Rebekah Lye Wilson
—— Hi Rebekah, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up in Japan?
I’m originally from New Zealand. I worked in the book industry as a freelance writer in New Zealand, but also worked as a sommelier part-time during my university days. Since I was little, I was exposed to a lot of Japanese influence due to my family. My mother was very much into Japanese culture and literature. She loved Japanese fashion such as Comme des Garcon and Junya Watanabe, so when I was little, she would dress in black asymmetric clothes which was considered quite weird in a small town in New Zealand. My sister was also quite interested in Japanese culture and was once a Butoh dancer. My father loves sushi and knows the best places in town for good Japanese food. There was always a Japanese fixation in the family.
Since New Zealand is a very isolated country, I decided to move to South Korea 10 years ago as a way of broadening my horizons. I was a book geek back then and I wanted to visit the countries and cultures that I was reading about. In South Korea, I worked as an English teacher, and in the process of renewing my visa in South Korea, I was required to exit the country once and visit a Korean embassy in a neighboring country to get my visa stamp. Thus, I traveled to Japan for my stamp.
As it was Obon (summer holiday), I decided to spend a week in Kyoto. My mother had given me Yukio Mishima’s “Temple of the Golden Pavilion” to read as a teenager, so my first destination was Kinkakuji. When I arrived and saw the awe inspiring spectacle of the temple, tears rolled down my cheeks and I couldn’t stop crying – I didn’t even notice the monsoon rain that had started falling around me. I was so overwhelmed by the energy and beauty of the scene, and it was at that moment that I knew I had to live in Japan.
—— What got you so interested in sake and made you decide to pursue it as a career?
My first home in Japan was a tiny town in Izu Hantou, Shizuoka, where I worked as an English teacher. At my welcoming party, the president offered me cup of local sake. I had tried sake in the past in New Zealand, but my experience was unpleasant. It was hot, rough and unpleasant – not something I was really interested in trying again. But when I put this cup to my nose, I smelled aromas of melon and banana, and I couldn’t believe that this was sake (the sake was Isojiman Tokubetsu Honjozo). The taste was refined and delicately sweet with a wonderfully clean finish. I realized that THIS was sake. However, strangely enough, I was the only person in the room drinking sake. I later learned that sake was a regarded as a token of Japanese tradition, with many people preferring to drink wine, beer or whiskey instead. That got me curious. Why would people want to drink cheap, supermarket grade wine over this delicious beverage?
Eager to learn more, I studied the characters on the sake label and learned how to pronounce the words. Basically, all my initial Japanese studies came from reading sake labels. As I learned more Japanese, my understanding of sake grew. I visited different prefectures and discovered the different flavors, styles and brewing methods of the local sake. After moving to Tokyo 8 years ago, my involvement with sake accelerated as there were plenty of izakayas (local affordable dining) sake shops to visit and events to attend. Through the years my experience grew and now I am an Advanced Sake Professional, an IWC (International Wine Challenge) Sake Division judge, and hold regular sake seminars and tours for both Japanese and foreigners.
—— What are your thoughts on the current situation of sake, both domestically and globally?
Oveseas, the selection available is still pretty limited and there is a general lack of knowledge about what sake is. The price is also ridiculously high – you’d need to be a banker to finance a sake habit like mine. Don’t get me wrong, expensive sake is fine if it correlates with quality. But it shouldn’t be expensive because of import tariffs. I’m hoping that tax barriers will vanish overseas for sake to become more accessible to overseas audiences.
In Japan, it’s difficult to sell sake at a luxury price point because there isn’t a market for it. Sake is not a part of everyday lives like it used to be, and that’s a tragedy. With that being said, things have started to change for the better in the last 3 years. 5 years ago, I remember I was often the only foreigner, the only woman and the only person under 50 sipping sake at an izakaya. Now young women are attending sake events and we are seeing a huge number of people rediscovering the joys of sake. In fact we are in the midst of a sake boom – there hasn’t been a better or more exciting time to be drinking the national beverage.
I hope that this hype isn’t a fashion boom. Sake needs a strong and sustainable long-term recovery, and for that to come true, there needs to be education to make sure people truly understand sake’s unique qualities. People need to understand that sake is not just a drink, but a culture that is deeply intertwined with Japanese history, culture and traditions, the land, the seasons, local communities, and the food they eat. I give seminars about sake to ensure people understand this crucial point. In addition, all my lessons are in English because I want to encourage an international conversation about sake. With the Olympics fast approaching, I think the importance of learning about sake in English will grow. Sake is not just Japan’s drink anymore, it’s the world’s beverage. We need to break down the language boundaries and celebrate this delicious beverage together as a global community.
—— Where will you be 5 years from now and what kinds of changes do you hope for the sake industry?
I will still be in Japan. I’ve been to IWC in England to discover the sake scene there, and that’s made me realize how lucky I am to be here. Drinking all kinds of jizake (regional sake) at reasonable prices is a luxury that you will only find in Japan. We are lucky to be in a new golden age of sake and I can’t wait for more exciting developments. New sake is coming onto the market almost every week, and a new generation of kuramotos (brewery owners) are combining old-school techniques with modern technology to create high quality sake with new flavor profiles. There’s no better time to be drinking sake, and I am so thankful to be here at this moment in time.
My hope that the current sense of urgency in rebuilding the sake industry will continue. I hope the infrastructure for exporting will become smoother. I hope that I will be speaking about sake with the same passion that I have now, because that’s what enhances my life. But more importantly, I hope that around the world sake will be enjoyed at at dinner tables & celebrations in the same way that we do wine. And I think this will happen, because the future of sake is looking very, very bright. I wish we had a glass of sake to kanpai with to end this interview. Ha, ha!