It’s one thing to start a new life overseas in your salad days, but quite another to give up a prestigious job and relocate at close to 50 years old.
Up until two years ago, Shinobu Teraguchi was in charge of the entire wholesale division for Seijo Ishii Co. Ltd., a Japanese nationwide supermarket chain known for its quality foods, including many imported items. Teraguchi was also responsible for purchasing wine and other alcohol, traveling around the world to attend major food and beverage trade shows.
Today Teraguchi works for a New Zealand winery as a cellar hand — a role not dissimilar to his job when he was just starting out some 30 years ago. He was recently back in Japan for the New Zealand Wine Fair Japan, an industry event for buyers and sellers, and took some time out to talk about the challenges and rewards of a midlife international move.
Hailing from Sapporo, Teraguchi majored in agricultural chemistry, later going on to work for a winery in Yoichi in Hokkaido. Coincidentally, the city is also the home of Nikka Whisky and was the location for the popular 2014-15 NHK drama “Massan,” based on the life of Nikka’s founder Masataka Taketsuru and his Scottish wife, Rita. Little did Teraguchi know that an international marriage was in his own future.
“Winemaking is hard work! You’re out in the fields in the spring and summer; harvesting and producing the wine in the autumn; and putting the final touches on things in the winter, getting the wine ready to sell. But if you want to be a winemaker, then that’s how you start,” Teraguchi says.
After seven years in the industry in Japan, and with his 30th birthday approaching, Teraguchi did some soul-searching.
“You can only produce wine once a year, and so I figured that I had about 30 more vintages until I retired. When I thought about it in those terms, I knew I was ready for a change, and I applied for a working holiday visa to go to New Zealand,” he recalls. “The age limit was 30, so the timing was perfect.”
Teraguchi spent the next year studying, working and traveling around New Zealand, where he realized his knowledge of wine gave him leverage with his new Kiwi friends. “Wine has a certain status, and I felt the value of my professional experience when I went out to bars with New Zealanders, and I was able to discuss wine with them,” he says.
He found himself in the city of Christchurch for the last part of his working holiday. During a return visit to the English language school where he had previously studied, the manager introduced Teraguchi to one of the teachers, a young New Zealand woman who had recently returned from a stint in Hokkaido. Teraguchi was astounded to learn that she had been living in Otaru, the town next to Yoichi.
“It turned out she had been teaching at an English school in the building right by the dentist’s office where I used to go in Otaru. It is highly likely we crossed paths at some stage without realizing,” he says with a smile.
Fast forward a few years, and the couple, now married, were living in Tokyo, building their respective careers and raising their daughter. Teraguchi’s wine industry knowledge and English skills had helped him land a position with Seijo Ishii, and he saw the company grow from just seven stores into a nationwide chain during his time there.
Things were going well, but as their daughter grew older and entered the Japanese school system, Teraguchi and his wife began discussing the future. They realized that they didn’t want their daughter to go through the pressure of juku (cram school) and juken (exam entrance system), which typifies the teenage educational experience in Japan.
“We had talked vaguely of going over to New Zealand when she reached high-school age, but gradually we could see merit in going earlier, at the end of elementary school,” he says. “Since I was also turning 50 around then, it seemed like the right time.”
Teraguchi points out that giving up a good job in his chosen industry was not something he took lightly: “We gave the whole process very careful thought. We did some simulations and calculated costs. My wife is a translator, and can work remotely, and so I thought that I could always be a househusband for a while until I found work in New Zealand.”
Location was another issue for consideration. According to Teraguchi, with his background he would have had no problem getting a job in Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city. However, the prospect of swapping life in one large city for another one did not appeal.
“In that case, we might as well have stayed in Tokyo,” he says.
The family moved to Napier, a mid-sized port city in the heart of one of New Zealand’s major wine-producing areas. Though they soon settled in and found an ideal school for their daughter, the trade-off was Teraguchi’s work situation. After job-hunting for six months, he finally secured a contract position as a cellar-hand, only to receive news that his mother had to undergo surgery back in Hokkaido.
“Of course, I gave up the job and immediately went back to help. There are no other relatives, and my mother is also caring for my ailing father, so they needed my support,” he says pragmatically. “I think that was the point at which it hit home. This was the reality of living far away, and one of the things I will continue to deal with.”
After two years, Teraguchi has come to see a rhythm to his Kiwi lifestyle. While it couldn’t be further from his previous life in Tokyo, he is still excited about the freedom.
“I guess I am a freelancer now, and I can more or less predict my annual schedule: I can see myself working February to May as a cellar hand, followed by two months of pruning work, then I can travel back to Japan in August to check up on my parents,” he says. “That leaves the rest of the year to find some other projects, and to spend time with my family and maybe travel more. I have a big industry network in Japan, so who knows what might come up.”
Teraguchi says that people in New Zealand are welcoming and very open to those from other cultures.
“I have no need to prove anything to anyone. I’ve accepted that this is my life and it’s pretty good! And — I even have my own man cave now!” he adds with a grin.
Name: Shinobu Teraguchi
Profession: Freelance wine industry worker
Hometown: Sapporo, Hokkaido
Key moments in career:
1989 — Begins work as a cellar hand at a winery in Hokkaido
1995 — Goes to New Zealand for a yearlong working holiday
1996 — Starts working as a wine buyer at Seijo Ishii Co., Ltd. in Tokyo
2005 — Is appointed president of Tokyo Europe Trading Co., Ltd. (a subsidiary of Seijo Ishii)
2017 — Leaves Japan and relocates with his family to New Zealand
Things I miss about Japan: “The excitement of international trading, and Japanese sushi”
Things I love about New Zealand: “The relaxed lifestyle and no overtime.”
My favorite wines: “The Terraces from New Zealand, Bordeaux and Champagne from France.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5