soy sauce

Soy sauce (File photo)

Despite its popularity and place as a staple of the Japanese table, soy sauce’s domestic consumption is reportedly on the decline.

To learn more about my favorite seasoning, I headed to Kikkoman, Japan’s leading soy sauce brewer, for a tour of its facilities including— surprisingly enough— a hospital.

Kikkoman, a name synonymous with soy sauce itself, boasts 30 percent of the market share and products are widely available throughout the U.S. and more than 100 other countries.

At the factory, we met with employees and engineers who explained the entire brewing process of soy and walked us through production of special gluten-free soy sauce and certified-halal soy sauce, as well.

To create soy sauce, steamed soybeans are mixed with roasted and crushed wheat and koji mold. Later, saltwater is added in a vat to begin the fermentation process. After aging, the materials in the vat are pressed, heated to eliminate germs and finally bottled as soy sauce.

Fermentation of soy sauce in the brewery.

Fermentation of soy sauce in the brewery. (Takahiro Takiguchi)

Large cedar vats in the brewery.

Large cedar vats in the brewery. (Takahiro Takiguchi)

Despite its popularity, soy sauce is heavy in sodium. An average consumer in Japan consumes 19 percent of their daily salt intake from soy sauce, a Kikkoman spokesman said. It is because of this that the company is committed to helping consumers maintain a healthy diet by developing various reduced-salt soy sauces and incorporating them into their hospital cafeteria starting over 50 years ago.

On our tour, we sampled six different Kikkoman soy sauces and I was able to appreciate the differences in flavors and aromas – they were all very tasty. Surprisingly, the 50 percent reduced salt-soy sauce had the best flavor.

Inside the plant we entered the traditional brewery, called Goyogura, or imperial soy sauce brewery in Japanese. This brewery dates to 1939 and has a gray tile roof and traditional gate. Here, we saw the traditional process, which includes processing raw materials, mixing flour, making koji mold, fermentation in traditional cedar vats and the pressing, heating and bottling process through a glass wall. The traditional brewing method takes one year in a natural climate, giving the soy sauce its deep dark brown color, rich flavor and aroma. According to the engineer leading the tour, this process has been ongoing for 110 years and is used to produce high-end soy sauce for the Imperial Household Agency.

Goyogura or imperial soy sauce brewery in Kikkoman Noda Factory.

Goyogura or imperial soy sauce brewery in Kikkoman Noda Factory. (Takahiro Takiguchi)

After our tour of the factory brewery, we headed to Kikkoman General Hospital, a 10-minute bus ride away.

Kikkoman General Hospital

Kikkoman General Hospital (Takahiro Takiguchi)

Kikkoman General Hospital

Kikkoman General Hospital (Takahiro Takiguchi)

Lower-sodium hospital meals are served to the patients.

Lower-sodium hospital meals are served to the patients. (Takahiro Takiguchi)

Lower-sodium hospital meals are served to the patients.

Lower-sodium hospital meals are served to the patients. (Takahiro Takiguchi)

Originally a soy sauce brewer’s clinic, this is the only hospital run by a food manufacturer in Japan. It also happens to be known for serving the best hospital food.

Kikkoman produces other condiments and foods like ketchup, soy-based seasonings, tomato juice and soymilk, which allow its hospital to offer a variety of food served for patients. Besides applying Kikkoman’s lower-sodium food products, the hospital also uses full-bodied broth made from seaweed, fish, or chicken, along with seafood, and a variety of vegetables, guaranteeing tasty and healthy meals for patients.

Noboru Arai, a patient at the hospital, said his meals were much tastier than the ones he gets at home. Miki Kamegaki, another patient, said each dish is carefully cooked and meat is very tender and savory.

The group I was in was lucky enough to be invited to try the lunch set the hospital was serving that day. Our lunch was sautéed pork with apple and ginger sauce, stir-fried root vegetables, brown algae salad with tube-shaped fish cake, rice and soymilk pudding.

At first glance, the food looked too healthy, but one bite in and my mind was changed. Just like the patients we met said, this meal was carefully prepared, and the flavors were delicious. This food made me feel like I was eating at a restaurant, not a hospital.

Unfortunately, for you to be able to try this food, it would require being admitted as a patient. Not saying it’s worth it, but the food was pretty good!

After this visit it was easy to see why so many people share my love of soy sauce and my love for it grew even deeper.

The Kikkoman Soy Sauce Museum and Goyogura is open to the public but requires advanced reservation. Tours are available in English and the museum has a café and gift shop.

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