My connection to Japan started in the late 1980s, before I ever dreamed of travelling there. One of my first encounters involved three electronic music instruments that started regurgitating all the synthetic sounds I had come to love on my favourite electronic “Detroit Techno” records of that time: the Roland TR909 drum machine, the TB303 bass composer and the Yamaha DX100 synthesizer.
Roland and Yamaha were both Japanese brands so at that precise moment, Japan, music and technology became forever intertwined in my mind. Shortly afterwards, through images of a Blade Runner-esque Tokyo where people used tiny advanced gadgets and fantastic devices, Japan became for me one of the coolest and most futuristic places on the planet. My lifelong fascination with the country, its history and culture–and eventually its national beverage, sake–had begun.
I soon began tasting Japanese cuisine and even sipping warmed-up, low-grade sake at the local teppanyaki restaurant in Windsor, Canada (I’m sure it’s a familiar story for many of us). This ended up preparing me for my first exciting visit to Tokyo in 1994 to perform at the legendary Liquid Room concert hall. As a keen and, by then, seasoned traveller, I was happy to be taken to the smallest, most out-of-the-way places to eat and drink, preferring to go where the locals went. I consumed okonomiyaki, sashimi and whatever else was put in front of me. The stranger and weirder the better! All of this was, of course, washed down by an enormous amount of Japanese sake.
During those days I had no idea what I was drinking (or eating) and made no real attempt to read or understand the labels. But the bottles quickly started to show up in the DJ booth at my late-night gigs, encouraging wonderful sake-induced musical experiences. I took it all in, enjoying this new-found feeling during my performances, and walked around wide-eyed, day and night, sucking in the sights, sounds and tastes of Japan. These fascinating trips of musical exploration and sake discovery soon piled up. I took every reasonable offer to perform in Japan, sometimes visiting three to four times a year. This quickly led me into the late 2000s and the real beginning of this story.
Sitting in an onsen (hot spring) in northern Hokkaido, surrounded by snow and drinking sake (of course) with a few friends, both Japanese and Westerners, I realized that my fascination with sake had grown to an almost fanatical level. After so many visits I had even reignited the interest and tastes of my Japanese friends, who had earlier discredited sake as the drink their father used to like. By the early hours of the morning, drunk, sweating and with our fingers wrinkled to a prune-like state, my friends and I decided that I had to follow this new passion and open a sake bar in Berlin.
A few months later, after exploring many Tokyo sake bars and retail shops, trying to learn and drink as much as possible, I stumbled upon John Gauntner’s Level I Sake Professional Course. I signed up immediately, hearing that participants drank “copious” amounts of sake. I also figured I had better learn a little bit more than “kampai” if I was going to turn my newly found passion into a business.
Somewhere during the lessons, again fuelled partly by the sake-tasting sections of the course (honestly, I took the course twice just to do the tastings again), I started to see incredible similarities between the sake industry and one of my standard professions: running an independent record label.
Upon hearing about the decline in the number of sake breweries, the loss of jobs, culture and traditions, and that the younger generation was more interested in European cocktails than the drink of the older generation, I quickly realized that there was a unique opportunity for me to participate in a profound and interesting way. By applying the knowledge and intuition that has successfully driven my record company and my own creativity over the past two decades, perhaps I might even be able to help the sake industry.
What am I talking about?
The electronic music scene (although perhaps not the general music industry at large) is a craft industry, driven by authenticity and filled with independent artists striving to develop their own unique “sound.” This basic fact resonated with me as I interchanged the words “sound” and “taste,” and “artist” and “toji.”
Techno music is, at its core, based upon technology (hence the name), and an intimate, almost symbiotic, relationship between man and machine. As the artists develop and the technology evolves, the sound of the music advances. In terms of sake, let’s quickly think about the sake most of us prefer: premium, refined sake. Sake like this is quite modern and has only evolved through the advancement of technologies like refrigeration and highly sophisticated milling machines. However, for both techno music and sake, it is the history, traditions and craftsmanship that artisans use to create their own unique “sound” or “taste.” The musicians, the toji and the kurabito (brewery workers) bring their own unique ideas and personalities to the process, balancing hundreds, if not thousands, of choices along the way while writing and brewing to ensure a beautiful and engaging result.
With each new release both industries painstakingly turn their attention to the visual impact of their product: stunning calligraphic labels and silkscreened album jackets, all beautifully created with the intention of giving the customer a visual interpretation of the experience contained within the bottle or jacket.
How do these elements become more dynamic than they already are?
I feel there is a shared ethos in the sake community and the electronic music scene in their commitment to finding a balance of new and old technologies, of following tradition while not being afraid to incorporate new ideas and concepts, of maintaining their own pathway and independence and following their own unique “sound” or “taste” in a pure and authentic manner. Because of these shared values I feel it only makes sense that they can also be symbiotic partners in new, shared experiences!
As I’ve said, I’ve spent half of my life travelling, watching trends spread, performing in nightclubs three to four times a week, observing people loosened up by electronic music and alcohol, dancing, meeting new people and sharing moments and memories that will last a lifetime.
Electronic music clubs and events are continually filled with an influx of fresh, open-minded individuals. This kind of environment is the perfect place for introducing the next generation of drinkers to sake. They’re already there, curious, looking for exotic, exciting and unique experiences, not like the older generation who are already stuck in their ways, ordering the same bottle of Chardonnay they discovered earlier in life, apprehensive of trying anything new. The young people are there now, waiting! All we have to do is introduce them to high-quality, authentic Japanese sake.
Every time I drink sake I’m amazed at the beautifully serene and sublime taste. I think of the families and kura that have been dedicated to their craft and unique tastes for generations, and that makes me smile. It’s the same type of experience I have listening to a new record, and I hope that in generations many of us will still be listening to new, forward-thinking electronic music as we sip another generation’s interpretations of what great sake can be.
I’m living proof that this works, twenty-five years later, and what do I prefer to drink at home, at a fine dining restaurant, or even on the beach after a dip in the Mediterranean? Sake. Here’s to our younger generation and to the bright future of both of our industries. KAMPAI!
Epilogue: While Richie’s sake bar in Berlin never did get going, he was asked to do a project on the island of Ibiza, Spain, where he converted a bar in one of the clubs into a sake bar. He then launched ENTER.Sake, which is a boutique sake collection that he curates. For the past four years, through his ENTER.club events across the world, Richie has tirelessly promoted sake as a core part of the ENTER. experience. Every summer he hosts ENTER. in Ibiza, complete with one of Europe’s largest sake bars stocked with special sake not available anywhere else outside of Japan. Now ENTER.Sake is beginning a new phase to bring its sake collection to clubs, restaurants, bars and wine stores across the USA and Europe.
by Richie Hawtin | photography by Jordi Cervera