People | 20 QUESTIONS

Rebekah Wilson-Lye: Raising a glass to the wonders of sake

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

Name: Rebekah Wilson-Lye
Age: 44
Nationality: New Zealander
Occupation: International PR and marketing manager at Japan Craft Sake Company
Likes: Traveling, learning, experiencing, communicating
Dislikes: A life devoid of the above


1. When did you discover sake? It was 14 years ago, in my first week in Japan, at the welcoming party by the language school I came to work for. I was given some local sake. It was an epiphany.

2. How did you come to enter the traditional world of sake? I just went looking for more of that amazing drink I’d discovered — first in shops and izakaya (taverns) and then by visiting sake breweries. It happened very organically. Before I knew it, sake had become my life.

3. Why did you want to work in that field? Sake isn’t just a drink, it’s a culture. I knew I wanted others to have that same life-changing moment I had experienced. Doing this job, I can pursue that dream full-time.

4. What are the worst preconceptions people have about sake? That it’s strongly alcoholic (it’s around 15 to 16 percent alcohol by volume, like a strong red wine). And that it all tastes the same (not these days, if ever).

5. Who have been your biggest influences? First, all the brewers in Japan. They’re my ultimate inspiration and motivation, in particular those at Aramasa in Akita Prefecture and Juyondai in Yamagata Prefecture. Second, my boss Hidetoshi Nakata (CEO of Japan Craft Sake Company and former soccer star).

6. Before Japan, you lived in South Korea. Were you equally into makkoli (Korean rice wine)? Absolutely not. I was interested in Korean fermented foods and the edible wild plants there. I hated the alcohol, but these days there is good artisan makkoli.

7. You help organize the Craft Sake Week in Roppongi Hills, which just held its fourth edition. Has it changed much since it started? Thankfully it’s held at a warmer time of year (April instead of February)! It’s evolved a lot and is much bigger. We had almost twice as many visitors compared to last year.

8. Is it important for people to take a course on sake to appreciate it properly? If you just want to enjoy sake, you don’t need to study anything. All you need to “understand” sake is simply to follow your instinct and go with what you like.

9. The IWC (International Wine Challenge) now includes sake. How significant is that? It’s really helping to promote brand awareness, so consumers in Japan and abroad recognize sake’s true value.

10. What are the best foods to eat with sake? You can pair anything with sake, literally any cuisine. But for me, cheese with sake is the bomb — preferably a whole cheese board, so I can see which kinds go best with the sake.

11. Tell us about “Kanpai! Sake Sisters,” a recent documentary that you were featured in. It underscores that women are emerging as leaders in the sake world. It’s an industry that’s been going through a difficult time and needs a rebuild. Women are, I believe, natural communicators and community builders.

12. As a woman, have you found any resistance within the industry? Very occasionally. But as much because I’m a foreigner, not just a woman. In fact, 99.9 percent of the time, I’ve been welcomed.

13. Where is your oasis in Tokyo? The terrace of Bricolage Bread & Co. (in Roppongi), with a freshly baked loaf and a lovely cup of Fuglen coffee.

14. Can you recommend some Tokyo bars or izakaya for enjoying sake? Akaoni (in Sangenjaya) offers a great old-school experience. For a modern take on sake culture, Gem by Moto in Ebisu. And for really elegant pairings of sake, Sokyu in Kagurazaka.

15. How about three favorite restaurants? Top of the list is L’Effervescence in Nishi-Azabu. I also love Eiraku Shokudo in Akita Prefecture for its simple, yummy home-style food. And Tokuyamazushi in Shiga Prefecture is a lovely lodge with amazing local food and sake.

16. Any tips for preventing or curing a hangover? Don’t mix fermented beverages with distilled spirits. And always have food while drinking. For hangovers, I swear by sweetened Earl Grey tea, Marmite on toasted sourdough bread and a chaser of OS1 (an electrolyte replacement drink).

17. Is there something about you that might surprise people who know you? I go power walking every weekend, listening to ’90s house music on my iPhone — those anthems from my happy house days, by 808 State or A Guy Called Gerald.

18. What’s your favorite Japanese expression?Fushigi!” (“strange!”) So many things in Japan are still mysterious to me.

19. What aspects of Japan do you find totally awesome? I love the juxtaposition of modern and traditional, that collision of so many different eras in the present moment. I also love how Japan is becoming more international and inclusive.

20. What’s your favorite place to visit outside of Japan? Taiwan. I love the people, the food and the environment. I feel it gives me a great big hug each time I return!