At 5:30 p.m. on a recent Saturday evening, the line of people at the entrance to the Smile Nihonshu sake event was six deep. Inside the bar, groups of young people in their 20s and 30s clinked glasses and nodded along to a bouncy rendition of Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” under a green-lit disco ball. On the surface of things, it looked like a regular night out in central Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, but with one difference — everyone was drinking sake.

The scene offered a striking contrast to the usual image of sake drinkers. When asked to describe the typical sake consumer, brewers invariably sigh and say that the majority are men between the ages of 45 and 70. That’s not very encouraging given that, according to statistics from the Japan Sake Brewers’ Association, average sake consumption has declined from 11.5 liters per capita in 1997 to just 6.4 liters today. If sake is going to have any hope of competing with the ever-expanding range of alcoholic drinks on the market, the industry will have to reach a younger demographic.

The question of how to get young people interested in the brew has vexed sake-makers for years. Hacchaku Ono, who organizes the Smile Nihonshu event, thinks the solution is to get rid of sake’s old-fashioned, conservative image.

“Sake has changed a lot, but its image hasn’t,” he observes. “The image is kind of posh and stuffy, but young people don’t generally have a lot of money and they feel that there aren’t places for them to enjoy sake. We wanted to create a casual atmosphere where people can try good stuff at low prices. We want more young people to know about sake.”

An event stage manager by profession, Ono has been an avid sake fan for 20 years. When he first got into sake as a young man, there were few outstanding brands. These days, it’s a different story.

“Now is the best time for sake,” he says. “There is so much variety and the quality is great.”

Four years ago, Ono noticed that the young people around him were all drinking shochu and beer but didn’t know anything about sake. He felt that it was a terrible waste and, together with a staff of eight fellow enthusiasts, he produced the first Smile Nihonshu event. They convinced the owners of Bar Open in Shinjuku to let them host a reggae party where they would serve premium sake for only ¥300 per glass. So far, the group has hosted 13 events.

The organizers of Smile Nihonshu come from all walks of life, but none of them works in the sake industry. They actively pursue young brewers at large sake functions and try to convince them to participate by serving their sake at Smile Nihonshu.

Sometimes, the brewers even join the party. Yuichiro Tanaka, the 29-year-old president of Rihaku Shuzo in Shimane Prefecture, has brought his Rihaku sake to Smile Nihonshu four times. He became involved after getting to know Ono and the Smile Nihonshu team and comes not only to serve his sake but also to drink with friends. Out of the business suit and happi coat he usually wears at formal tastings, and dressed in jeans and an aqua-blue polo shirt, Tanaka blends into the crowd seamlessly.

Ono hopes that the combination of the event’s chilled-out vibes and reasonable prices will encourage sake neophytes to taste and explore more.

F irst-time visitor Saori Kanda heard about Smile Nihonshu from a friend. Although she describes herself as a beer drinker, she says that the event has changed her mind about nihonshu.

“I used to think that sake was harsh, but the sake I had today was really good,” she explains. “I want to try lots of different kinds now.”

Atsuko Matsuzawa became interested in sake after getting into macrobiotics, and has been drinking it for around seven years. She decided to come to the event because she was impressed by the list of premium labels on offer.

Misaki Okutsu, 22, attended Smile Nihonshu for the first time in January and plans to come regularly.

“Sake is my favorite drink, and this event is really fun because I’m able to talk with people from lots of different groups,” she says.

Both Matsuzawa and Okutsu discovered Smile Nihonshu through the Sake Meetup Group, an informal gathering of Japanese and foreign enthusiasts run by sake educator Etsuko Nakamura and her husband Ted O’Neil.

“We thought Smile (Nihonshu) would be a great way for first-timers to check out our group and give sake a try,” remarks Nakamura.

A longtime sake fan, Nakamura decided to devote herself to promoting the drink full-time two years ago. She is now a certified sake professional and tour guide who leads gastronomy and sake-brewery trips around Japan. She’s also started organizing her own tasting events. Last year, she hosted a sake tasting for 1,400 people at the Japan Association of Language Teachers (JALT) annual conference in Shizuoka Prefecture, where she invited five Shizuoka-based producers to showcase their local brews.

“We were able to reach a lot of people — not just teachers from all over Japan, but the students volunteering at the conference, too,” she explains. “At first, some of the students said ‘no thanks,’ but, by the end, almost everyone tried it.”

Nakamura says that she’s started to notice more and more young people at other sake events. The last few years have seen an increase in the number of large sake tastings aimed at younger drinkers, where people can try a wide variety of high-quality brews for under ¥2,000 in total. Last March, hundreds of tipplers turned out for Wakate Yoake (Dawn of the Young Generation), a sake fair at the Komaba Eminence Hotel in the Meguro district, which featured sakes from 13 young brewers.

Smile Nihonshu is still the only sake-bar night of its kind in Tokyo, but Ono says that the event’s success has sparked similar efforts across the country, most notably in Osaka. He hopes there will be more in the future. As far as Ono is concerned, the more chances there are for young Japanese to experience and learn about sake, the better.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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