Today is the Day! Discovering Yamaguchi Sake

Today, 21 February 2023, is the official release date of my first authored book, Discovering Yamaguchi Sake.

The cover of the book Discovering Yamaguchi Sake by Jim Rion, foreword by Melinda Joe. It features small images of labels from 23 sake breweries in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

It’s hard to believe the day has finally come. I first conceived of the idea way back in the spring of 2020, when the pandemic was first making its presence known and I found myself with extra time to fill. I must be honest—it was kind of a whim at first. I was looking for something to do with my time and my interest in sake, and I wanted to help bring attention to the local brewing scene. But when I got started, it all just seemed to take on its own momentum and somehow I managed to make it all the way through.

It has been such a fun, interesting ride, too. I met so many wonderful people, and learned tons that I doubt I ever would have without this. And above all, I have been so, so moved at how supportive everyone has been. From the very beginning, I was surrounded by friends and family who helped me believe it could actually be done. And here we are.

I must admit to feeling a little grumpy about the fact that I, personally, still don’t have any copies of my own book—it takes a long time to ship from America these days—but the idea that it is out there and getting read is truly astonishing to me.

So, to everyone who has helped make this happen—including all of you who have ordered or are going to order it—thank you and kanpai.

Now, go on, Buy My Book!


Coming Soon: The Devil’s Flute Murders

A book cover for The Devil's Flute Murders featuring an open hand next to a fallen bottle of poison.

My translation of classic Kindaichi Kosuke mystery Akuma ga Kitarite Fue wo Fuku (Translated as The Devil’s Flute Murders) is done and off to the editors! It’s scheduled to come out from Pushkin Vertigo Press June 29, 2023.

This was an absolute joy to translate, though I worry about fitting into the legacy left by great translators like Louise Heal Kawai and Bryan Karetnyk. I also wish my name was on the cover, but alas…

This was by far the biggest fiction translation I’ve done. The the two books I did for Kurodahan Press (oh how we miss ye…) were smaller both in scope and, as very niche ones, overall social weight. They were fun, but somehow this one feels, just… more, somehow. More important, more meaningful, and more prestige, I suppose. I guess I have an ego, too…

I can’t wait for everyone to get to read it!


New Newsletter!

Announcing the Ochoko Times! My new newsletter starting from November 15, 2020.

I’m just getting the hang of it, but my plan is to send emails twice monthly, one in the middle and one at the end. The emails will feature western Japan sake news and reviews, event updates and recaps, and also look at some of my non-sake work and interests. I’ll also be including the “sake of the month” in the second email of each month, so look out for that one!

Occasionally, I will also include links and reminders of where you can buy my current translated work, and announce upcoming work as well.

Also, as time goes by, I’ll use the list to announce new projects that I think people might be interested in. I will not be spamming you with marketing, and will never sell your data.

A signup form is also available from my contact page.

Take a look!

Success! You're on the list.

Book Review – Flavour

The cover of the book Flavour: A User's guide to our most neglected sense. By Bob Holmes. 
At the top is a quote, "Endlessly fascinating. A terrific book" - Bill Bryson.

Flavour: A User’s Guide to Our Most Neglect Sense, by Bob Holmes (I read the UK edition, hence the spelling mismatches you might notice).

This is one of those pop-science books, written by a journalist, that catches the imagination but probably requires some caution. It appears well researched and has copious cited sources, which is very good, but also contains some dubious claims that do not inspire confidence. This, for example, seems relatively arguable:

Sometimes, these experiments point to another noteworthy fact: Smells and tastes often go together differently for different cultures. For example, caramel odor doesn’t enhance sweet tastes for many Asian people, who are likely more used to encountering caramel in savory dishes instead of the sweets that Westerners are used to. The same thing happens with benzaldehyde, the main component of almond aroma. It enhances sweet tastes in Westerners, who usually encounter almond in pastries. But for Japanese, benzaldehyde enhances umami taste, because almond is a common ingredient in savory pickles.

Flavour, page 93 (ebook edition)

I have never seen any “savory pickles” with almonds in Japan. I have seen savory snacks with almonds in them here, though, so perhaps it’s just a simple mistake of which savory thing?

That being said, the fundamental arguments of the books are hard to refute: that our sense of flavor is primarily focused in our nose, and that it is formed by a complex arrangement of genetically influenced physical sensory apparatus and a vast array of cultural influences, such that the likelihood of two individuals having an identical sensory experience of the same flavor is almost impossible, but that shouldn’t get in the way of enjoying and exploring it.

There are many points in this book where I found myself cackling with glee as they reinforced things that I had been increasingly seeing myself about the obsessions of the gourmet/wine/sake world, like how even the most vaunted experts are working with flawed apparatus that can only accurately identify three or four aroma compounds at a time (see p. 52), or how flavor really only exists in the head:

Gordon Shepherd puts it best: “A common misconception is that the foods contain the flavours,” he says. “Foods do contain the flavour molecules, but the flavours of those molecules are actually created by our brains.” Thought itself, in other words, is one of our flavour senses. The brain constructs flavour by piecing together inputs from virtually every one of our sensory channels, plus inputs from thought, language, and a host of other high-level processes like mood, emotion, and expectation. That makes flavour a remarkably complex and changeable concept. It’s a wonder we can talk about it coherently at all.

Flavour, p. 104

The changeability is the real crux. Tasting exercises try to turn this infinitely variable and subjective sense into something objective and reliable, but it just isn’t. And there is more and more evidence that even the “pros” are simply better trained at putting words to their sensory experience, not actually better at sensing.

One particularly fascinating episode comes from winemaker and former oceanographer (a scientific minded person, in other words) Bob Hodgson of California. He noticed that he was completely unable to predict how well his wines would do in contests.

With his scientific turn of mind, Hodgson started to wonder why the very same wine could garner a high score last week and a low one this week. Could you really trust the judges’ scores, he wondered? Hodgson must be a persuasive guy, because somehow, he managed to convince the California State Fair to let him find out.
Judges at a big competition like the California State Fair taste about 150 wines every day, organized into 4 to 6 “flights” of 30 wines each. The wines within a flight are presented in identical glasses marked with identifying codes, so that no judge knows the identity of any wine he or she is tasting. Each judge individually—no discussion at this stage of the judging—gives each wine a numeric score on a 20-point scale. (Actually, the fair uses a 100-point scale like the ones you sometimes see on the shelves at your local wine shop. But any wine that’s halfway drinkable scores at least 80 points, so for all practical purposes it’s a 20-point scale.)
With the collaboration of the contest organizers—but unknown to the judges—Hodgson arranged that for one flight per day (usually the second), three of the thirty wines would actually be identical samples, poured from a single bottle of wine but given different code numbers. If judges’ scores are a true reflection of a wine’s quality, then you’d expect these triplicate samples ought to receive identical scores—or at least somewhat similar scores, allowing for a little bit of imprecision in the judges’ ratings.
The results were shocking.16 “We did everything we could to make the task easy for the judge: same flight, same bottle. And nobody rated them all the same,” says Hodgson. Only about 10 percent of the judges scored the three samples similarly enough that they awarded the same medal to each. Another 10 percent gave wildly different scores, giving one glass a gold and another a bronze or even no medal at all, and the rest fell somewhere in between. And that wasn’t just because some judges are better than others: judges who were consistent in one year were no more likely to be consistent the next year.

Flavour, pp 105-106

Hodgson himself found that his experience of his own wine was often largely guided by outside influences as much as what was in his glass. So, in conclusion:

All this points to an uncomfortable conclusion: If trained judges and experienced winemakers don’t consistently prefer one wine over another, then maybe there’s no real basis for calling some wines great and others merely good. And that may be how it really is, though it’s hard to find many wine people who will agree.

p 106

The gist of so much of this can really be summed up by saying: our enjoyment of a thing is only partly contingent on the thing itself, and most of it is based on the situation around our enjoyment. Our mood, the weather, the glasses we’re using, the people we’re with, it’s all part of it.

One particularly visceral section is a long quote from flavor chemist and wine expert Terry Acree on the subject of wine pairing, which I think almost certainly has much to teach us about sake pairing, as well:

What does it mean to “go together”? My mother was an interior decorator, and when I was about five, I walked in and said to my mother, “My favorite color is red.” And she said, “No it isn’t, kid. That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of. Nobody has a favorite color. Color has a place, and you have to find out where it belongs and where it doesn’t belong. It can only be your favorite if it’s in the right context.” So the first thing I’ve got to say about wine and food pairing is that it’s completely contextual, and almost entirely individual. It makes no sense to write a book on wine and food pairing, except to say there is such a thing as wine and food pairing, and go figure it out for yourself, because it’s your own pairing that counts.

Flavor, p. 192

If flavor truly is this complex experience influenced by almost countless variables both internal and external, ranging from genetics to mood to the weather, then trying to build bedrock principles to guide that experience is a futile thing that only works if everyone involved agrees to just nod and go with the flow–an experience I often find myself having during guided tasting.

The ending message of this book is exactly what I find myself trying to tell people about sake: Be mindful, and enjoy it in your own way. Or, as he says

Remember, even expert perfumers and flavourists can’t accurately identify more than three or four aromas from a mixture. In something as complex as wine, that means the experts’ flavour identifications miss the mark pretty often. (You can easily verify that by comparing two critics’ reviews of the same wine and noting their lack of overlap.) The bottom line is that accuracy doesn’t matter. What’s important is that coming up with a description forces me to pay attention, and paying attention enriches my flavour experience. It slows me down, so that meals become a time for dining, not merely for eating.
There’s a world of flavour out there waiting, and it’s ours to enjoy.

Flavour, p. 224

Getting Used to Time in the Spotlight

I started out as a small-pond/big-fish kind of guy. I grew up in a the country and was an academic achiever at an early age, so I would end up in the local paper for some kind of academic award every once in a while. But growing up in a small town, even in the larger network of small towns that make up rural communities, means everyone knows you anyway. So the little bit of notoriety I had was nothing to brag about.

Even that much was short lived. When I went on to university, of course, the pond got much bigger and so did the other fish. I faded into the background, and that was all right with me. I did my thing, writing and teaching and so on, and ended up eventually becoming a translator: the ultimate invisible man. The rare work that I could put my name on was still so niche as to be almost unknown. I just kept on working in the shadows of my office/cave.

That lasted pretty much until this year. This year, I am not only publishing my own book, Discovering Yamaguchi Sake, but I’m putting out a translation of a Seishi Yokomizo Mystery, The Devil’s Flute Murders, from Pushkin Press. The first is a big deal for me personally, the second is just a plain old BIG DEAL. And so people are starting to notice me.

I’m being interviewed on podcasts. Asked to do online events. Planning book signing parties and presentations about my career. Emotionally, I’m in this totally new spot where my ego is tickled pink but my anxiety is headed through the roof, and I’m just bouncing between them like a ping pong ball. It’s not something I’m used to, and I am very tempted to just shout to the heavens “What have I done?!”

But I asked for this. I pursued these projects and enjoyed doing them. I never really stopped to think about what it would mean to do so, but I did it and now I suppose I need to learn to enjoy this tiny taste of attention.

Does anyone have any tips on how to do that without having an anxiety attack?

Review – Flight & Anchor

Flight & Anchor: A Firebreak Story

by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Publication Date: 13 Jun 2023

Full disclosure: I read this from a free review copy off Netgalley.

Synopsis: In short (and I do mean short, because the book itself is roughly novella length at 139 pages double spaced), this is a story set in the world of another of the author’s works, Firebreak, about a city gripped by a war between two corporate entities, with a team of bio-engineered super soldiers at the heart of the conflict. This story features two of those—06, a girl, and 22, a boy—as preteens trying to escape the corporate facility that grabbed them as very young war orphans and turned them into killing machines.
They escape and, rather than making their way out of the city as originally planned, hole up in an abandoned container and scavenge for food in the harsh city winter. The whole time, the nameless facility Director remotely monitors their location and vital signs and tries to hide her failure in letting them escape.

Review: I suppose I just have to say this one wasn’t for me. It seems built knowing these children as characters, without giving any real reason to WANT to; since I haven’t read Firebreak, and thus don’t have any grasp on what they do or their significance, my interest just slides off them like glass. This could also be due to the fact that this very brief story spends SO MUCH TIME on mundane details of survival (with a nearly two page listing of the random detritus they scavenge in their abandoned lot, that then plays absolutely no part in their story).

There are also clear allusions to events that happen years after the story—clearly referring to Firebreak—that are frustratingly pointless to this actual narrative, and so simply stand out as enormous flashing “Hey, remember this part?” signs. I don’t, actually.

I was also bemused by how the book spent 13 pages, fully 10% of its length, in the largely uneventful and pointless interaction between a barista, Cass, and these two nameless children, which again had no bearing on the characters’ further actions or development. In terms of Chekhov’s gun, there were like four shotguns (Offscreen characters, suspicions, potential friends, potential foes) in that scene, and none of them ever fired. It was essentially 13 pages of “Then they got some cast off coats and stale donuts.” Which they later did AGAIN after digging through the garbage.

That scene did successfully shake my affinity for “they” as a singular pronoun, since it featured Cass as “they” interacting with two unnamed people acting as a unit whom Cass immediately identified as “boy” and “girl” because I guess that’s what a non-binary person does on first meeting preteens? Anyway, it was tortuous and difficult to get through, and served so little purpose in so many pages that I very nearly stopped reading once I realized it just hadn’t mattered.

However, when something actually interesting and important happened—the intriguing nanobot array that filled the so necessary “snarky sub character” slot showing up, the roughly two pages of action at the end, etc.—it was fun. The writing itself in the use of language and pacing are really quite good, so that was a pleasant part of the experience.

Overall, I’d give this three of five stars, for deft sentences and glimpses of an intriguing world, with marks off for not a whole lot happening that makes sense to this non-Firebreak reader.

Simple Pleasures of Birdwatching

I have long been a fan of birds in general, which sounds like a silly thing to say but is merely the truth. Being close to birds reveals such cleverness, such expressiveness, that it’s hard not to anthropomorphize them. Yet I have never really taken the time to get the kind of detailed knowledge that would allow me to, say, identify all the wild birds around me by call, or plumage, or flight pattern.

So, when I saw an ad in the local paper for a free birdwatching class at Suo no Mori Lodge, a nearby forest lodge, I signed right up. The class happened last Sunday, the 21st, and it was a hoot (har, har).

I learned the basics of the above, but I also found that simply being in a focused environment where every bird that passed was a subject worthy of scrutiny, that was worth paying close attention to, was a kind of blessing. Birds are all around us here in Hikari, so they often just melt into the background noise, but when you actually try to see them they are a treasure.

For example, I learned that I’ve been using “sparrow” as a kind of catch-all term for “little, round, brown birds in the bushes” but there are several species that all fit that name, and all of which have their own adorable-ness to enjoy.

There’s nothing really profound coming here, but I will say that focusing your awareness on the simple, common natural environment around you is deeply rewarding. If you have the chance, take it.

And now, the pictures, which are what you really want.

  • The silhouette of a bird—perhaps an oriental dove or a brown-eared bulbul—on an electric wire, with trees in the background.
  • Two male mallard ducks are perched on a tree branch projecting out of a river. Another is swimming in front of them. and a female is swimming off to the left among the other branches.
  • Two small birds in silhouette are on the side of a gravel road. They are meadow buntings, which look a lot like sparrows.
  • A small, round, brown bird with white patches on its wings—a female Daurian redstart—sits on a low concrete wall with weeds in the foreground and background.
  • A male Daurian redstart is perched at the very tip of a single tall weed far in the distance, with a green hillside in the background.
  • An overgrown camellia bush in full flower with a small, green warbling white-eye bird perched near a flower.
  • The foreground is filled with camellia blossoms, and a small green warbling white-eye is perched among them.
  • In the far distance, a sandpiper is wading in a green river near a gravel bank.
  • A small, yellow-brown shrike is looking at the camera from its perch on a telephone wire.