Philip Harper

Philip HarperOccupation:
Kurabito (sake brewer), and, as of last month, writer.
Time in Japan:
Ten Years

What do you do here?
I work for a small sake brewery, Ume no Yado, in a little rural town in Nara Prefecture. I am one of the brewing staff of ten responsible for our modest output. I live in a row of what the estate agent assures me are houses with European-style roofs, one town (ten minutes' bike ride) away from my workplace.

Where are you from?
I am from Cornwall in the far west of Great Britain, famous for ice cream, Land's End, giants, smugglers, Jamaica Inn, St. Michael's Mount, clotted cream, King Arthur and the great engineering family Trevithick, one of whom built the first ever railway in Japan.

What brought you to Japan and how long have you been here?
I came to Japan on the Ministry of Education's JET Programme, and worked as an English teacher in public high schools in Osaka for two years from 1988.

How on earth did you get from teaching into sake brewing?
While I was teaching, I became a member of sake tasting club. In my third year in Japan, I worked days in a conversation school, and nights in a sake bar. One thing leading to another.

Are you planning to stay?
Should be here a while yet.

Tell us about your work.
My work is a doddle, a picnic, a piece of cake—except for the fact that it involves heavy physical labour, long hours, chronic shortage of sleep, and so on. The winter brewing season is very punishing: Christmas and New Year's are not holidays, and the same goes for just about any other day during the season.

What about the book you've just written?
The original idea dates from about a decade ago, when I first started drinking sake. I could speak very little, and read next to no Japanese. I began work on the book with people like myself in mind—ie those keen to find out more about sake, but without the tools to make use of the resources available to the reader of Japanese. To this end, the book comes with lots of photos of labels and bottles to help the sign-language shopper. There are also some goodies for overseas readers and virtual drinkers. In short, The Insider's Guide to Sake is the fruit of ten years' contemplative drinking and five years' writing, so please buy it, and maybe one for your friend.

What do you like about Japan most?
My wife, sake, the fact that nobody ever steals anything from me, downtown, sumo, Kansai dialect, the nice old bits which are still left, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, all the sensible gadgets which make public transport so pleasant, ume boshi, sento...

What do you dislike about Japan most?
The red spaghetti which comes in bentos, the overwork ethic, Japanese computer manuals, casual xenophobia, institutional xenophobia, those shiny slip-on shoes businessmen wear, overcrowding, automatic doors which don't open until you're less than an inch away from them, Pink House, the rainy season.

Do you organise your CDs alphabetically?
My CDs have kind of a classical section, kind of a rap section, kind of a jazz section, etc; that's all.

What's the weirdest thing you've ever seen or experienced in Japan?
My entire life as a brewer is pretty bizarre when I stop to think of it.

What do you eat for breakfast?
In the winter, rice, miso soup and natto or fish or something; in the summer, my breakfast is a cup of coffee.

If you could take one thing back from Japan to your native country, what would it be?
The dragon on the fountain in front of Kiyomizudera.

Do you have a favorite place to eat or drink in Tokyo?
I have lots of favorite watering holes, some of which can be found in my book, as shamelessly plugged below.

Where would you like to be when the big one hits?
Not in Tokyo.

You have to spend the rest of your life trapped on the Yamanote line. You're allowed to take one book, one CD and one luxury item. What would they be?
The book is obviously The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, but I've thought for half an hour and can't bear to choose just one CD. Is it cheating to choose an Internet-capable computer as my luxury item?

Philip Harper is the author of The Insider's Guide to Sake, published last month by Kodansha International at JY1500.

Philip Harper spoke to Nigel Kendall.

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