Interview Sarah Marie Cummings
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Managing Director, Obusedo/Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery
"Discovering the world of sake has really changed my life."
by Masanori Tonegawa
Could you tell us about your first encounter with o-sake?
Upon graduation, I accepted a job offer in Nagano to help with the preparations for the 1998 Nagano Olympic Winter Games. Shortly after I arrived in Nagano, I was invited to participate in a sake tasting contest. It sounded interesting, so I went with my Japanese roommate. She won the contest and we were both invited to be honorary members of the Shinshu Sake Club. Many members were sake brewers and I recall them telling me how hard it was for brewers to stay afloat with the high cost of ingredients and labor, not to mention maintaining the old kura where sake is made. They were concerned about the shrinking market in Japan; an aging society where fewer and fewer young people were opting to drink sake. It seemed to me that if even a small percentage of the world developed a taste for sake that the future of these brewers would become much brighter. I hoped that there was something that I might be able to do to help.
I decided to learn more about sake by taking a sake sommelier course. I soon came to realize that there were quite a number of sake brewers that were on the verge of going under, and that the old ways of doing business didn't necessarily meet the needs of today. I started sharing some ideas with other sake brewers on how we might be able to make some positive changes that could heighten the interest in sake, and brighten the future of sake brewers- not only in the domestic market, but internationally. I was afraid that if we waited, that number of small-town brewers going under would escalate. When a town loses its brewery, it loses not just sake, but an important part of their cultural heritage and a vital part of a viable community.
So I've become very interested not only in sake, but in trying to preserve some of the culture and tastes that are unique to Japan. I'm glad that, as a small brewer here in Nagano, we've been able to encourage both the preservation of, and the evolution of old customs, methods and tastes, and to keep them alive for future generations. Discovering the world of sake has really changed my life. I started working at Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery in 1994 and I've been here ever since.
What have you done to reinvigorate the sake industry?
We introduced Square One Junmai Sake in 1999, □. The symbol for Square One seems very modern but it is the traditional mark for our company. Back to square one, back to the basics. We re-introduced an old system that is called Kayobin in Japanese which welcomes customers to bring back their bottles.
In 2001, we started a monthly cultural gathering named Obusession (Obuse + session) in Obuse when the day and the month align (8/8, 9/9, 10/10) We have a guest speaker give a presentation with simultaneous English translation followed by a reception with exquisite food and sake. The menu includes a mix of old tradition and new adventure. Reservations are required and people can register on the Internet at www.obusession.com/ . Learning from the past and moving forward...
This fall we opened the Masuichi Kyakuden guest house at our brewery. There are twelve spa cious modern rooms in traditional kura storehouses. Only a one minute walk to the restaurants and The Hokusai Museum, this is a very comfortable and convenient place to stay while visiting Obuse. We would be delighted to welcome more travelers from overseas and English tours can be arranged at our brewery. www.kyakuden.com.
Why did you start making sake in Japanese oke (wooden barrels)?
Sarah Marie Cummings : Managing Director, Obusedo/Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery, Sake sommelier