Halfway into my two-month apprenticeship at Engawa sake bar in a rural hot spring town in Japan, my sensei invites me to join him for his daily ritual. I follow him outside to a mountainside shrine. As we climb the moss-covered stairs, he instructs me to observe the plants, the temperature, and the feeling of the season, so we can determine what kind of sake the day calls for. He teaches me to pray at the shrine, and then he tenderly brushes away some fallen leaves and places several coins, asking the spirits to bring him good business.
Behind the counter of his tiny bar in the mountains of Ishikawa, on the Sea of Japan coast, Yusuke Shimoki is trying to save the Japanese sake industry, which has been in decline since peak consumption in the 1970s. Shimoki is not the wizened old man you might expect to find in such a place. At 31 years old, he has the aspect of a very serious teddy bear, with a slight potbelly from spending more than 16 hours a day tasting, contemplating, and serving sake, and bright eyes that light up when he talks about it. He is a missionary for sake.
A neighbor remarks that she has never seen him without his uniform—white shirt, black pants, vest, and tie—even at the supermarket, or running errands around town. His hairstyle, though always slicked back with a handful of gel, is surprisingly contemporary: shaved close on the sides and long in the middle. (On his one day off he allows it to flop to the side boyishly). His eyebrows, neatly shaped into high arches like the men in Japanese fashion magazines, dance with delight when he talks about a favorite brewer and furrow when he contemplates the proper cup and serving temperature for a particular sake.
In Yamanaka Onsen, where I’m studying with Shimoki, you can find the version of Japan that we idealize in the West. Misty ridges encircle ancient wooden houses and weathered shrines. The smell of cedar and sake permeates the air. Generations of craftspeople and farmers carry on centuries-old traditions, making tableware by hand and cultivating rice.
Shimoki serves a local sake, from Matsuura’s “Shishi no Sato” brewery. Photo: Hannah Kirshner
Shimoki is eager to connect with the wider world, both to evangelize for sake and to broaden his own horizons (or at least his ideas about tasting and serving drinks). A mutual friend asked me to host him in Brooklyn for five days last summer, and we first met when he arrived at my doorstep. He had never left Japan before. Besides having lunch at the famous Peter Luger steakhouse, everything he did in New York revolved around sake—seeing how it’s sold, served, and enjoyed in the U.S. (I had to insist he eat pizza for his last meal in New York.) While Japanese people are adopting more Western customs and drinking less sake, the Western world is embracing Japanese cuisine, and drinking more and more sake. Many people, including Shimoki, believe foreign acceptance may be the promising future of this declining industry.
He may have been joking when he first offered me an apprenticeship at Engawa, but it quickly became a real plan. I’d been waiting for the right opportunity to immerse myself in Japanese language and culture while doing work that’s relevant to my career as a food writer and stylist, as opposed to just teaching English. That’s how I found myself in a part of Japan that few foreigners visit, much less live.
The town of 7,000 people is just accessible enough to benefit from tourism, but isolated enough not to be spoiled by it. Most visitors come from other parts of Japan. Natural hot springs, a meandering stone path along the Kakusenkei Gorge, and a couple of 2000-year-old cedar trees at the edge of town are the main attractions. From Tokyo it takes three to fours hours on two trains to get to the nearest station at Kaga Onsen, six miles away.
The road from Kaga Onsen quickly leaves behind the pachinko parlors and chain stores around the train station, passing through farmland and small villages flanked by a curtain of mountains, the most spectacular of which is snowcapped Hakusan. The temperature drops noticeably and rice paddies give way to cedar forest as the road climbs toward Yamanaka Onsen. Its downtown is situated in a narrow valley beside the Daishoji River, and you can walk it from end to end in less than 20 minutes.