The sake industry is filled with people who’re passionate about keeping Japan’s native drink alive domestically and overseas. Kyoko Nagano is one of those champions and works with small sake breweries all over Japan to spread the good word of nihonshu.
It was a pleasure to speak to Kyoko about her sake experiences and she’s got a lot of great information to share.
Appreciate you taking the time to chat Kyoko. You’ve got a lot of great knowledge to impart about Japan with all the business and projects you’re involved in.
Let’s start with your involvement in the sake industry. You’ve said in the past that your initial experience with sake was that it wasn’t pleasant but your perception has changed over time. How has it changed and what types of sake do you enjoy drinking these days?
My first experience with sake was in my 20s and it was really bad, so I never thought I would ever be into sake while I was living in Thailand. There was an eye-opening moment when I tried a really good sake at a high-end sushi restaurant in Thonglor Bangkok.
It was so smooth and delicious. I wondered what I drank back then since it tasted so different from what I remembered. When I came back to Japan, I became more curious about sake and started to join some sake events where I came across with my business partner Yuki Imanishi.
I love the fruity, aromatic ginjo type sake, but when I start eating food, I dig into the junmai type. In winter, I love drinking warm sake too.
There were times I was looking down on Aru-ten (additive alcohol) ones but there’s great honjozo out there. Now I don’t care whether it’s junmai or honjozo so long as it tastes good.
You’re a part of Sake Lovers with Yuki Imanishi and I admire your dedication to wanting to preserve and save the traditions of small sake breweries without Japan.
How did you become involved with Sake Lovers and who’re some of the breweries you’re currently working with?
Yuki was working at a famous electronics company when I met her but she told me that she was shocked when she heard one of her friend’s breweries went out of business. She wondered if there was something she could do to stop that if she’d known.
Since I was living overseas for 17 years in 4 countries, I thought sake was popular. Especially in other countries and I didn’t know that it was such a struggling industry. I was shocked to find out too.
Since my work experience was from trading, we discussed how we can help the sake breweries and we thought we can help the breweries with sake export.
We took inspiration from the sake lovers community called Washukai and made a company to serve our mission; to support small craft sake breweries to survive and spread the love of sake through sake tours and sake export.
Currently, we work with 100 small craft sake breweries across Japan. Miyoshikiku, Yoshidaya, Nishioka Honten, Iwate Meijo, Inaba Shuzo and more.
You’re also involved with Sake Geek, a website that features articles about sake and the industry. What do you think makes a good sake review?
We have foreign national writers who write in English. We want to have non-biased sake reviews so it would help people to find interesting sake or interesting sake breweries. We need more websites like Sake Geek where you can find people’s sake reviews in English.
There are many reviews in Japanese but not many in English. Also, food pairing recommendation is always nice to have in the review.
I feel like if you are non-Japanese living abroad, you always want to know what kind of food from your country will pair well with sake, right? Not everybody eats sushi, so having reviews written from many nationalities will certainly help in terms of food and sake pairing concept.
Outside of sake you have other ventures like My Pal Inc and Hakko Farms. What are the mission statements behind these businesses?
All of my businesses have the same mission – introducing Japanese culture to the world. Mypal Inc focuses on supporting Japanese artists and we help those artists and teachers survive through training them in English. We also list craft workshops for tourists through travel agencies, AirBnB, TripAdvisor and Voyagin websites.
Hakko Farm is launching the official website on Aug 5th 2022 and it’ll introduce Japan’s unique fermentation culture. I’m fascinated with our fermentation culture and happy to spread the love of fermentation through Hakko Farm.
We’ve already chatted about some things that sake breweries are doing to try and recover in a post-pandemic world. I was curious to know which sake brands you think are leading the way in being different and trying new things.
There are breweries that started to have smaller size bottles for home drinkers. (300ml bottles or 180ml bottles such as Eiko Shuzo in Ehime, Kitaya in Fukuoka).
Some have also started whiskey distilleries, craft gin, and craft beer. Nanbu Bijin has craft gin now. Genpei Shuzo now has a whiskey distillery and last year alone, 35 distillery licenses were given from the National Tax Agency.
How do you feel sake educators in the west can help to better promote nihonshu to their audiences?
There are still people out there that think sake is distilled alcohol. It’s not. It’s brewed and has a lower alcohol content than distilled alcohol.
Sake has umami and pairs well with any kind of food. It’s very versatile. I hope more people experiment with pairing food with sake and talking more about the culture and history.
If you could change one thing about the sake industry, what would it be and why?
The sake industry is a traditional industry and is pretty much male-dominated, but I have never faced any discrimination being a woman. If there is one thing I’d change, it would be to remove the rule or weird customs and priority given to certain organisations and certain stores.
To gain access to popular brands, we need to pay an expensive membership fee to join the organisation. I feel that it’s ridiculous. If there is a will, there is a way to get access to those brands without paying the expensive membership fee.
You’ve mentioned you have a great love for the Edo period of Japan. What kind of stories and experiences do you enjoy from that time?
The Edo period flourished with food and entertainment culture. Back then, there were 1 million people living in Edo Tokyo while there were only 100,000 people living in London. There was no war during that 260 years.
If you look at ukiyo-e, there were many pictures of people enjoying sake and food. I think people in the Edo period were real foodies. They loved food and had so many recipe books out there. There was even a tofu recipe book called Tofu Hyakuchin, which had over 100 recipes.
People in the Edo period were really creative and loved Modoki (look-alike) food too. This appeals to me because I’m a certified Tofu Meister and make tofu from scratch. I also run a history walk on the Edo period theme and it’s popular among my expat friends.
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