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How to build a sake career: Ayuko Yamaguchi

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We interviewed several WSET Level 3 Award in Sake graduates to learn how they started their sake careers. From part-time veterinary specialists to former tour guides, each expert has a different story. Next up in this series, we have Ayuko Yamaguchi from Osaka, Japan.  

Interested in sake? Whether you're a complete beginner or a more advanced student, there's always more to learn. The best place to start is with our Level 1 Award in Sake.

Tell us a little about yourself and your career?

I qualified as a government certified tour guide in 2009. And after 2011, when the Great East Japan earthquake happened, most of us tour guides were left without jobs. 

I tried various things to gain job experience, and one of them was to become more knowledgeable about sake. I had always liked sake, and I thought it would be a fun way to gain knowledge and experience.

As soon as I started learning about sake, I became fascinated by the depth of its history and the subtlety of its flavour. I obtained a number of Japanese qualifications on sake but found that they were of little use in my actual tour guide job. This is because sake qualifications in Japan are aimed at Japanese people who already have some knowledge of sake. I realised that the scheme they offered was not directly useful for explaining sake to international tourists, who mainly came from a wine background, and I was hitting a wall, so to speak.

That's when I found out about Sake Professional Course organised by John Gauntner and l eagerly joined. Here I was asked to write an article for “Sake Today”, a quarterly magazine. This was the start of my writing career. Furthermore, it was here that I met sake geeks of various nationalities, and through them I learnt that a new WSET Sake Level 3 Award in Sake was to be held in Tokyo in spring 2017, and I made the decision to commute 500km from Kyoto using bullet trains.

I passed the Level 3 course, but I was the only one in the Kansai area who wanted to become a WSET sake educator. So after I finished my educator training, I was asked by the local course provider, CAPLAN, to teach Level 1 and Level 3 in Osaka from 2019, and here I am today.

Osaka Castle amidst the skyscrapers. 

What is the best thing you took away from studying the WSET Level 3 Award in Sake, and what impact have your WSET qualifications had on your career?

The Level 3 course was a total career-changing experience. No other qualification focuses on how sake is made from the perspective of the sake brewer - from raw material processing to fermentation management and commercialization.

Through the WSET courses you learn that the efforts of sake brewers are reflected in every drop of sake in front of you. My aim as a guide has become to make sure that my guests can feel this, and in my writing work I have made it my goal to write articles that encourage the readers to ponder on all the hard work and dedication of sake brewers. This would not have been possible without the WSET education, for which I am very grateful.

What is the sake scenes in Japan at moment and what excites you?

The sake scene is far more diverse and evolved than it was about ten years ago. I am particularly interested in the regional character of sake.

Let me put it this way. As a tour guide, I have always been in the business of conveying the fun of travelling. Imagine Tokyo and Kyoto were identical cities: how boring it would be!

Sake is no different. The terroir of sake has not been emphasized in the past, but in recent years an increasing number of sake breweries have become actively involved in the production of locally rooted specific rice for their sakes. These ambitious initiatives have the potential to positively change Japanese agriculture and local communities, which are suffering from a declining birthrate and ageing population.

With this awareness of the issue in mind, last year, In the summer of 2022, I was asked to open a series of spin-off seminars called 'Sake Salon' together with my educator colleague at our local APP, Caplan Osaka School. I am in charge of a course on the regional characteristics of sake. Also, I have personally taken some of the attendees to sake breweries to enjoy sake with regional food, and to interact with the brewery owners and staffs. We have already been to Yamaguchi and Mie Prefecture, and more trips are coming up later this year. Planning these mini sake excursions have been a very fascinating and rewarding experience for me.

What do you enjoy most about your sake work?

Drinking! I'm only half joking… When I started creating a course on the regional characteristics of sake from scratch, the challenge I set myself was to make sure I visited and interviewed the local people for structuring the course, no matter how busy I was. In the process, I have been meeting the local brewers and tasting the sake that they have worked so hard to produce, as well as enjoying the local food. No two regions have the same sake and culinary tradition. Considering that my love of travelling led me to become a qualified guide in the first place, being able to experience this kind of excitement through my work is a real pleasure.

What are your top tips for anyone studying sake and want to develop their career in sake industry?

Take as many tasting notes as possible. The Systematic Approach to Tasting is about using your senses, thinking for yourself, and building up your own hypothesis. Also, please visit the sake production sites as much as possible. This may include your local craft sake brewers in your country. These visits will be full of a-ha moments that you cannot learn from books alone.

On top of that, you need to know what kind of history, social background and culture are behind a delectable glass of sake you see in front of you. There is no sake without a great story. I believe that sharing a story with enthusiasm can help you build a career in the sake industry… In other words, have the PASSION for sake or fall in love with sake, if you like. Passion is contagious, so if you have it in your heart, your career will grow naturally, just as rice seedlings planted in the rice paddy will eventually bear ears of rice.

Want to know more about sake trends? Catch up on our recent webinar with Natsuki Kikuya, our product development manager for sake.