To be billed as Japan's only foreign sake brewer conveys a claim unusually intriguing. Even the man in question, Philip Harper, expresses some surprise at the way things have gone for him as he gets close to achieving the status of master brewer in Japan.

He thinks he is the only person from the West to have gone so far in attaining this position. Out of his 11 years in Japan, he has put in eight of full-time work in a traditional brewery in Nara. He is not yet at the end of his particular road. "It's a complicated business," he said. "I still don't know what is going on half the time."

Harper was born in Birmingham, England. "We moved around a lot, and I was really brought up in Cornwall," he said. He keeps fond memories of that southwestern district, known for its wild coastline and old pirate stories, its lobsters and cream teas.