In January 2001, I was riding a single-car train through Hokkaido ski-country when a blizzard swept in without warning and stopped us dead on our tracks. It was 11 a.m. but the snow clotted the windows dark and the wind rocked us so hard it felt as if we would tip over.
The only other passengers were three middle-aged Japanese men. Dressed in suits and black ties, they looked more prepared for a funeral service than the wilds of Hokkaido.
One of the men spotted the panicked expression on my face and, after calling me over in perfect English, invited me to sit with them.
When they found out my name, their faces lit up and they asked me if I was a Springbank Mitchell, “You know, the Scotch whisky distillers?”
I was 25 years old and the closest I’d come to appreciating whisky was a pair of singed eyebrows from a flaming Drambuie, but before I could speak, one of them had pulled a pewter flask from his briefcase along with four thimble-sized glasses.
As he reverently filled them up with tawny liquid, he explained that this was the best Japanese whisky money could buy. Then all three toasted me with a hearty “Slainte!’‘
Smoky and salty like a driftwood bonfire, the spirit eased my ski-bruised bones, warmed the worry in my guts and almost took my mind off the storm — until a particularly vicious gust jolted the remaining whisky from my glass as the train rocked yet more perilously.
While the man was carefully refilling it, I noticed the portrait of a woman etched on his flask. With short tousled hair and a fur stole, she resembled a 1920s silent-movie star. I asked him who she was. His friend pulled out a silver locket with a sepia photograph of the same woman inside it. “This is Rita Taketsuru,” they told me.
“Rita?” I replied.
The three men exchanged indulgent smiles and then, for the next two hours, they told me the tale of a pretty, young Scottish woman who’d helped bring the so-called water of life to the land of the rising sun.
By the time they’d finished, the storm had passed, the flask was empty and our train was limping slowly into the safety of a tiny, two-track station.
The men stood up and explained that this week was the 40th anniversary of Rita’s death and they were going to her grave to pay their respects. The owner of the locket opened his briefcase and showed me a foil-wrapped haggis he’d ordered especially from his butcher. Another of the men took out a packet of oatcakes and a jar of heather honey.
They invited me to join them but the wind had returned with a vengeance and their drink had pasted me squarely to my seat. As they climbed out of the train, I asked them who they were. The three seemed sheepish for the first time since we’d met. Finally, the owner of the flask spoke up, “We’re the Rita Taketsuru Fan Club.”
Over the next few years, I developed a diligent interest in whisky, but the details of Rita Taketsuru’s life grew hazy, and I filed the encounter with her fan club away with all the other eccentrics I’ve bumped into on back-country trains.
From time to time, however, I stumbled across a fleeting reference to Rita that sparked some memory of that distant drunken conversation. Once it was a silk-screened silhouette at a Tokyo Scottish festival and “In memory of Rita” on a brandy bottle label; another time I came upon a seaside bar named after the good lady.
When I learned that the 90th anniversary of her arrival in Japan was approaching, I decided, once and for all, to find out what kind of woman would propel three grown men to her graveside through a northern snowstorm.
I tracked down Olive Checkland’s out-of-print history, “Japanese whisky, Scotch blend,” and, armed with a dictionary and a dram, I waded through Rita’s husband’s autobiography, “Whisky to Watashi.”
The more I read, the more I grew to admire her.
Born in Scotland in 1896, Rita Cowan’s early days had been a model of middle-class gentility consisting of home governesses, piano lessons and a liberal-arts education in English, French and music.
In her 20s, though, two events rent her life asunder — during World War I, her fiance was killed in Damascus, and then, in 1918, her father died of a heart attack.
In the following months, the Cowans’ finances dwindled until, in 1919, they realized they needed to act fast if they wanted to keep the bailiffs from their family home in the town of Kirkintilloch some 12 km northeast of central Glasgow. So it was then they decided to take in a lodger.
The man they chose was 25-year-old Masataka Taketsuru. The Hiroshima native had recently been sent to Scotland by the managers of the drinks company for which he worked. Many decades earlier, Japanese manufacturers had cracked the secrets of European beer and brandy, but one skill still eluded them — the art of making whisky. They’d tried to emulate its taste with spices, herbs and honey, but all to no avail.
Masataka’s mission was to uncover its recipe in the homeland of Scotch whisky itself. At the University of Glasgow, he took courses in organic chemistry, and he also traveled to distilleries all over the country to take apprenticeships in the production of whisky.
Despite the ankle-length laboratory coat in which he was often photographed, Masataka was a handsome man with a black-belt in jujitsu and a love of hunting and fishing. His research, however, was proving more expensive than he’d budgeted, and soon he was looking for a reasonable place to stay.
Accounts of how love blossomed between Rita Cowan and the family’s new Japanese lodger are, like the majority of whisky-related tales, shrouded in fuzzy legend. Some versions have them falling for each other during a duet of “Auld Lang Syne,” another has them digging the auspicious ring and sixpence from a Christmas pudding and recognizing that love and fortune lay in a future together.
What is clear is that in January 1920, oblivious to the doubts and protests of their families, the couple paid a visit to the local register office and, in a simple civil ceremony, tied the knot. Ten months later — via New York and Seattle — Rita arrived in Japan.
The nation in which the newlyweds found themselves was very different from the one her husband had departed just two years before. The Japanese economy was mired in deep recession and Masataka’s managers were more interested in turning a quick profit with cheaply- flavored spirits than the complex process of making bona fide Scotch whisky.
Disillusioned with their change of heart, Masataka resigned from the company. Rita was unfazed by their sudden financial instability and she supported both of them by pursuing that time-honored profession for foreigners in Japan — teaching English to children and housewives.
While these were undoubtedly difficult times for the Taketsurus, photographs show the pair totally at ease with one another and themselves. Rita clutches a parasol and leans against her husband while Masataka grins confidently at the camera — they appear to be a thoroughly modern couple, thoroughly in love.
By 1923, word had spread of Masataka’s research trip to Scotland and he was hired by Shinjiro Torii (the founder of the Suntory group) to help build a whisky distillery in Yamazaki, Kyoto Prefecture. Rita was happy that her husband would finally have an opportunity to put his hard-earned skills into practice, and for the next six years she taught English while also honing her own Japanese abilities.
Masataka’s time in Kyoto was not as harmonious as his wife’s. He quarreled constantly with Torii over the fineries of whisky production, and these clashes reached a peak in 1929 when Masataka was demoted to the position of manager of a beer factory in Yokohama. He quit — and, once again, found himself out of work.
Following the disappointment of Yamazaki, it struck Masataka that there was only one way for him to make whisky the way he wanted — he would have to establish his own company.
Without Rita’s connections, he would never have been able to realize this dream. Since 1924, she’d been teaching English to the wife of Shotaro Kaga — the founder of a successful securities company. When Kaga heard of Masataka’s plans, he and two other investors agreed to back the project, and the creation of Masataka’s company, Dai Nihon Kaju (later shortened to “Nikka”).
Upon learning where he was planning to build his distillery, the investors almost changed their minds. But Masataka insisted that there was only one place in Japan with ready access to the barley, peat, coal and water that were vital for Scotch whisky production. That place was Yoichi, a town located in the country’s most inhospitable and underdeveloped island, Hokkaido.
In June 2010, almost a decade after I first heard the name Rita Taketsuru, I head off to Yoichi. Masataka’s distillery dominates the small town, which is today a rare blend of whisky theme park and factory complex. Yellow forklifts zip between its photogenic warehouses while workers feed the copper stills with coal unmindful of tour groups’ cameras.
Before entering the museum dedicated to the husband and wife who established the distillery, I stop to ask one of the tartan-clad guides if she has ever heard of the Rita Taketsuru Fan Club. She shakes her head and glances at a party of pensioners descending from a tour bus. “Our winter visitors are a different breed. It gets so cold that not many people make it out this far, but those who do tend to be very . . . ” She searches for the right word. “Our winter visitors are very passionate.”
Passionate. Remembering how animated the three men had become as they argued over the precise number of courses Rita used to cook for New Year’s Day, I realize she’s hit the nail on the head.
As I venture into the museum itself, I’m sure Rita’s fan club would have approved of the meticulous detail with which Rita’s Scottish dining room has been re-created, complete with Edwardian tablecloths, a piano and wooden rocking chair.
Next door, I find an account of Rita’s 1935 arrival in Yoichi one year after her husband. Masataka’s entire staff came out to greet her, but when Rita bowed back and introduced herself, the workers struggled to understand what she was saying. The problem was not that she was speaking English — rather, it was that her 12 years living in the Kansai region had infused her Japanese with a fine Kyoto cadence incomprehensible to the Hokkaido staff.
Those first years at Yoichi were good ones for Rita. After toning down her accent, she made friends among the local townspeople — holding frequent piano recitals and inviting neighbors to dinner. In the summer, she went hiking in the hills, and in the winter she skied.
Photographs in the museum suggest that, in her 40s, she had lost none of her joie de vivre. One shot shows Rita laughing, splayed in the snow; another shows her sat smiling in kimono. A two-minute home-movie snippet shows her picking a spray of flowers and handing them to Masataka, who accepts them with a grin. He had every right to be happy — he was president of his own company and life, it seemed, was finally looking up for the Taketsurus.
But then came the war. Having already become a naturalized Japanese citizen in the 1930s, Rita was spared internment and permitted to stay in Yoichi, yet this did not elevate her above the suspicions of the special police.
Incorrectly, they suspected that she was in possession of radio equipment to contact Allied submarines, so they staged a series of raids on her home. To the policemen’s disappointment, they went away empty-handed. Not to be outdone, they took to shadowing Rita on a near- daily basis as she made her trips to the distillery to drop off Masataka’s lunch box.
These indignities might have been tolerable for Rita, but as the war worsened, her neighbors turned against her, too — the town’s children pelted her house with rocks and the adults ignored her in the streets.
Ironically, though, the war proved a blessing for the distillery. Before the conflict, the Imperial Japanese Navy had been among the nation’s most avid consumers of imported Scotch whisky. Now, with imports from enemy countries banned, the sailors grew thirsty. To ensure they wouldn’t go without, the Yoichi distillery was classified as a war industry and allocated large volumes of increasingly scarce barley and coal.
Such powerful patronage ensured that the 6-year-old company was able to turn its first profit in 1940.
After the war ended, the distillery continued to prosper. The Taketsurus had never been able to have children, so they then began to think about who would take over the business when they were gone. They decided to adopt Masataka’s 20-year- old nephew, Takeshi, into their household.
Within a few years, Takeshi himself had married and Rita became a proud grandmother. By all accounts, she dished out equal measures of love and discipline to her young grandchildren — lavishing them with gingerbread and marmalade, while at the same time berating them for not talking to their parents in polite Japanese.
In 1959, Rita’s youngest sister, Lucy, made the long journey to Yoichi from Scotland and the two were reunited for the first time in more than three decades. Rita claimed that her underused English had rusted beyond comprehension, but the sisters talked all their first night together and almost non-stop for the duration of Lucy’s stay.
At one point, Lucy asked Rita to return to Scotland for a visit. Rita laughed aside the offer with a joke that she was afraid of flying.
As it turned out, she would never set foot again in the country of her birth. In January 1961, Rita Taketsuru passed away after a long struggle with liver disease. Masataka was devastated. He blamed her sickness on the war and Yoichi’s harsh winters, and he lamented the fact that they hadn’t chosen to stay in Britain. For two days after her death, he locked himself in his room and, on the day of her funeral, too heartbroken to visit the crematorium, he begged for her bones to be brought to him in a bowl so that he could lie next to his beloved forever.
Masataka outlived his wife by 18 years, and today the two are interred together on a hillside near the distillery. Walking through the town, I’m delighted to discover that the woman who’d once been ostracized as a potential enemy of the state has since left her indelible mark on the landscape — Yoichi’s main thoroughfare is named “Rita Road” and a kindergarten she helped to establish still bears her name.
After 15 minutes, I arrive at the Taketsurus’ grave. The gray lozenge of stone is lit pink by the setting sun, some fireflies flare brightly and the air smells of freshly-mown grass. In the valley below, I spot the red rooftop of the distillery.
In the years since his death, Masataka’s genius at Scotch whisky production has finally been recognized: In 2007, a bottle of “Taketsuru” was voted the world’s best blended malt; followed in 2008 by 20-year-old “Yoichi” winning the best single malt in the world award.
The “Yoichi” orbits out of my price range, so it’s a miniature bottle of the blended that I’ve brought for Masataka — and for Rita, a packet of Scottish shortbread. Clasping my hands together in a quiet prayer, I think about what I’ve learned during my trip here: About the Taketsurus’ love and loss, their determination and persecution, and the leap of faith it must have taken Rita to follow the man she married halfway around the world in pursuit of an improbable dream.
I wonder whether these qualities were what attracted those three men on that wintery train to her life story in the first place. I’m not sure. But as I lay my offerings on the grave, there’s one thing about which I am certain — the Rita Taketsuru Fan Club has a new member.