Had I known it was the last time I’d be sleeping in a bed for the next 10 weeks, I would have enjoyed the moment more. I found myself at 5 a.m. wide awake staring at the ceiling in my small hotel room in Amami City. It still hadn’t hit me how much different Amami is than the Japanese mainland.
Still in a bit of a daze I soon stumbled upon a Lawson’s convenience store where I bought a can of hot coffee and an onigiri. An onigiri is a rice ball wrapped in “nori” seaweed (the kind used for sushi rolls) and stuffed with salmon, pickled plum, pickles, all kinds of things. Parents make them for their children’s lunch, but they’re also a super convenient calorie boost available at every convenience store. Lawson’s is an old American convenience store that has long since left the US, but is everywhere in Japan.
The cashier paused, stared at me for a few seconds, then quickly looked away. I could tell she was surprised to see a tall white man clearly out of place. For perspective, I’m 6’1” and weigh over 210 lbs. I’m a big guy in the US. I’m huge in Japan. Very slowly she asked me in Japanese what I was doing in Amami? I said in my best Japanese, I was studying how to make kokuto shochu at Nishihira Shuzo. “Shochu, you’re making shochu!?”, she replied, then smiled and wished me luck. As I left the store, the customer behind me quickly paid for her groceries and chased me outside. She handed me a chocolate heart. She said in broken English, “You look like Leonardo Dicaprio.” I sometimes get Woody Harrelson, Jason Segel, or Falkor the Luck Dragon, but Leonardo Dicaprio was a first. I blushed, thanked her for the compliment, told her she was very kind, and that Leo is far better looking than me.
At noon, Tomoko arrived at the hotel for our first meeting in person. She greeted me warmly before driving us to lunch.
I don’t think I’ll ever get used to driving on the left side of the road. All of your instincts are backwards. You have to turn your brain off and pray that all of the other drivers stay on the left too. It’s irrational, but a lifetime of driving on the right doesn’t disappear easily.
Tomoko lived in New York City for 19 years and understands the small differences between American and Japanese business cultures. As we dined at a coffee shop that served savory Amami style fried chicken, Tomoko gave me a quick run-down on what to expect and the best ways to present myself. 1) don’t talk politics 2) be humble 3) always smile 4), and be kind. Pretty great advice for life in general. After lunch, I checked in at Sumi Ryokan, the Japanese style inn I would be staying for 2 months.
Two days later, Tomoko and I made our first trip to Nishihira Shuzo, which is owned and operated by the Nishihira family and has been producing kokuto shochu for over 90 years. Isao Nishihara and his wife Kinuko have been at the helm for the past 30 years. Their daughter, Serena, is the shochu toji (master distiller) and who I would be spending most of my time working with. They were very happy for me to be there and invited us to the back office to have coffee and tea. Tomoko, being fluent in Japanese and English, translated. They thanked me for traveling all the way to Amami and interning with their company. I thanked them for giving me this incredible opportunity. We discussed our goals and what would be expected of me. Serena, full of smiles, said she was excited to teach me and to learn more about shochu production together. Isao disappeared behind his desk and soon Chick Corea played lightly in the background. We talked for nearly an hour about family, music, my life in the Navy, how the company started, Serena’s music goals, and how I discovered shochu. However, shochu was almost an afterthought. The family wanted to know who I was and what fate led me to their couch, on a small island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It hadn’t dawned on me before that moment that Stephen Lyman and I are possibly the only Americans to have interned for an extended stay at a shochu company. I left the first meeting feeling embraced. All the hidden worries we both shared about the internship were quickly washed away. They gave me the week off to get adjusted to the island and invited me to a welcome party that weekend in my honor.
The whole shochu crew showed up for the celebration and welcomed me to the company with open arms and lots of shochu. We ate yakitori, sushi, and I tried squid ink soup for the first time. After dinner, we headed off to Mayasco, a live music bar. At the bar, Serena jumped on the drums, Gupe (one of the staff) grabbed the bass guitar, I sat down at the piano, and Isao-san picked up the microphone. We played “House of the Rising Sun”, “Sukiyaki”, and “Your Song”. Earlier in the night Isao-san told me he had sung Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” to Kinuko-san on their wedding day. For the last song, I played the opening riff to “Just the Way You Are”, Serena set down a nice groove, Gupe followed the changes, and Isao-san sang his heart out to his wife. At that moment we all felt like children, bonded through shochu and the unexplainable power of music. We were no longer lost in translation, but friends listening to rhythms and chords change. Singing melody lines while Isao-san expressed his love for his wife.
The shochu experience would start next week. For now we were musicians doing our thing.