Living in Japan
Written by Takahashi Hidemine Photos by Akagi Koichi
“Ma, dozo ippai” (“Go ahead, have a cup!”) he says. The tiny o-choko cup is filled with his own brew of fresh sake. “Japanese sake is made from a grain, and yet it has a fruity fragrance. Strange, isn’t it! That’s part of the mystery of sake.”
Philip Harper is Japan’s first toji master brewer from abroad. His Japanese is fluent, and his body language is like that of a native. He was born in Birmingham, England, 41 years ago and studied English literature at prestigious Oxford University. “After graduation I wanted to live in another country, so I applied for the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme run by the Japanese government. They took me, and I ended up teaching English at a junior and senior high school in Osaka.
“I didn’t know a word of Japanese when I arrived. It was awkward in the staffroom, because the teachers and I could hardly communicate at all. But then one day we went to a party, and they kept saying, Ma, dozo dozo, filling each other’s sake cups. The cups are tiny, so I heard them say it a lot! That’s when I realized that serving each other sake is one way for Japanese people to get on the same wavelength. If there’s sake, there’s no need for elaborate conversation. That was a reassuring discovery for me!”
With sake in them to forget their natural reserve, he and his fellow teachers set off for a tavern. In any case, he was happy to go, having developed a liking for alcohol some time before. The tavern served about 150 kinds of sake from different parts of the country. “I tried several kinds, and they all had their own distinctive flavor. And they were quite different from what we had drunk at the party. That was a big surprise for me, and I thought to myself, ‘Hey, I’m going to come back often, at least until I’ve sampled them all.”
After finishing his two-year stint with the JET Programme, Harper stayed in Japan and started working part-time at that tavern, keen to explore his new fascination. He taught at an English conversation school during the day, and kept learning more about sake at the tavern in the evening. Less than a year later, a friend asked him to work at a sake brewery in Nara Prefecture. He jumped at the chance, “made bold,” he grins, “by a few sips of sake.” He was 25 at the time.
Working in a sake brewery is known to be tough. The kurabito laborers work under a demanding master brewer, and each one has a specific job to do. His job during the first year was milling. During busy periods he would machine-polish four tons of brown rice a day, and bag it by hand. His second year: steaming the rice in big pots. And in the third year he cultivated koji mold, using some of the steamed rice as a base. All this gave him valuable experience in each process.
“When we soak the rice, and then steam it, we time everything practically to the second. We have to, because we are working with living things, microorganisms. If we do something that changes their action, or if we use a slightly different amount of water for the rice, the end result will not be what we want. And of course it would be too late to do it over again. So it’s a very stressful job. But when we make great tasting sake... well, success is a wonderful feeling.”
Harper stayed at the brewery for 10 years, and finally qualified as a master brewer. Soon after, he was asked to work at breweries in prefectures including Ibaraki, Osaka and Kyoto, and managed their operations.
“Each brewery had a different type of water, and the yeast and other microorganisms were a bit different as well, so there was no set way of doing things.” Each job was a learning experience, raising his expertise day by day to ever higher levels.
He also found time to write two English-language guides to Japanese sake, and organize sake-tasting events overseas, promoting the world of sake.
“Learning about sake is learning about Japanese culture. I hope many more people will come to appreciate the mystique of sake.”