Food & Drink | KANPAI CULTURE

Sake sommelier unlocks the fun of 'nihonshu' for visitors from abroad

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

Every week, sake sommelier Satoko Utsugi leads groups of overseas visitors past the Fukagawa Fudosan Temple and along a shopping street in Tokyo’s downtown neighborhood of Monzen-Nakacho.

Their destination is Orihara Shoten, a sake shop with a tasting bar, and Utsugi’s mission is to provide a taste of Japanese culture through the country’s national drink. At the shop, she answers questions and acts as an interpreter when the Japanese customers express curiosity in her guests — an almost inevitable occurrence.

“Japanese people become a lot friendlier after a little sake,” she laughs, adding that bonhomie is an important part of the experience she offers.

Sake sampling at Orihara Shoten is part of the three-day sake tour of Tokyo she hosts for Airbnb, the U.S.-based accommodation site that added immersive cultural experiences led by local experts to its list of offerings last November.

Ustugi begins the program, which is conducted in English, with a general overview, serving aperitifs with a selection of light snacks at a sake cafe. On the second day, she introduces different kinds of sake, encouraging guests to find their own preferences. The third day features a tasting of brews served at different temperatures in a variety of vessels — the prelude to a sake-pairing dinner at an izakaya bar with a view of Tokyo Tower.

Interest in nihonshu, as sake is called in Japanese, has been growing abroad for more than a decade, but tourists looking to try it in Tokyo often find themselves lost at sea. A lack of basic sake knowledge — coupled with the language barrier — can prove daunting when trying to navigate the city’s sake scene. “I believe that having a good guide is important for you to start enjoying sake,” Utsugi notes.

She speaks from personal experience: Utsugi was working in advertising when she first discovered sake in the 1990s. Like many young women at that time, she had never been particularly interested in the drink, until a sake-loving colleague introduced her to regional brews from small producers.

“It was an eye-opening experience for me to find that almost every prefecture in Japan had its own style of local sake,” she recalls. “I came to see that sake is a core part of Japanese food culture.”

After sake, she explored shōchū (Japan’s indigenous spirit) and wine, both of which saw booms in the early 2000s. But Utsugi kept coming back to sake: “I realized that I felt most comfortable when I was having sake. As a Japanese, I wanted to understand it.”

Her quest led her to enroll in a sake certification course with the internationally recognized Sake Service Institute four years ago. Studying the brew’s long history and its complex production process deepened her passion for it. She traveled to sake breweries to get to know the producers and learn more about the unique terroir. After receiving her certification, she began organizing sake-related events geared toward Japanese drinkers.

Hosting the Airbnb experiences has allowed her to connect with international audiences. The program has been successful, and Utsugi is considering adding a shorter, one-day option.

“The guests have a good time, but it’s a lot of fun for me, too,” she says. Fun, it seems, is precisely the point.

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