Interview Sarah Marie Cummings

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Managing Director, Obusedo/Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery
Sarah Marie Cummings interview

"Discovering the world of sake has really changed my life."

by Masanori Tonegawa

Japanese Sake Obuse

Could you tell us about your first encounter with o-sake?
I first encountered sake in Japan when I was an exchange student in college. I went to a Japanese pub with a group of students and we drank sake and sang songs and had a great time. I was surprised to find my cup filled again and again.

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?
Sake obuseThink globally, act locally. Masuichi was patron to master artist Katsushika Hokusai during the Edo period. Many artists, poets,and great thinkers have gathered at Masuichi. Providing a place for atron to master artist Katsushika Hokusai during the Edo period. Many artists, poets,and great thinkers have gathered at Masuichi. Providing a place for people to gather and exchange ideas over good food and sake seemed the key to innovation and revitalization. The year of the Olympics, we opened a The Club Restaurant with the hope that we could provide a place for comraderie while enjoying local cuisine with our made-on-site sake. T e rice is cooked in a traditional wood-fired kamado oven and the food is country-style cooking. We serve with it Japanese pickles, and usually with fish and vegetables, but of course we have meat and other options too.The menu changes daily to reflect what is fresh at the market that day.

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.

ObuseIn 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)?
When I joined the company, I was impressed to see two large barrels called "oke" held together by bamboo straps at our brewery. They had not been used for over fifty years. I knew that many French wine makers had returned to using barrels after trying modern methods. We were fortunate because our sake master at our brewery had had experience making sake in wooden barrels. He joined the brewery at age 15 and is now 81. I didn't think it was OK to let the oke (pronounced OK) disappear, so we decided to try make sake in barrels, then we contacted other brewers to encourage them to use barrels. Now there are almost fifty breweries that have gone back to using wooden barrels for some of their sake production.■

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Sarah Marie CummingsSarah Marie Cummings : Managing Director, Obusedo/Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery, Sake sommelier
Joins Obusedo in 1994 and Assistant Olympic Attache for the British Team at the 1998 Nagano Olympic Winter Games. Named Nikkei Woman of the Year 2002. Launches Obuse mini Marathon in 2003, on Marine Day. "There's no Ocean in Obuse, but We're Making Waves!"


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