Where there’s good water (and rice), there’s good sake. Despite being indubitably correct, the saying has been repeated so often that the ring to it has long lost its momentum. Most of us share basic knowledge that Japan’s traditional alcoholic drinks are made regionally, typically of three essential ingredients merged to form a variety of deep flavors that vary per region. Most of us also know that it takes exceptional resilience, many years to master the craft, and extended daily hours in misty and cold environments to produce anything worth drinking. So the prevalent sentiment when a new website dedicated to the “art of sake” emerges is that it better bring something new to the table.
The recently launched bilingual website, “Your Sake Journey,” an initiative by Japan’s National Tax Agency to expand the spectrum and recognition of “sake,” is one of those websites that brings a fresh touch to the existing repertoire. One of the two key points Your Sake Journey attempts to send across is that Japanese sake is not limited to nihonshu or shochu — it also includes beer and wine, two rapidly rising Japanese adoptions-adaptations from overseas. The second is that sake is not just a product; it’s a lifestyle.
To achieve its goal, as one of its main features, the website focuses on professionals who have made a living out of making (and drinking) sake, walking hand in hand from their backstories to why they chose to stick around. Unlike many existing websites, Your Sake Journey focuses not only on well-known sake brewery artisans but also people who have been influenced by Japanese sake and have found a way to incorporate it in their work. Among the first round of featured sake-inspired professionals are a sake sommelier flight attendant, an award-winning executive wine sommelier, a beer connoisseur, and Japan’s first foreign-born individual to earn the title of toji (master sake brewer).
The masters’ journeys
Kyoto-based sake brewer Philip Harper, a native Brit, recalls that his first Japanese meal ever was on a plane to Japan back in the late 1980s when he first visited the country as a JET based in Osaka. It most likely didn’t include a single sip of Japanese sake, and, at the time, he hardly imagined that decades later he would be firmly based here, branding his sake labels in a remote town in Kyoto. Harper’s first encounter with Japanese sake was when he and two coworkers joined a sake tasting club together. “All three of us went on to quit our jobs to become sake brewers,” he tells Your Sake Journey in a face-to-face interview. Today, Harper is the toji at Kinoshita Brewery in rural Kyoto Prefecture, which produces sake under the Tamagawa brand name. The sake products he makes include the famous Time Machine label, an aged sake from a 300-year-old recipe, which pairs well with ice cream and pickles. Harper even makes sake cakes, made with nothing else but sugar, flour and a lot of nihonshu, which you will recognize on the first bite. Read full interview here.
Master sake brewer Philip Harper from Kinoshita Brewery, Kyoto Photo: Solveig Boergen
Satoru Mori, the executive sommelier at Conrad Tokyo, says that he took the reverse path when choosing his career — he started drinking wine to become a sommelier, not the other (rather typical) way around. Japanese wine is an essential “Japanese sake” player, although it still has a long way to be recognized globally. Unlike wine in France and other countries, Japanese wine doesn’t have a signature local cuisine that it perfectly pairs with. Mori, however, takes a positive approach to this. “Japanese wine isn’t as well-known as other wines, though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That means that there is a chance for Japanese wine and Japanese wineries to create their own identity,” he tells Your Sake Journey. In search of further possibilities, Mori continues to travel to Japan’s surprisingly many vineyards, much to his wife’s dislike (Mori says he often forgets time when at a winery). Read full interview here.
Satoru Mori, executive sommelier at Conrad Tokyo. Photo: Kayo Yamawaki
Shibuya-based beer connoisseur Yuya Hayashi recalls starting his sake journey with a single sip of Punk IPA he vows he can’t forget. “It struck me how aromatic it was,” he says. Now store manager of Watering Hole, a popular craft beer bar in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, Hayashi constantly searches for the best craft beer around Japan and the world. He has tasted some 13,000 beer types and says that the most exciting beer scene in Japan (aside from Tokyo) is Shizuoka. “Japan initially brought over specialists from Germany, Britain and other places. After learning how to make it, we took it upon ourselves to develop our own flavors, creating something that resonated with our own regions and techniques, and eventually brought these flavors to the world,” Hayashi says. Read full interview here.
Yuya Hayashi, store manager of Watering Hole, Tokyo Photo: Rose Vittayaset
An atypical sake sommelier, Honami Kato, brings her expert sake knowledge to global audiences on flights to and from Japan. A flight attendant for All Nippon Airlines, Kato’s sake journey started in her native Akita Prefecture when she first visited a local sake brewery. “It was so delicious that I couldn’t put it into words,” Kato recalls. Her job then required that she had some answers about Japanese sake when asked by passengers, but often she didn’t have them. To change that, in October 2020, she passed the Japan Sommelier Association (J.S.A.) Sake Diploma International certification exam, a newly launched qualification program aimed at nurturing sommeliers with the knowledge to meet sake’s increasing popularity overseas. “Most people who visit Japan already have a travel plan in mind. My goal, then, is to figure out how to get them more interested in sake during the flight,” Kato tells Your Sake Journey. Combining her geographical and cultural knowledge of Japan now allows her to recommend rare places to travelers that aren’t on every guidebook. Read full interview here.
ANA flight attendant Honami Kato Photo: Kayo Yamawaki
Guides and resources
In addition to offering a platform for learning from different Japan-based alcohol masters, Your Sake Journey also provides a guide to the history and making of Japanese sake, including nihonshu, shochu, beer, wine and awamori, the Okinawan traditional spirit. The website also has a map of Japan’s key sake-producing regions and breweries for further reference. Many of these locations offer guided tours to travelers, which are highly recommended as a learning experience (and sake tasting). Getting up close and personal with sake and its making is a spiritual journey of discovery that perhaps teaches more about Japan’s culture than the sake-making techniques themselves — and this is precisely what Your Sake Journey aims to show its readers.
Virtual sake tours and tasting experience
As part of its initiative to promote and expand the scope of sake awareness, the National Tax Agency has also created a series of short video episodes on Your Sake Journey introducing various sake labels from five of Japan’s key sake-producing regions. These informative series, hosted by Chris Hughes, a certified sake educator and co-host of Sake on Air, a popular sake podcast, introduce sake from Gunma, Nagano, Tottori, Saga and Harima (Hyogo) through pairing the labels with a variety of local and international delicacies (including cheesecakes).
The episodes’ main purpose is to show viewers how to best enjoy and experiment with sake at home.
To find out more about Japanese sake, its varieties and culture, and to read the full interviews with the sake masters, visit Your Sake Journey at https://tourism2020.nta.go.jp/