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.
“As a boy I found I loved languages, and at Oxford I studied English literature and the German language and literature,” Harper said. “But really I had no idea of what I was going to do then. I knew only that I wanted to live abroad. I wanted to experience lots of different things and go to different places.”
He was a normal young man who at Oxford with other undergraduates used to go out for drinking evenings in the local pubs. When he was 22 and graduating, he saw the advertisement for the JET Program that the Japanese Ministry of Education posts around universities in Britain.
“A college friend of mine had come to Tokyo a year earlier,” Harper said. “I applied, and came to Japan to be an assistant English teacher in public elementary, junior and senior high schools. I was brought to Osaka, and placed mainly in high schools. I really enjoyed the educational aspect of that experience, and the interaction with students and other teachers.”
A year after his arrival, Harper joined a sake-tasting club. “One thing led to another,” he continued. “It was not a conscious thing, but something that just happened. I used to go drinking in a sake bar with another customer. Two years after arriving in Japan, I became a part-time worker in that bar.”
An article on sake that he wrote at that time won a prize in a competition held by the magazine Kansai Time Out. Harper went on to make that article the first of a series.
In the autumn of that year, 1991, Harper joined the staff of Ume no Yado Brewery. “I am one of the makers,” he said. “You need 10 years to learn the basics, and 20 before you know what is going on. Physically the work is very hard, with the heavy loads to be carried around and operated.” During the demanding brewing season, which is in full spate now until the spring, he begins his day around 5:30 in the morning, stays at the brewery until 7 in the evening, goes home for a bath, then returns to the brewery again.
The uniqueness of his position in the sake world has caused him to be sought out for radio, television and press interviews. After only a year as a sake brewer, he began giving speeches and lectures, and arranging tastings at events around the country. He conducts most of his appearances in Japanese. He continues to write for magazines, in 1998 published with Kodansha International “The Insider’s Guide to Sake,” and has a book project, in Japanese, in progress. “I have an Osakan wife,” he said. “I write in Japanese, and she then overhauls it.” Necessarily familiar with brewing terms, he says that he picked up kanji as he went along.
What kind of future can a Briton who is a sake brewer in Japan expect? Harper and his parents wonder that too. “They always worry about me and different things, my health physical and mental,” he said. “Both my sisters follow conventional lifestyles.”
He has learned that there is more interest in sake in the U.S. than in Europe, and hopes to strengthen the interest at least in Britain. “If I could make a living out of writing and lecturing about sake, that would be fine,” he said. “The Daiwa Foundation has offered to arrange a series of lectures in the U.K. in 2001. That is pioneering, and with an organization behind me better than my doing it by myself.”
He continues his own kind of immediate pioneering. He has set up a sake circle mainly for non-Japanese residents, and for them arranges visits to breweries and tastings. Members appreciate his expertise and his humor, the buying tips that he passes on and the education in evaluation that they learn.
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