Japan has many icons. Sumo, sushi, kimonos are among the first that spring to the non-Japanese mind …along with sake!
Japanese food and sake are becoming more common all over the world and London has a growing list of good restaurants serving sake to an increasingly knowledgeable audience. Toshie Hiraide is the Japanese Sake Samurai Co-ordinator. And that multinational organisation is responsible for promoting sake and finding new markets.
Toshie is a vibrant lady who devotes her energies to spreading the word but she doesn’t, as one might assume, come from a sake-brewing background. Her journey started with wine but her destination is most definitely sake.
Ms Hiraide described her personal sake odyssey. “October 1st is known as the opening day for a graduate to start looking for a new job. Normally almost everyone decides before summer on a company or a career, but I believed I could start in October. But almost all my friends had already found a job to go to by that time, and the only vacancies remaining were in TV and radio companies, and the airlines – so that was the reason that I joined JAL.
“My mother recommended it, too, so I took the exam and, luckily, passed it, and started working for them as a cabin attendant.” Toshie’s face lights up with a laugh as she admits she was no natural as air crew: “I did suffer from airsickness.”
“I had never thought about a long-term career. Thirty years ago most Japanese women might work for up to three years, find ‘the right man’, get married and quit the job. By the time you were 25, you were expected to have married – as we say, ’After Christmas, nobody buys a cake!’” More of that infectious laughter.
“I was nearly thirty by the time I had met a man and decided to marry. At the same time I had become interested in wine tasting and wine education. Wine tasting was quite a new thing to us. Twenty days a month I was away from Japan, because of my job, and we often went to restaurants. There were not many Japanese restaurants overseas, but some other good restaurants had wine lists, and they fired my interest. I thought, ‘If I learn about wine, maybe it will be more fun to take a closer look at those wine lists!’
“One of my friends at work had passed a sommelier exam – the Japan Sommelier Association had opened the certificate to cabin attendants. So I went along, and enjoyed the tasting – people can learn, through wine, about different countries and different languages. I passed the exam in 1992.
“Many cabin attendants tried to get the certificate, but more experienced sommeliers sometimes referred to us as ‘paper sommeliers’, having just passed the exam! So I realised that I needed to establish my identity as ‘Sommelier – Cabin Attendant’. We were always travelling, so we could visit wineries and taste wines in their home countries.
“I met some professional Masters of Wine, and was impressed not just by their knowledge but by their desire to educate and to work with the wine industry to bring it up to date. Then one day I visited a sake brewer – of course I knew sake, being Japanese – and I realised that this was a living part of Japan: just rice and water, but with such delicate flavours, and with such a long history. At the same time, I felt sad that so many sake brewers were closing, and that so many Japanese people don’t understand the value of the tradition.
“In 1999 the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) offered to open a wine school for JAL. I suggested to JAL that this was a great chance for us: WSET was a great wine education network and if we partner with them this would be good for JAL. So in 2000 the company assigned me to the school for three months. I worked with WSET and management people at that time to help build up the wine school in Japan.
“Afterwards I went back to flying, and was at the hub in London. I was very happy to meet the WSET people again, and I asked them if there was anything I could bring them from Japan. They were interested in Japanese sake, and said that they knew nothing about it, as sake brewers were not then marketing sake outside Japan. So I brought bottles of sake to London on every trip!
“In 2003 I introduced sake brewers to WSET at a wine seminar. Mr Sam Harrop, a Master of Wine, attended, and he said that he was interested in sake. He had planned to visit Japan to see sake brewers, so I offered to introduce him to some of them.
“We visited brewers in Kyoto and Shizuoka, and Sam enjoyed it, and was impressed by sake. He sought opportunities to introduce sake to the world, and when he became Co-Chairman of the IWC (International Wine Challenge) he looked at creating a sake category. We didn’t know how to get sake entries, as very few of the sake brewers knew of the IWC at that time. I was a Sake Samurai Co-ordinator; Sake Samurai Association became a partner with IWC, and we introduced the IWC to sake brewers, to help find entries and decide on the sub-categories. We sent a judge from Japan, and created some pages in Japanese for the IWC website.
“JAL was in decline at that time, so I quit my job in 2010. This was a big decision: I was 49 years old, and if I stayed in the company my job would become busier and the salary would go down; but it would be hard to change my career. Several sake brewers told me that they could help, and I decided to start a small company and begin a new life.
“I had my own house, though I hadn’t finished paying for it, and I thought of selling it to raise funds both for the business and for my daughter. Luckily I had some connection to people in government, in the Ministry of Economy – the ‘Cool Japan’ section. They were talking about sake. Then I met people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was interested in how to introduce sake to the world. From 2011 they started to use more sake at embassies, in place of the more usual wine. He also gave a ‘sake’ lecture to new ambassadors, which I coordinated. It was very important that Japanese diplomats knew about sake, as well as wine. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was a great support to our work. In 2012 there was a big change: the government decided that any ministry could have a budget to support the introduction of sake to the world – previously only the Finance Ministry could undertake this.
“Sake brewers are all over Japan – family businesses and long histories. If you study French wines, you have to learn the geography of France, so a global programme of sake education is a useful way of introducing Japan to the world. Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are very well-known to non-Japanese people, but through sake education all the other prefectures can benefit from tourism and exports. Because of my career as a cabin attendant, I appreciated that tourism is a really safe industry, in which people visit and spend money, and come back with good stories.
“These days, local governments around Japan sometimes invite me to lecture, talking about my story, how to introduce sake to the world, how it can promote the region. In February I have three seminars – I’m so busy now.
“The IWC group are so friendly and so helpful to us. There are 12,000 wine entries, and only 600 sakes – but this is still the biggest competition outside Japan. Being an IWC sake judge shows that one is a specialist. Once a year at the IWC sake tasting, there is a great opportunity to exchange information and network with new people.”
I asked Toshie if sake was being noticed more in Japan. “In the winter we Japanese have a custom of sending gifts to our friends. The biggest department store in Osaka, Hankyu, sends out a gift catalogue, and last year Hankyu introduced an IWC award-winning sake to the range of gifts: they sold out!
“I am not so much a specialist, I do not have a sake shop or a restaurant, so my role is to continue explaining, showing that vision, but I never imagined that I would be doing what I do now – my plan had been to marry after three years and to be a housewife! Now, with IWC, WSET, the gift catalogue, and many other events, people can see what I do and they can understand. Many people are supporting and helping me – I couldn’t do anything by myself!”
Toshie Hiraide didn’t plan a career in sake but that career has found her. She has had to make adjustments to her life but she has become respected as a sake ‘doer’ and an indispensible part of the increasing global sake buzz. It’s a long way from that airsick cabin attendant, but the flying continues apace.
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018