Sake as an Option|Ask Ayumi Fujishiro, International Sake Taster, about the Appeal of Sake

As the flow of people to and from overseas resumes, we would like to propose sake as one way for Japanese companies to entertain foreigners.
What is the appeal of sake? How is sake seen from overseas? We interviewed Ms. Ayumi Fujishiro, an international sake taster, on the subject of conveying the appeal of Japan through sake.
The person we will be interviewing this time

Born in 1989, Tokyo. Since 2013, he has been engaged in marketing at IPPIN PTE. LTD. in Singapore, a company that expands sales channels for local Japanese products and promotes cultural awareness in Singapore. In 2021, he will be certified as a sake taster. He published “Sake Nerd’s Tipsy English” from the publisher ALC. His favorite manga is Auri Hirao’s “I’ll die if my guess is Budokan” (Tokuma Shoten).

Biography of Ayumi Fujishiro, International Sake Taster

Motenas, Haru.
Motenas, Haru.

Nice to meet you. It is a pleasure to meet you today. First of all, could you tell us about your career to date?

Ms. Fujishiro.
Ms. Fujishiro.

I am a native of Japan and was born and raised in Japan. I was born and raised in Japan and studied Kabuki and Bunraku at university.

– You are well versed in traditional culture!

My grandmother was a Japanese dancer and my uncle was a ningyo joruri (puppet theater) performer, so I grew up in an environment where traditional culture was close to me from a young age.
I followed this trend at university, studying Kabuki and Bunraku.

– What path did you take after graduation?

I worked for a small business that had nothing to do with traditional culture.
However, a short time after I started working, I developed a sudden hearing loss, which weakened the three semicircular canals in my ears and made it difficult for me to walk straight.

I quit the company I joined after less than a year and devoted myself to treatment. Now my symptoms have subsided and I have recovered to the point where I am able to work.

– Did you work after you recovered?

I was stationed in Singapore to work for a company that develops sales channels for good Japanese products in Singapore.

The Singaporean company also handled sake.
We had a café-like store that also served sake, and we were involved in import/export, sales, and event planning.
But I didn’t have enough knowledge to explain sake to foreign customers.
Furthermore, in Singapore, where many languages such as English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil are spoken, people get confused when they see “sake” and “shochu” on the menu.

– What do you mean by misunderstanding?

Sake could be understood as a Japanese alcoholic beverage, but shochu was often thought of as “grilled” alcohol and thought of as hot sake.

That is surprising from a Japanese point of view!

Moreover, when I first started living in Japan in 2013, I was selling sake and people would ask me, “What is sake? I was at the level of being asked, “What is sake?

Then, while I was cleaning up in front of the restaurant, a person related to the international sake taster certification walked by.
Do you have any sake? I was asked if I had any sake, and as we were talking, I was told, “We are going to have an international sake taster’s exam in Singapore next time. I was told, “We are going to have an international sake taster’s exam in Singapore.

And that’s why you took the test?

Yes, I was accepted as an international sake taster in that exam.
I was just cleaning the front of the store, but I never thought I would be able to work so extensively (laughs).

– That’s an amazing story. Did you stay in Singapore?

After qualifying as an international sake taster, I gained experience by holding workshops at a store in Singapore and selecting the right sake for customers who came to the store. I returned to Japan with the Corona Disaster.

– What activities were you involved in at that time?

I was fortunate to be able to continue working, as I had just compiled a series of articles from the web media to be published as a book, as well as a series of articles related to sake and English.
Now, I am participating in meetings to promote sake overseas from ministry relations.

– You have a wide range of activities. What other work did you do during your time in Singapore?

I have been in Singapore for a longer period of time, mainly selling sake and conducting seminars, and the price of sake in Singapore is about three times the price in Japan.
It was difficult for the general public to buy them, so we often held seminars for expatriates and overseas experts who had come to Singapore.
We handled sake as a product for the so-called wealthy.

What exactly is an international sake taster?

 

Motenas, Haru.
Motenas, Haru.

To begin with, can you tell us what kind of qualification an international sake taster is?

Ms. Fujishiro.
Ms. Fujishiro.

International sake tasters can be divided into two terms.

The “international” and “sake taster” parts. First of all, sake tasters are called sake sommeliers.
While one might think of a sommelier as someone who hides a bottle of sake and guesses the variety of alcohol, that ability is not required at all when it comes to sake.

– Are you a sommelier who doesn’t guess alcohol?

That is right. The taste of sake is determined by what kind of sake the brewer wants to make.
For example, in the case of wine, the year’s performance, climate, and land will determine some trends.

But sake is made by shaving rice, steaming rice, and other manual processes by the sake brewer.
You have the technology to change the taste of the same rice to be sweet or dry, such as “I want it to taste like this next year,” or “I want it to be dry.”

– There is a sake brewery, isn’t there?

As sake tasters, our role is not to guess the year of the sake, but to suggest that the sake has a rich flavor because it is made by this method, or that it goes well with this kind of food.

– Do you imagine that you understand the process and make suggestions?

Yes, that’s right!
So, starting from the raw materials, the history, the way sake is made, and the local water (hard water, soft water, etc.) can also change the taste.
Another characteristic of sake is that many sake breweries make sake to suit the local food.
The job of a sake taster is to explain these things to the general public in an easy-to-understand way, based on knowledge and the individual characteristics of the sake.
My job is to make people aware of and enjoy Japanese sake.

– What does international” mean to you?

The international part of the job is still the same, communicating sake in English.
A sake taster is “a person who understands sake,” but when the international is added, it means “a person who can explain sake in a language other than Japanese so that it can be understood.

I see. It is easy to understand.

Sake has many kanji characters and can seem difficult to understand, but sake testers are like interpreters who stand between those who make sake and those who drink it.
When international is added, there is the additional role of interpreting the language as well.
If I were to give a rough description, I would say that my role is like that of a “drinking party organizer” (laughs).

Drinking party organizer (laughs)

I explain to my friends that I’m a drinking secretary who speaks English. (laughs)

How to become an international sake taster and the knowledge required

Motenas, Haru.
Motenas, Haru.

As I asked you earlier, was it being approached that led you to obtain your certification?

Ms. Fujishiro.
Ms. Fujishiro.

That’s right. But as background, when I went abroad, I found that there were not many people who knew about sake, and I also did not have a lot of knowledge about it.
In that sense, I think I became interested in the international sake taster certification as soon as I was approached.

Now that I think about it, working at the company store may have been preparation for becoming an international sake taster.
What specific knowledge is required to become an international sake taster?

We will study the basic knowledge raw materials, rice and water, as well as microorganisms.

We also study the history of Japan and the laws regarding alcohol.
There are various laws governing sake and various rules, such as not writing “best” on the label.

The rest of the day will be spent tasting the wines as a practical exercise.
There is a test that uses a glass like a wine glass to guess the category of the alcoholic beverage.
There will be a test to learn about distribution and storage methods and what the final proposal will be to the customer.

We call this sales promotion. You wouldn’t drink hot sake on a hot summer day, would you? It is also a sales promotion to convey the reason for what we understand sensuously, in detail.

– Is that a practical skill?

Sales promotion is written. You have to choose words and give a long answer, and if you pass it, you will be an international sake taster.

Historical Background of the Creation of Sake

By the way, what is the background of sake?

Grapes, the raw material for wine, are sweet, right? That’s because they contain sugar, from which fermentation proceeds to become alcohol.

Rice, on the other hand, is not as sweet as grapes.
But don’t you feel that rice tastes sweeter when you chew it well?
This is because the enzyme amylase in saliva converts starch into sugar.

– So eating it turns it into sugar.

Sake is made from the sugar produced in this process.

In the movie “Your Name” there is a scene in which the main character, born into a family of shrine maidens, chews rice and leaves it to turn into sake. This is exactly the same meaning as making sake.

– Sake is also related to Shinto rituals and traditional culture.

Sake is believed to have been produced during the Yayoi period (710-794) when rice cultivation was introduced, but it is said that wine was really the first alcoholic beverage produced in Japan.

It is believed that wild grapes fell into a jar, rainwater got into the jar, and fermentation took place, resulting in the formation of wine. In other words, it is said that the oldest alcoholic beverage in Japan is probably wine.

– So you are saying that sake cannot be made without modification.

Can sake be paired with foreign food?

 

Motenas, Haru.
Motenas, Haru.

Do sake and foreign food go well together?

Ms. Fujishiro.
Ms. Fujishiro.

Rice goes with basically everything.

With any kind of thing?

Japanese people understand me best, but when they eat rice, they eat it with salty or spicy side dishes, or even sweet if it is made into rice cakes.
So sake also goes with everything from the standpoint of raw materials.

– So just as rice goes with everything, sake goes with everything.

Yes.
Chocolate may not look like a good match at first glance, but there are chocolate rice cakes and other products that can be combined with chocolate.

– That is certainly true when you put it that way!

However, people in other countries don’t have the custom of eating rice that way, so they often don’t understand. Except for people from Asian countries, there are different ways to eat rice.

For example, how do you explain sake pairings to people for whom rice is not a staple food?

Europeans are people who eat rice as a salad.
I often use “potato” as an example, which goes with everything depending on the seasoning.
Using bread, the staple food of the people of that country, would change the meaning, so potatoes are the best choice.

International sake tasters recommend no-fail pairings

Motenas, Haru.
Motenas, Haru.

So, what kind of pairings would you actually recommend?

Ms. Fujishiro.
Ms. Fujishiro.

I’m glad you asked. This is exactly where an international sake taster shows his/her skills!

There are several ways to think about pairing. The first way is to match things that have similar tastes. For example, a sweet drink is paired with a sweet meal.

Otherwise, I pair light meals, such as vegetables, with lighter drinks.
Another idea is that of “complementation.

Complementary?

Complementary means to add the missing flavor. To use a food analogy, it is like lemon in fried chicken.
Then there is the idea of the wash effect.

Wash effect. It is an unfamiliar term.

Fish is a good example, but fish is almost 100% fishy.
No matter how clean you wash your clothes, the smell will remain, so the sake is used to wash away that smell.

It is a pairing method that allows the taste of the food to come through more deeply and vividly by washing it down.

– So the sake enhances the flavor of the ingredients more.

Yes, that is correct.
There is also a simple pairing method that anyone can do.

– Is pairing easy for everyone?

The method of matching the temperature of the food with the temperature of the sake is recommended.
It is easy to match cold sake with sashimi, room temperature sake with room temperature food, and warm sake with hot food.

This is a straightforward pairing!

If you have warm oden, you can’t stop drinking sake that is about the same temperature as the soup in the oden (lol).

– Just imagining it made me want to drink alcohol, lol.

International sake tasters talk about the appeal of sake

 

Motenas, Haru.
Motenas, Haru.

Please tell us if there is anything that has changed in your thinking about sake since becoming an international sake taster.

Ms. Fujishiro.
Ms. Fujishiro.

In a nutshell, it is the fact that the taste is now more finely tuned.

For example, I no longer have the stereotype of thinking that white wine goes with white fish carpaccio. I now think, “This sake goes well with that. Now that I have more knowledge about sake, I have a deeper and more detailed understanding of why this sake is so delicious.
Also, as there are sake tasters, they want to match everything with sake.

– Do you take it all to sake?

That’s right.
But there are times when wine is actually a better match. In such cases, I am now able to enjoy the taste.

– By being able to appreciate the subtleties of sake, and having more knowledge to draw from, it makes eating more enjoyable.

Yes, I did. I also learned how to enjoy it in cocktails.

Cocktails? Isn’t sake supposed to be drunk as is?

Perhaps it is correct to say that we know how to make it so we know how to make it fit.
For example, if you want a crisp drink, just adding one ice cubes will change the flavor, or you can enjoy the aroma of sake by adding a little soda.
Then, just add a few drops of lemon juice and instantly you have a sake that goes well with fried food (lol).

– It’s fried again, lol.

It’s not strange because the taste of sourness exists in sake, so we just add sourness to sourness.
Also, since we use the power of lactic acid bacteria to make sake, calpis and sake go well together.

I recommend it as an adult cocktail.

Why are foreigners surprised by cold and heated sake?

– When you tell people from overseas about the appeal of your sake, do you also explain about cold and warm sake?

Living in Japan, it is hard to notice, but it is rare in the world to drink alcoholic beverages warmed up as it is. For example, hot wine, for example, has spices added to it to add flavor.
But since sake is drunk warm as it is, people overseas are often surprised.

So when you recommend it to people overseas, do you drink it chilled more often?

Singapore was by far the coolest place to drink it.
The main reason is that it is easier to drink, or worse, it is harder to perceive the aroma.
Just as tequila is easier to drink chilled than at room temperature. The more newcomers I see, the more often I recommend a chilled drink.

– It’s better to keep it chilled, especially for those who are not used to sake.
So is hot sake a maniacal category?

If you get used to it and feel it’s not enough, I may recommend hot sake. But I’m quite a maniac, and from the point of view of people overseas, being able to drink hot sake is something to be proud of.

From a Japanese point of view, hot sake seems a bit maniacal.

That’s right. I try to explain sake in a way that even beginners can easily understand.

– What do you talk about , for example?

What is easy for people overseas to understand is the liquor tax.
Liquor tax has been around since the Muromachi period. Many people overseas are very sensitive about taxes, so it’s fun to talk about it with them, saying things like, “Japan has had a liquor tax for such a long time? It’s great to talk about it with them.

The Difficulty of Communicating and the Foreigner’s Perspective on Sake

Motenas, Haru.
Motenas, Haru.

What do you find difficult in conveying sake to foreigners?

Ms. Fujishiro.
Ms. Fujishiro.

I especially feel that the quality and the price are the two most important aspects.

The Japanese translate the cost of making the sake directly into the price, but there are many sake that should be more expensive considering the taste.
I think the image of expensive sake = good sake continues to take hold, especially since many overseas sake drinkers are wealthy people.
It is a challenge to find a way to convey the message that even though it is inexpensive, it is worth it.

– We would like to change the perception that expensive sake is good sake.

It is often said that junmai daiginjo is the best sake.
If you are trying to make sake from 1 kg of rice, the more parts you shave, the more rice you need.
Trying to cut just 5% can take about two days!

– It takes two days! So it gets expensive and they think it’s good.
By the way, how do you scrape the rice?

The rice is placed in a vertical rice-polishing machine specially designed for sake, and is shaved against a stone. It is a very delicate process because if the settings are incorrect, the rice will break.
Because it takes so much work to become sake, junmai ginjo is more expensive.

International Sake Taster Talks about Future Prospects: “I Want to Make Sake One of the Choices

 

Motenas, Haru.
Motenas, Haru.

With the spread of social networking services, we now live in an age where we can communicate in many different ways.

Ms. Fujishiro.
Ms. Fujishiro.

Let me tell you about my ambitions lol.
I plan to retire when I turn 40.

Eh? Retirement?

Yes, it is. I mean to step back from the front lines.
There are not many people who are as active as I am, usually only about 10 people. But there is only so much I can do on my own.
We work with companies like Motenas to promote sake, and recently we have been trying to send out information about our certification as an international sake taster.

– Do you mean to increase the number of international sake tasters?

I hope to increase the number of international sake tasters by sharing my knowledge and experience.
Young people are more flexible, have very high antennae, and are able to interact flatly with foreigners, so I hope to promote sake further by training younger generations.

– Are there already such people?

I brought another woman to an event at Motenas Japan once, and she absorbed my knowledge and experience and is now working hard to become an international sake taster!

– I hope that the increase in the number of international sake tasters will help to spread sake worldwide.

In the future, we want to make sake a choice for people overseas.
I hope that instead of “beer or wine,” it will become “beer, sake, or wine?” I hope it will become “Beer, Sake, or Wine?

It’s not an option right now. Frankly, I feel that even within Japan, sake is not an option in many cases.

– It is true that the image of getting drunk or something like that may be well established.

I would like to send out a message so that we can change things from within Japan.
And you don’t have to be a strong sake taster to become an international sake taster.

– Can you be a weak drinker?

I am a strong drinker, so I may be projecting a bad image, but if you can drink a little, you are qualified to get it. LOL!
Even during the exam, they do not drink the alcohol, but serve it in their mouths. Besides, international sake tasters tend to be more vulnerable to alcohol.

Since they can’t drink in large quantities, many people take each sip with care, which makes it easy to catch the flavor delicately.

– I was surprised that an international sake taster can become one even if he/she is a weak drinker.

This is one of the things we would like everyone to know in order to increase the number of international sake tasters.
And it is also one of the qualifications that people who can speak English are likely to be interested in. The International Sake Tasting Exam can be taken in Japan, but the questions and answers are all in English, making it a very rare qualification.

Eh? It’s all in English? That’s tough.

Many people who want to get English certification are interested in foreign cultures, but foreign people should want to hear about Japanese culture from Japanese people.
It doesn’t have to be about sake, but I would like you to be able to convey something related to Japanese culture and history.

– Yes , that’s true. We want to hear about foreign cultures from foreigners, don’t we?

Can the Japanese do it? I think this will become more important in the future. In this respect, I think that the international sake tasting qualification is suitable.

– When I was working at the hotel, I was asked about Kabuki and Noh, but I didn’t know anything about them until I looked them up.

Considering this, I feel that the service provided by Motenas Japan is a very nice service because it is packed with all the things that foreigners want to do in Japan.

Motenas Japan and International Sake Tasters

Motenas, Haru.
Motenas, Haru.

I think you played a game for foreign customers when we worked with you before, and the game was a great success.

Ms. Fujishiro.
Ms. Fujishiro.

That was a game of guess the drink lol.

I hosted a game where I said I wouldn’t guess the alcohol, but I hosted a game where I guessed the alcohol lol.
However, the purpose of the game was a little different. After the first drink, the participants compared the three drinks prepared and guessed which one was the same as the first.

Everyone enjoyed the event.

Before the game, we also explained the taste and aroma in advance. After creating the groundwork for the game participants to become more sensitive to taste, we moved on to the game, which was a lot of fun. I think learning in a fun way is universal.

– I know that people from overseas are also interested in sake.

If you suddenly start playing games, I don’t think you would understand the translation.
Depending on the number of people, if you have a few representatives come to the front and the people sitting in the seats guess the drinks at their seats, everyone will get excited.

– It would be interesting to intertwine traditional culture and alcohol.

That’s right! Depending on the Kabuki performance, alcohol may be served, right?
Alcohol is an essential part of human-interest stories, so if you explain while watching a Kabuki play that the alcohol you are drinking is still available today, people overseas might enjoy it.

That sounds like fun! I wish I could join in.

I also hear that restaurants that serve sake are also having a hard time dealing with foreigners, so I think it would be interesting to use my qualifications as a sake study instructor to go to restaurants that serve a lot of foreigners and explain the situation to them.

– Is it difficult to become a Sakeology Instructor?

You need to be a sake taster to get this certification, but you can become a “sake navigator” just by listening to me talk for an hour.
Just by having restaurants listen to this one-hour talk, they can gain some knowledge and become sake navigators, which will also increase customer satisfaction.

– It would be great if we could get foreigners to like sake as it is.

It is especially valuable because there are only a few Sakeology instructors besides myself who speak English.

 

Ms. Fujishiro.
Ms. Fujishiro.

Motenas Japan’s efforts are very interesting, and I would like to develop a variety of services to promote sake from various angles, as well as to make people aware of Japanese culture.

Motenas, Haru.
Motenas, Haru.

I would love to be the organizer of an international drinking party and do some interesting projects.
Thank you for your time today.

Editorial Postscript After the Interview

France, Italy, and Spain are famous for their wines and their people seem to be familiar with them, but what about us Japanese?

Listening to Mr. Fujishiro’s talk, I felt that Japanese people do not feel familiar with sake and keep it away from them.

If we are able to convey the origins and subtleties of sake to foreigners when they ask about sake, the circle of Japanese sake will expand and sake may become one of the options for foreigners.

I don’t think all of us should transmit sake, but I do feel that we should be knowledgeable about sake in order to enjoy drinking and eating.

Mr. Fujishiro is engaged in motenas activities with sake for overseas customers face to face while communicating about sake. We at Motenas Japan also hope to deepen mutual understanding of sake and Japanese culture for our overseas customers.