From the first hello, Yukari Sakamoto’s enthusiasm for Japanese cuisine is evident. Her conversation is peppered with quips about umami bombs, the best sake and what to make in a donabe (earthenware pot).
“It’s fun helping people make connections, showing them places or things that may not be on their radar,” Sakamoto says. “It’s really satisfying.”
Although she’d had an interest in food since childhood, the Japanese American chef, sommelier, author and Tokyo tour guide’s adventurous culinary career really kicked off in 2000, when she enrolled at the International Culinary Center (ICC, formerly The French Culinary Institute) in New York City, with plans to open a wine bar. After graduation, she worked for a restaurant group just north of the World Trade Center until 9/11. Sakamoto realized that her friends and family, who were mostly in Japan, were what mattered most.
She began a job at Coco Farm & Winery in Tochigi Prefecture, immersing herself in the Japanese world of wine before becoming sommelier at the New York Grill in the five-star Park Hyatt Tokyo. Sakamoto loved everything except the late hours, so when a position at Takashimaya department store for a wine specialist popped up in 2004, she made her move.
“Retail, with its wrapping and gift-giving traditions, is a whole different aspect of Japanese food culture,” Sakamoto says of her work in the depachika (basement food market), where she became the first non-Japanese to become a shōchū advisor. “I’ve always enjoyed learning something new,” Sakamoto says. “So when Takashimaya asked if anyone wanted to learn another specialty, I knew no one else was talking about shōchū, and I thought ‘Why not?’”
Sake was already a hot topic, and Sakamoto’s hunch was that shōchū would be the next go-to beverage. Back in New York, she had led a few shōchū seminars for an import company targeting the restaurant industry and at the Japan Society for consumers. “It was very exciting as it was just starting to become popular,” she says. “There was not much opportunity to study shōchū, so I was happy to immerse myself in it.”
The text and lectures were in Japanese, so she partnered with a colleague studying for the wine certificate. Sakamoto helped her better understand the wine coursework, and she helped Sakamoto with the kanji in the shōchū textbook. The final test was a blind tasting and an examination. They both passed.
Department store staff also sent international tourists her way to translate and explain what they were seeing. “I helped so many customers and thought somebody should write a book to demystify the depachika, explain the seasonal ingredients and food etiquette. Then people could really get to know it,” she says.
In 2010, Sakamoto published “Food Sake Tokyo” as part of The Little Bookroom’s “The Terroir Guides.” A comprehensive primer of the city’s food scene, she covered depachika along with points of culinary interest such as Kappabashi, Tsukiji and Ningyocho to reveal the world of Japanese cuisine for an audience eager to devour it.
At the same time, Sakamoto was fielding requests from food writers, magazine editors and chefs to explore Tokyo’s culinary landscape. Some found her via the ICC, or her food column for Tokyo’s Metropolis magazine. The latter, she believes, led Food & Wine magazine to seek her out as its Tokyo stringer. “These really smart food people were crazy for Japanese food, but wanted a deeper understanding,” she says. “The food world in any city is very small, even in New York City, so if a chef or food writer said they were going to Tokyo, my name would come up. In those days, introductions were by word of mouth.”
Two years later, she and her husband, Shinji — a former buyer at Tsukiji fish market — decided to offer food tours. “As a new mother, I wanted control of our schedule,” Sakamoto says. “It was perfect because right then everybody wanted to come (to Japan).”
With her clients, who range from tourists to food professionals, farmers to film makers, Sakamoto shares new discoveries and the places and people she loves best. She takes pleasure in helping people connect something they see in a market or eat in a restaurant with a tradition or idea. While she hopes things will return to something like normal after the pandemic, she is starting to focus more on cooking at home and recipes. “It’s about removing barriers,” she says. “Teaching clients to cook Japanese food at home and then watching them recreate the dishes via Instagram or photos they send is so satisfying. They are having a great time, and I helped make that possible.”
For more information, visit foodsaketokyo.com. Women of Taste is a monthly series looking at notable female figures in Japan’s food industry.
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