The recent covid-related lockdown has, oddly, had a positive effect on some things. For instance, the plentiful online drinking parties increased my connections with like-minded people in far off places that I otherwise never would have made. One of those connections is Sachiko Miyagi, who works for the Sake School of America as an instructor in sake and shochu. In discussing education and its increasing online status, she mentioned that SSA was planning to try offering more online courses, and asked if I would be interested in being part of their new online Shochu Advisor Course to help evaluate this internet evolution.
I said yes, of course, and so I hopped right into the world of shochu. I was not completely unfamiliar with the drink, especially since I have become friends with Stephen Lyman (@Shochu_danji on Twitter and Instagram), but I’d never studied it like I have sake. I was curious about many of the production processes, and the versatility it displays as a drink, so this was the perfect chance to explore and satisfy that curiosity!
The course was divided into two 4-hour sessions. They were formatted as education presentation focusing on prominent topics from the provided textbook, and were held live online from Los Angeles. That meant that the time was a bit of a struggle for me (5-9 AM Japan time!) but SSA was kind enough to offer everyone recordings of the classes to review later.
Since I was studying from the other side of the world, I was not able to get samples of every shochu that was tasted in the class (that would also have been pretty expensive, as they were tasting 14 different ones, but I did have access to many of the specific styles so that was helpful.
The course was very interesting, if a bit awkward due to the online-nature. I did join live for a time and I found myself missing the sense of being in a classroom with fellow students, experiencing the education in a shared atmosphere. That being said, Sachiko Miyagi did a good job of encouraging active participation, and clearly understood the topic well. I was impressed with her classroom work!
SSA also provided me with a copy of the text, shochu tasting sheets, and a review to prepare for the exam. The materials were all quite useful and clear, but I do have some issues with the textbook.
The class is an adaptation of Sake Service Institute’s Japanese Shochu Adviser’s course, and the textbook is SSI’s as well. This means it is very similar to the Sake no Motoi textbook I used for my International Kikizake-shi certification–right down to the awkward, confusing translation. SSI appears to use native Japanese speakers for their English translation, and the result is some basic grammar and word choice issues that make it more difficult than it should be to understand many of these topics. Added to that, there is a certain style of Japanese sake and shochu education that is extremely “Japanese,” in that it focuses on lots of intangible cultural ideas as inherently good ways to explain topics–despite the fact that they mean basically nothing outside the Japanese cultural context. Comparing SSI texts to, say, WSET offers a clear example of why native inhabitants of not only the target language, but the target culture, are the best choice for translation.
The text book did its basic job, though, and prepared the students for the final exam. The test was also held online, via an interesting system–the students were asked to log in to a Zoom meeting, show photo ID in a private room, and then keep the camera on them while taking the test on a separate website to allow proper invigilation. I ended up passing the 100-question test with a decent 96%. Not bad after getting up for a 4:30 AM log-in time.
As with the International Kikizake-shi course, I think it helps enormously to have a basic grasp of the Japanese language terms involved before you start studying too deeply, but in general this course was accessible, interesting, and very informative.
I recommend it to anyone curious about Japan’s “other” national drink. Kanpai!