This was my goal: find a job as a brewing assistant in a saké brewery (sakagura 酒蔵) in Saku, Nagano prefecture. Why Saku city? Because my girlfriend (Kazuko) just moved there and as luck would have it, there are 14 saké breweries in the surrounding area!
Finding a job in Japan is much easier if you are introduced by someone familiar to your new, potential employer. Although this is true everywhere, personal introductions seem to carry a little more weight here. Unfortunately, I didn’t have this luxury afforded to me. Although I am participating next month in a saké internship program sponsored by Sakahan (a.k.a Mukune) brewery, the ever-nice owner, Daimon-san, has no connections to any of the Saku breweries. So, I was left with the other way to get a job that is not advertised, cold calling, with the added difficulty of cold calling in Japanese. After compiling a list of the sakaguras in the area, my next task was to translate my CV into Japanese and then write a compelling introductory letter explaining why I wanted to work in a sakagura, and how I could help them if I did. I did have one good ace up my sleeve: I am doing microbiology research at the University of Tokyo, and although the research is totally unrelated to the science of brewing, it is at the U of Tokyo, the most highly regarded university in Japan. When I tell someone Japanese that I work at Todai (東大), the usual response is “へえ。。頭がいい、すばらしい” (“really, you must be smart, wonderful”)- to which I reply “いいえ、ふつう” (“no, just normal”). Daily conversation aside, I was hoping it would at least get my foot in the door, so to speak.
With my CVs and introductory letters in hand, I set off by bicycle for the 3 closest breweries from Kazuko’s apartment- the nearest only 1 km away, the farthest about 4 km. It was a sunny, cold and crisp day and my spirits were high as I pedaled through the small, winding streets lined closely by houses and their well manicured gardens. (In Japan, most houses have small concrete or stone walls that mark the boundary between the street and their property line- there are no sidewalks. Yards tend to be small, lack grass, but have some attempt at a garden with various shrubs, bushes, and trees which look like large bonsai plants. Stones and stone lanterns are often present, as is bamboo- either growing or used to support the trees. The gardens are quite different from European ones which are filled with colours, flowers and life in the summer- but very dead and dreary in the winter. Japanese gardens also change throughout the year, but they never seem lifeless.) Finding the first sakagura, Tsuchiya Shuzou (土屋酒造) makers of “Kame no Umi” (亀の海) or “Turtle Sea”, was no problem as most breweries have a very distinctive trademark: a large, usually brown, cedar ball hangs in front. The sugidama (杉玉) or sakabayashi (酒林) is traditionally received from a temple in Nara (Omiwa shrine) in November, and consists of freshly picked cedar needles and is therefore green when it is first hung in front of the brewery. As it ages over the winter, it turns brown and this signifies that the new saké is ready to drink. I am not sure how many breweries follow this tradition, but I think many just leave the old, brown sugidama in place. However, if you happen to see someone riding the train with a huge cedar ball in their lap, you can safely bet they own a saké brewery.
After parking my bike, I took a quick look to see the size and condition of the brewery. The main building was a large, old structure with nice architecture, as are many of the saké breweries in Japan. Gathering my nerve and roughly plotting out a dialogue I would use to plead my case, I entered the front shop of the brewery. Despite being a sunny day, the shop was fairly dim and cold, almost equal to the temperature outside. (Almost all of the older buildings, and even newer ones, are very poorly insulated in Japan). Shortly, I was greeted by a woman who entered from the back office, and I closely examined her face to judge how startled she was to see a foreigner in her shop. Although no one blinks an eye at foreigners in Tokyo or the other big cities in Japan, in smaller cities like Saku, it is not an everyday occurrence to encounter an outside-country-person (as the term for a foreigner in Japanese, gaikokujin (外国人), literally translates). However, she was not startled in the least and patiently listed to me explain about my background and my desire to work in a sakagura and then quickly read my letter. She then motioned for me to come to the back office, where I was introduced to her husband and invited to sit down with them. After an hour discussion, complete with tea, I learned that they only have 4 employees, one being there son, and although they would like to help, receiving a salary would be impossible. They did inform me about the other saké breweries in the area, and that my best chance was at the largest brewery, Kurosawa. However, Kurosawa is about 30 minutes from Saku by train, and I was hoping to find a job closer to home- it would be my last resort. Thanking them profusely, I took my exit and was out in the sun again, feeling inspired that my first cold call went reasonably well, but also a bit daunted- what if they all went along these lines? No, it is much too early to think negatively- one sakagura down, but 13 more to go!
to be continued…….