Trend in Japan Web Japan
Business and Economy Lifestyle Science and Technology Fashion Arts and Entertainment Sports People
Restoring Tradition to Japanese Sake Brewing (April 10, 2003)

Trends in Japan is featuring interviews with notable foreign personalities in Japan. Our current interviewee is the first Western sake sommelier in Japan, Pennsylvania-born Sarah Marie Cummings. Among her other achievements, Cummings is responsible for reintroducing sake brewing in traditional barrels.

"I see a lot of good in Japan. But I think the biggest thing that Japan needs to work on is a positive attitude," says Sarah Marie Cummings with a radiant smile. "I think that people right now are waiting for something to happen, when it's something they can make happen for themselves. I think there are too many critics. What we need are more people to make economics than to think economics. I think a lot of Japanese have a lot of good ideas and a lot of potential if they just move on it, and act on it, and were not afraid of failing."

The first Westerner registered as a sake sommelier, Cummings is managing director of Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery, a 250-year-old brewery in the small town of Obuse, cradled by the mountains of northern Nagano Prefecture. In another first, Cummings was chosen as the "Woman of the Year 2002" by the Nikkei Woman business magazine – the first foreigner to be accorded the honor. The six judges were unanimous in their praise for the positive attitude she brought to the successful restructuring of a floundering brewery and also, incidentally, to the revitalization of the town and people of Obuse. A veritable powerhouse, Cummings has been instrumental in bringing about change both in her company and in the town of Obuse.

"I'd always been intrigued by the hidden meaning, the mysteries, the secrets of the East," says the Pennsylvania native, who came to Japan in 1993 to help prepare for the Winter Olympics that was to be held in Nagano five years later. But she says, "I didn't find quite the Japan that I was hoping to."

Looking for Japan
"Because Japan has such a long history, I assumed that they were considerate about the future and had a long vision for the future. Unfortunately, so much of it is shortsighted. And especially since the war, so much has been scrap-and-build policies that things that were originally very deep and very meaningful tend to become very shallow and very transient."

In Nagano City, Cummings soon got frustrated at being placed in a subordinate role that required little initiative on her part. Eventually she was introduced to Masuichi President Tsugio Ichimura, who was seeking fresh ideas for reviving the brewery. So in 1994 she set off on her bicycle to the sleepy town of Obuse, presented herself before Ichimura, and got a new job on the spot.


"Actually, the culture exists more strongly in the countryside than it does in the city. City life is similar probably wherever you go around the world, and the Japan that I was really hoping to find was still alive and well in the countryside. But there are so many things that if left alone don't necessarily get better," says Cummings. She cites an example, explaining, "There are lots of old buildings that have been standing for two or three hundred years. And of course they need care, but it takes two or three hundred years to evolve to the way that they are, and they can easily be torn down in two or three hours."

Spirited Persistence
It was her love and respect of traditional Japanese culture and craftsmanship, together with an indefatigable spirit and dogged persistence, that overcame bureaucratic obstacles and deep-rooted resistance to change. In the end, people began to lend a hand only because "they found that it was harder to explain to me why it couldn't be done than to do the work itself," Cummings laughs.

"I didn't try to make a consensus from the beginning," she says. "Apparently, that was the only way at that time, because if I had tried to get everyone to support me, I would have probably spent all my energy on that, and I wouldn't have had any energy left to do the work itself."

In 1998 Cummings organized an international symposium on ukiyo-e master Hokusai in Obuse to coincide with the Winter Olympics. She contacted scholars in Japan, Italy, and the United States and convinced them that Obuse, where Hokusai spent the last years of his life, was an ideal place to hold the event.

In the process of renovating Masuichi's dilapidated sake storehouse, she flew to Hong Kong and brought back a famous architect. On another occasion, when local carpenters were reluctant to bring down a wall, she picked up a hammer and began tearing it down herself, earning the nickname "typhoon girl."

"I think that wa (the Japanese concept of social harmony) is important, but from the beginning the Japanese try to make everything harmonious, and that's not the start. That may be the result. So I never try to necessarily protect the wa," she explains.

Reviving Oke-Brewed Sake
What concerns Cummings most is the apparent neglect demonstrated by the Japanese towards time-honored ways. One of her many pet projects is reviving the traditional method of brewery using wooden barrels, or oke. Today, enamel or synthetic resin tanks have completely replaced these giant wooden barrels for "hygienic" reasons. Although using the oke is a time-consuming brewing method that requires great care, the natural wooden surface allows microorganisms to breathe, adding distinct flavor to the sake.

"I think the Japanese used to be very careful about what they chose, the substance, the josei (fermentation) of culture - that things get better with time, a sort of a fermentation. Right now Japan tends to choose things more on price - whether something is expensive or not expensive. I think it needs to make more of a value judgment and choose whether it's something that gets better with time, or whether it's something that the first day you have it is the best."

When Cummings suggested reviving barrel-brewed sake at Masuichi, she initially ran into a wall. None of the master brewers had any experience of brewing sake the traditional way. Another major obstacle was the fact that only a few coopers with the ability to create the large brewing oke survived. So off she went again, driving north to neighboring Niigata Prefecture in search of a cooper. In the end, the workers at Masuichi rose to the challenge, and the network of oke brewing is now spreading to other breweries throughout Japan.

"I have confidence in the Japanese, and I think the Japanese should have confidence in themselves, too. There are a lot of capable, talented people and people with a lot of good ideas. Unfortunately, one of the problems is that people who are so knowledgeable are not easy to find sometimes. Because sometimes when you don't ask the right questions - even if they know the answers - they won't tell you. It's frustrating. And the Japanese tend to be perfectionist, so even if they know 99 percent of the answer, they'll say 'No, I don't know.' But I think it's better to preserve 90 percent than zero," she says.

Obuse Obsession
Her mind constantly brimming with new ideas, Cummings is working on several projects at any given time. She is involved in planning and hosting a monthly seminar called Obusession - a play on "Obuse" and "obsession" - followed each time by a party. The occasion serves as a forum for communication between Obuse citizens and guest speakers.

"Rather than going home and watching TV and just having it one-way, I think that sharing the same room, the same air, the same atmosphere, and actually being able to hear a lecture that's exciting and interesting on a subject that maybe people were not familiar with to begin with - that serves as a seed for communication during the party."

Other projects include launching a regular clean-up campaign among Obuse citizens, reconstructing old thatched-roof houses and storehouses, and setting up an internship in collaboration with Nagano's Shinshu University for students wanting to learn traditional craftsmanship.

"I do think that Japanese culture is something that the whole world can share and be proud of, and unfortunately it's not that common for a foreigner to be doing the work that I'm doing. But probably some day, it won't be so unusual," she says cheerfully.

Sarah Marie Cummings

Sarah Marie Cummings
Born in Pennsylvania. Came to Japan as an exchange student at Kansai Gaidai University in 1991. Graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1993 and then moved to Japan to help with preparations for the Nagano Olympics. Became the first Western sake sommelier in 1996 and the first foreign member of the National Sake Association in 1998. Named "Nikkei Woman of the Year 2002" in December 2001.

 Page Top

Related Web Sites
Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery

Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

Drop Us a Line
Your Name

What did you think of this article?

It was interesting.
It was boring.

Send this article to a friend

Go TopTrends in Japan Home

Go BackPeople Home