Hey, I’m Casey. Welcome to our weekly newsletter sharing the startup journey of Kamui Whisky. Each week Rusty or I will share a story as we set up a craft whisky distillery on a remote, volcanic island in the most northern part of Japan.
After the initial, infatuating trip to Rishiri, the first thing I did once back to Tokyo was try and figure out how we could buy some land to start building this distillery. Start from the bottom right?
I started searching real estate sites but couldn’t find any listings for Rishiri.
On island, it was plain to see there was a lot of empty land, crumbling down fishermen’s houses, whatnot. There had to be something available.
I switched to traditional real estate agents in Wakkanai, thinking maybe the bigger neighbor, a ferry ride away, might cover the Rishiri market. Nothing. We called a few. Still nothin.
My wife has some serious, serious internet skills. I asked if she would put them to good use and find some us land for sale in Rishiri. Nada.
The hurdles in this just-begun whisky journey were coming quick and fast.
A good entrepreneur has a special skill to wrap other people in to a project. I leaned on that, asking one of my long-term colleagues, who had a knack for figuring out tricky setups, to help out and call the local government offices. I figured the local government offices would know how, and might just help us, get some land for whisky. She was game.
Rishiri-Fuji takes up the eastern side of the island. It’s where the ferry terminal is. A well designed, expensive, architectural piece of a ferry terminal. It’s where the majority of the traffic, and all the goods come in to the island. The main economic thoroughfare to the outside.
Rishiri-cho is on the western side of the island. You port in to Rishiri-Fuji (eastern side) and then you have to somehow figure out how to make your way to the other side.
My colleague, in her spare time, set about calling the local government offices of each. My Japanese is fluent, but not good enough to deal with local government officials in more rural Japan. It’s the type when hearing a foreign accented caller asking for land to set up some crazy whisky distillery would just as likely hang up. She has a knack for handling these situations.
It took a few phone calls.
She met with a lot of polite bemusement from the other side of the phone. Through persistence, and kindly, patiently describing the idea to the officials, joining in with their laughter at our idea, she was able to make appointments for me to visit.
Just a few months after leaving Rishiri for the first time we were headed back.
The Town of Rishiri-Fuji
Our first appointment was with an official at Rishiri-Fuji’s local government office.
The local government building, other than the ferry terminal, is probably the most expensive building in town. We walked in, inquired after the person we were supposed to meet. After a few blank, surprised stares, we were finally able to meet our appointment, greeting us with a polite bow.
We went in to a meeting room that had no personality, the same as any stale government office around the world, and began to tell him about our idea to build a whisky distillery in Rishiri. He listened, asked a couple of polite questions, and then resignedly explained that there was very little land for sale.
When I enquired about the empty lots, and crumbling buildings I’d seen around, he said that Rishiri had a problem. Those lands, those lots, were owned by people long since dead. Many from the Meiji era. Owned by people with names like something-or-other-nosuke; this was the liveliest he got in the meeting, the only time he popped a joke. The suffix “-nosuke” on a first name is old and traditional. The problem with the land was that it was registered in names from long ago, and no-one could buy it, nor the government reclaim it unless every descendent signed off. It wasn’t unusual to have 40 descendants that needed to be found, contacted, cajoled and pushed in to signing over a piece of land. The Rishiri-Fuji government office had a whole department dedicated to this. We learned it took 4 years on average for a single transaction to complete.
This was going to be a long process…
After 30 minutes the gentleman kindly agreed to show us around, and see if we couldn’t find a good spot. Still being a naive foreigner (even after 20 years in Japan) I actually thought there was a chance we’d find a spot for the distillery together, but this turned out to be Japanese politeness. Only after an hour and a half in to the slow drive around the whole area that is Rishiri-Fuji did I finally start to realize there was little chance to purchase land this way.
Being an optimist I held on to the hope for one piece of land we were shown. It was on the Southern tip of Rishiri. There was no infrastructure in place, was unclaimed, so it was obvious that it would take a ton of work. The gentleman said, “At least 3 years…” to go through the land transfer process, because of the inheritance issue, but it had beautiful, endless stretching views over the ocean, was on a high cliff, and lots of sunlight.
Worth a thought.
It had been a long trip. A long day puttering around the island in a small car, feeling my hopes slowly dashed by the monotony, and not-quite-helpful politeness of the whole tour. It had been a tiring, and emotionally draining day, but I wasn’t going to give up too easily.
A Quick Flashback
The day before our trip to Rishiri I’d had an infuriating couple of hours butting my head against Japanese bureaucracy. Tasked to repeatedly go through pointless requirements, that just had to be done, because that was the rules.
An experience summarized by this thread of tweets:
The Town of Rishiri-cho
Back to the story.
The next day we took a bus from the East side of the island over to the West side for our appointment with Rishiri-cho officials. Buses depart once an hour, and the drivers are certainly not in any rush, so as the appointment time got closer, and we still hadn’t reached the destination, juggling along on this slow, empty bus, my anxiety was climbing.
It’s a big no-no to be late for meetings in Japan.
After a long, final 15 minutes on the bus, checking the time every few seconds, every minute filled with anxiety looking for our stop to appear, we finally arrived. We darted out of the bus, with a young baby and a stroller in tow, in a heavy downpour well late to the meeting.
We were met with a kind welcome.
The team there to greet us loved our young baby, lots of coo’s and ahh’s. A nice mood set for our pitch. Ten minutes in and they were enthusiastic, offering to show us potential spots. The energy was so different than the day before.
The first stop was an unused middle school. With the town’s population declining, the number of the kids in the town steadily getting fewer, they had combined three middle schools in to one. Leaving two abandoned.
As we got out of the little van, one of the officials (who became a key member to this project), asked if we wanted to buy the school:
I could hardly believe it.
The day before we had gotten the runaround. And the day before that I’d gotten head trauma from the impenetrable Japanese bureaucracy, just trying to get a simple form completed, and here he was smiling in the rain offering to sell me a school. When I was slow on the uptake, he ensured me it would be very cheap!
With that, I knew we’d found our spiritual home for Kamui Whisky.
The next couple of hours proceeded at a high, helpful pace of enthusiasm. We visited and tasted one of the free flowing natural springs:
We eventually settled on the site we hoped would become the home of our distillery:
By the end of the day, we had a rough plan in place: we’d work on buying/leasing the land on the cliff, right by the ocean for the distillery, use the free flowing local spring water, and store the whisky barrels in the middle school gym.
The Rishiri-cho team were all for it. They seemed to sincerely believe in the project. Going so far as to prod us to take a picture in front of the official town background. It seemed this would be serious.
Thoughts on the Ferry Home
With any startup project it’s the people you work with that make it a success, and even more importantly, make it enjoyable.
We’d found such a wonderful team in the local government officials at Rishiri-cho (names to be introduced later:)). We’d found the land in Kamui, land that has a depth of meaning and spirituality to it; Kamui meaning “God’s Place”, “the place where the water is clean” in the Ainu language.
Once again we were leaving the island with excitement for what comes next, eager to get back as soon as possible.