INTERVIEW: SAKE DIPLOMA

ANA Flight Attendant Honami Kato Shares Her Passion for Sake with the World

For most of her young adult life, Honami Kato was unaware of just how complex and delicious nihonshu, or Japanese sake, could be. When she finally visited a sake brewery in her native Akita Prefecture and tasted, for the very first time, a sip of fresh-pressed sake, everything changed.

“It was so delicious that I couldn’t put it into words,” Kato recalls. She had visited Suzuki Shuzoten, one of the oldest operating sake breweries in Japan and a crowned jewel of Akita’s nihonshu circuit, which encompasses 34 breweries to date. The northern prefecture, famous for its rice production, hot springs and rural beauty, also boasts the highest consumption of sake out of any other prefecture in Japan.

“At that time, all I knew about sake was that it was made out of rice, koji and water. I was amazed by the drastic transformation of these mostly flavorless ingredients, thanks to the power of microbes and the brewers’ techniques, and I knew that I wanted to learn more about Japanese sake,” Kato says.

In addition to her passion for sake, Kato’s life philosophy is “to experience the world firsthand,” a mission she lives out through her occupation as a cabin attendant at All Nippon Airways (ANA). Her job involves serving sake to passengers from around the globe, a feat which understandably comes with a set of questions, the most common being — how is Japanese sake made?

At first, she didn’t have the answers. Despite the fact that Kato had traveled to nearly all of ANA’s international destinations, 53 cities in 27 countries to be exact, the cabin attendant quickly discovered that she still had much to learn about her own culture. “That motivated me to go out and find the answers on my own,” Kato says.

In October 2020, she passed the Japan Sommelier Association (J.S.A.) Sake Diploma International certification exam, a newly launched qualification program aimed at nurturing sommeliers with the knowledge to meet sake’s increasing popularity overseas. Since 2013, when UNESCO recognized washoku (Japanese cuisine) as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, the demand for sake exports has risen substantially, with the export value hitting a record high of ¥22.23 billion in 2018.

“I get excited just thinking about how much there is to discover ,” says the beaming kikizakeshi (sake sommelier), who is a regular customer at Asano Nihonshuten’s newly opened Hamamatsucho branch in Tokyo.” At the bar, which serves over 100 types of sake, Kato enjoys sharing her knowledge of nihonshu with other customers — how it’s made, which brands are right for them and where the best breweries are in Japan.

“There are so many fascinating things about Japan that even Japanese people aren’t aware of, and through traveling, we can unearth these wonders,” Kato says, with all the grace and optimism of a seasoned crew member.

- Sake is at the very heart of Japanese culture. What is one thing that visitors from abroad may not know, but should know about this national beverage?

Sake is made with very few ingredients — water, rice and koji. One of the most interesting things I learned was how, through various brewing techniques, these ingredients are controlled to produce different flavors. This is why I would recommend that visitors go to an actual sake brewery in Japan, so that they can see for themselves the environments in which sake is made.

- What do you enjoy about serving Japanese sake on international flights?

Most people who visit Japan already have a travel plan in mind. My goal, then, is to figure out how to get them more interested in sake during the flight. For example, suggesting pairings with not only Japanese cuisine, but also Western foods and desserts. That discovery of “I can pair sake with the cuisine of my own country” becomes an opportunity for people to buy sake and want to visit sake breweries on their travels.

- In addition to how sake is made, passengers often ask you where to go to enjoy local sake in Japan. What places do you recommend for international tourists to visit, and what makes these places attractive to tourists?

Hyogo, Kyoto and Nara prefectures. The roots of sake run deep in the Kansai region. These areas are also dotted with shrines dedicated to the god of sake, and planning an itinerary around these shrines can also be fun. With Itami Airport, Kansai International Airport, Kobe Airport and the bullet train, you can travel conveniently with easy access to sake breweries. These places offer great food and tourism year-round, which is why I would recommend them.

- In terms of sake tourism, what is most exciting about each of these prefectures?

Hyogo Prefecture is the number one producer of Yamada Nishiki [a strain of rice famous for its use in sake production] in Japan, and the majority of Japanese sake made with Yamada Nishiki uses Hyogo-grown rice. The prefecture also has beautiful rivers and plenty of sake breweries.

Kyoto Prefecture, known as a popular tourist destination, is home to the highly regarded sake brand Gekkeikan. There are many restaurants where you can enjoy the combination of traditional Japanese course meals paired with sake.

Lastly, Nara Prefecture is believed to be the birthplace of sake. Omiwa Shrine is said to be the oldest shrine in Japan and is revered as the “god of sake brewing.” Also, the custom of hanging sugidama [cedar balls] at a brewery’s entrance began at Omiwa Shrine.

- What’s the best time of year to visit a sake brewery?

You can visit year-round, but the most exciting time begins around this season — January, February, March — when the kurabiraki [first opening of a warehouse after the New Year] begins.

- You talked about visiting sake breweries in your native Akita Prefecture. What other breweries or sake-producing regions do you have your eye on currently?

Right now, I’m really interested in a brewery in Hyogo Prefecture called Izumi Shuzo, which produces the Sensuke brand. During the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, the brewery burned down and it became impossible to continue making sake, so they temporarily moved their operations to Nishinokinryo brewery in Kagawa Prefecture. The current director, Ai Izumi, rebuilt the brewery in honor of President Nishino’s vision of reconstruction.

- What’s the best way to enjoy Japanese sake?

The best way to enjoy Japanese sake is to pair it with food. In 2013, UNESCO registered washoku as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, and there’s been a lot of movement around promoting sake and shochu as well. Washoku and sake are intrinsically linked, so I would say the best way to drink sake is to pair it with the cuisine.

- Compared to 50 years ago, the number of sake breweries in Japan has gone down significantly. Yet, sake’s popularity continues to grow overseas. Why do you think more and more people outside of Japan are getting interested in sake?

Since 2013, Japanese cuisine has been gaining attention worldwide, and many people are introduced to sake through washoku. In this way, people’s awareness of sake overseas has expanded. Often, their interest begins in these peripheral areas, such as washoku and glassware, rather than sake itself. I once had somebody tell me that they saw a YouTube video about shuki [glasses and flasks for serving sake]. They saw this beautiful glassware and wondered what was inside, then discovered that it was Japanese sake.

- Where do you like to visit in Japan on your own personal vacation, and what kinds of things do you like to do there?

I frequently visit Osaka, where I pretty much just eat to my heart’s content. Last time, I tried pairing sake with takoyaki [a regional street food]. In general, sake goes well with washoku, but it was refreshing to try it with a local specialty like takoyaki. When traveling, I highly recommend paying attention to the different ways that various regions drink and enjoy sake.