Wednesday, March 20, 2013

I'm big in Japan

Here comes the media
I'm big in Japan. I've been on national TV, and in the nation's leading newspaper, but really I'm just a fifth wheel.

I spent a week tagging along with four US master sommeliers who decided to visit sake breweries: 10 in 8 days. They came for their education. I came because I love being the least knowledgeable drinker in the room.

Then somebody alerted the media. Instead of gathering the story, suddenly I was being introduced to TV cameras in front of a drunken banquet full of red-faced sake fans as "the story king."

It started with one reporter from a small local paper who came to see us tour Hakkaisan brewery, which is in a remote mountain village in Niigata prefecture called Uonoma, with snowdrifts five feet high beside every road.

There's probably not a lot of news in Uonoma other than the occasional person freezing to death if they don't pay the heating bill.

That boom mike is getting in the way of my stirring
So four master sommeliers drew a young business reporter whose first question was, "Do these sakes really taste different from each other?" I didn't have high hopes for her article, but she covered the basics -- "Master Sommeliers Visit Local Brewery" -- and included a photo of us in lab coats.

We traversed the country on the day the first article appeared, taking two trains for five hours to get to Kobe. News of our presence moved faster, and a reporter from a national financial newspaper was waiting for us at Takara brewery, along with a local TV reporter and a radio reporter. The first story was a pebble; these were the ripples.

The next day, Godzilla rose from the lake. We -- or more properly, they -- were Big in Japan.

Fifteen reporters followed us around Kikumasamune brewery, with lighting assistants and boom mikes. This was in Osaka, Japan's second-largest city; we were big fish in a big pond.

So we figured that when we took a train two hours to considerably smaller Fukui, the media contingent would shrink.

In fact, the opposite: Atsuhide Kato, the ebullient showman responsible for Born sake, reveled in showing off for a different, larger, more prestigious group of media, including two national TV networks. When the TV Tokyo crew realized that their rivals from NHK, the BBC-like national network, were also there, they were bitterly disappointed. I just wondered when the other three networks would show up.

The TV and radio people followed us to dinner with Kato, who had arranged a multi-course French meal, with a half-dozen forks beside the plate and a chef wearing a sash that said he was a disciple of Escoffier. Kato said he was too nervous to eat and hung on our opinions of how well his sakes went with the food (very, very well). He had a microphone and kept explaining how special a Master Sommelier is, leading with the fact that nobody in Japan has ever passed the test. You wouldn't think this would be a selling point in Japan, but apparently it's very intimidating, and the chef said his heart was in his throat.

I bollixed my interview on NHK. I wanted to speak in Japanese, but the reporter wanted me to speak English, and I had given up on tasting notes of Born's exquisite sakes and was just consuming them, so I spoke in elliptical 1200-word sentences. They didn't use any of them.

However, we were a big enough deal that we were treated to a geisha club. In 8 years in Japan I had seen geisha in action only once before, when I had the good fortune to sit next to a group of businessmen who had hired one at a pricey Kyoto restaurant. Now I had my own geisha, laughing at my jokes, keeping my glass full of sake, and playing live shamisen to accompany the five of us on an otherwise horrific karaoke version of "Hotel California."

What's the tail for? Why is it on our front instead of our back? I don't know. But it's appropriate, as for one week, I was Big in Japan.

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I think I'll put the more embarrassing geisha-club photos there.


Alder Yarrow said...

Wow, dude. You're not just big, you're furry, too. Sounds like a hell of a fun trip. That looks like Granoff to your left, and if I'm not mistaken, Mr. Bjornholm hiding his face?

W. Blake Gray said...

Alder: The gentleman trying to pretend he was never there is Bob Bath. Sorry, Bob.

latour said...

Great article, made me laugh.

latour said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jo6pac said...

I can see it now when you return sometime in the future everyone will be wearing big red framed glasses. Thanks for the tale.

Joe Roberts said...

Well... that's the biggest... uhm... errr.... man what is wrong with me, I CANNOT STOP STARING AT IT!!!!!!