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With export of Japanese sake peaking in 2017, focus shifts to education, enjoyment

Dai Kaji holds a bottle of sake on March 6, 2018, in Tokyo. (Mainichi)
A student in the international sake instructor course tries her best to explain the charms of sake in her own words with a serious expression in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on March 22, 2018. (Mainichi)

Along with the Japanese food boom, "sake" rice wine has also seen a sharp rise in popularity. In part due to the "Cool Japan Strategy" promoted by the public and private sectors, 2017 saw the greatest ever export income from the beverage, and enthusiasts are moving onto the next stage: how best to educate those abroad about the drink.

In one room of a building in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on March 22, men and women from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, aged from their 30s to 50s have gathered. The 82 people are aiming for the Chinese-language certification as an international sake lecturer, and the course is put on by the sake connoisseur certification organization Sake Service Institute (SSI) International. In response to the facilitator's instructions to give a 10-minute lecture about the beverage the group tastes, each participant whets their lips before explaining the flavor using not just words, but also gestures.

After domestic sake consumption peaked in 1973, it has seen a steady decrease along with a loss of half of Japan's breweries. The SSI sees the development of international human resources capable of conveying the charms of sake in languages besides Japanese as the key to the revival of the industry.

Teaming up with wine schools in some 10 countries, SSI has so far certified approximately 1,800 "International Kikisake-shi" (Sake sommelier), and 95 percent of those titles were issued to foreign nationals. The course is available in Japanese, English, French, Chinese and Korean. The students gathered at SSI on March 22 had already been recognized as international sake sommeliers in Chinese and are aiming to become qualified to be specialized sake lecturers back home.

"I want to teach about Japanese culture through sake," said 32-year-old Xu Yingzi, who traveled from China for the course. "I came here to acquire professional skills."

While domestic consumption of Japanese rice wine may have fallen, the number of foreign tourists and businesspeople enjoying the beverages at traditional bars in Japan is growing. One such establishment is Kainomi Bettei Sabanomi in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, where operator Dai Kaji, 40, is a certified International Kikisake-shi.

With a row of sake bottles at the restaurant, Kaji describes the flavor of each beverage in English -- "dry," "smooth," "mild," "heavy," and more. He also explains the uniqueness of each brewery and its ownership and the special characteristics of the brewing process and location.

"Foreigners will compare different sake without preconceptions and find their own favorite brand, so explaining everything feels worth it," says Kaji. Currently, some 10 percent of his customers are foreign nationals.

Shuso Imada, the head of the Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center in Tokyo's Minato Ward, operated by the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, explained, "In order to deal with the growing demand abroad, along with setting up a stable supply system, it is now also essential to address 'soft' matters such as how to drink and enjoy sake."

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