After spending a week in Chicago visiting my family I boarded a flight bound for Tokyo on October 18, 2017. My first night in Japan was spent near the US Naval Base in Yokosuka to grab a chuhai with old shipmates and say hello to my favorite bartender at my favorite jazz bar. Blue In Green is a great bar for musicians to show up and play any time they like. It’s very popular with U.S. Navy musicians on the nearby base. The bartender, Yoshi, always has an excellent jazz album playing and when you are ready to take the stage he encourages you to take risks and experiment. He has a nice selection of imported beers from the States, a variety of shochu, and makes an exceptional chuhai. The next day I met my cousin Joe in Shinjuku where we sipped on barrel aged shochu, sang karaoke, and played with local musicians. On Friday I hopped on my flight to Amami-o-shima.
The Amami Islands are part of the Ryukyu Islands. “Ryukyu” is the traditional name of Okinawa, which is also part of this island chain, which trails off the southern coast of Kyushu and stretches all the way to Taiwan. In fact, the southernmost island, Yonaguni, is closer to Taiwan than the nearest neighboring Ryukyu Island. Amami-o-shima is the second largest Ryukyu Island after Okinawa Island. Amami City is the “county seat” of the 8 populated islands of Amami.
There are 27 kokuto shochu distilleries on the Amami Islands providing Japan with the only area that can officially make kokuto shochu. After World War II, America held possession of the Amami Islands until 1953. While stationed near Amami, U.S. sailors fell in love with this mysterious Japanese spirit. Once America returned the islands, the Japanese government feared the Amami people would be left with little economy. As a sign of apology for the American control the Japanese government forbade any other region in Japan from making kokuto shochu. As a former U.S. sailor and lover of shochu, Amami was the perfect place for me to spend 2 months studying the art of shochu-making. Kokuto shochu is celebrated all over the island. When I stepped off the plane there was a line of all the local shochu outlining the escalator as I approached baggage claim.
With my limited ability to speak Japanese, the Amami people were very patient and willing to help. Amami is much different than Tokyo. The trains in Tokyo have English translations and many restaurants have English menus. In Amami, everything was in Japanese which forced me to learn the language better and rely on the patience of the locals to help navigate the island.
I arrived in Amami still jet lagged and confused on where to go. My phone wasn’t working. I had no place to stay. No English translations to rely on. No idea which bus to catch (there are no trains in Amami). My contact, Tomoko, was stuck in Nagoya and would meet me in the morning. I was constantly repeating my favorite Japanese saying, “I’m very sorry. Please talk slowly.” Fortunately, years of traveling as a musician had prepared me for situations like this. I enjoy being lost in Japan and forced to figure things out. You never know who you will meet or where it will lead you. So, I hopped on the only bus leaving the airport and took it to the last stop. I booked a room at the first hotel a could find and waited for Tomoko to contact me. I had little idea what was in store.
What kind of work will I be doing? What will the people at the distillery be like? Who will I be staying with? What is a habu? With these questions running through my head I drifted off to sleep … for 12 hours. All I knew was that I was excited to be on this adventure and knew I was right where I was supposed to be.