Justin Potts - Changing the Face of Japan Through Sake

The best way to learn about a country is by getting to know the locals. With our interview series “People of Japan,” we’ll bring you even closer to Japan by introducing business owners, cultural ambassadors, and all-round amazing people bonded by strong passions. In this edition, we spoke with Justin Potts, one of the world's leading sake experts. Justin has dedicated himself to demystifying sake and promoting local food and agricultural-based tourism through avenues like "Sake on Air," the world's first sake-based podcast, and more.

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Finding a Calling

We met up with Justin Potts at Ponshukan, a swanky souvenir shop in Niigata Station famed for its enormous assortment of local sake. A resident of Chiba, Justin makes regular trips throughout Japan seeking hubs of brewing, fermentation, and food to help forge connections between the rural and urban. It came as no surprise to hear that Niigata is one of his most frequented spots, as it has the highest number of sake breweries in Japan.

Justin’s journey to Japan began like many others. Kicking off with a university exchange program, he enjoyed a stint in teaching and several other careers, searching for a future that sparked his interest.

Over time, Justin began noticing that the modern metropolises that he had made his home offered little connection to the backbones of the cuisine he enjoyed - the ingredients, and the producers and communities behind them.

As he explored each new neighborhood through local gastronomy, Justin longed for a deeper relationship with his food and drink, but didn't know how to find or create it.

A relative of his wife not only provided the answer to Justin’s yearning, but also opened his eyes to a whole new career path. Heavily involved in promoting regional Japanese cuisine, produce, and more, this distant member of his new family was the gateway to the world that had long tantalized Justin, and he dived in without hesitation.

Leaving behind his current work in localization, he moved from Osaka to Tokyo to start a job at Umari, a project design team specializing in developing rural brands and products.

Through his new work, Justin began making excursions to farms and producers across the country, often going the extra mile to spend the night to cultivate a deeper relationship with them. It was here that Justin made his next big leap - the discovery of “koji” mold.

Justin realized that much of the Japanese food and drink he had enjoyed, both in the countryside and city alike, were created and flavored through ingredients like miso, soy sauce, and sake, which are born through fermentation using koji mold.

While he’d had plenty of encounters with these foods before, he rarely gave them more than the moment’s attention. However, through his forays into rural Japan, Justin saw how the communities he visited often had profound, historical connections to the ingredients which they produced, forming a fundamental element of their identity and culture.

This discovery was the spark that encouraged Justin to dive deeper into the world of Japanese fermented foods.

Creating a Home in the World of Sake

Despite having many opportunities to encounter the rural side of Japan through his job, Justin still felt like an outsider. Briefly popping into farming and brewing communities before returning to Tokyo kept him somewhat distant from the culture he was rapidly becoming infatuated with.

Longing to completely immerse himself in that world, he again switched careers to work at Kidoizumi Sake Brewery on the Boso Peninsula in Chiba, where he got to dedicate himself to learning the art of sake brewing from scratch.

With a history tracing back to 1879, Kidoizumi has long been a pillar of its local community, and was exactly the kind of cultural bastion Justin was pursuing. Kidoizumi uses one-of-a-kind brewing methods developed by the family owners, yielding offbeat sake made from organic, naturally farmed rice. They are extraordinarily particular about their ingredients, going so far as to purchase rice on the black market back when production was under firm government control.

For four months a year, Justin worked seven days a week, starting at 5:30 AM and finishing at 5:30 PM, often having to return later to check if everything was running smoothly. Though grueling, this schedule allowed Justin to fully dedicate himself to the craft. With minimal outside distractions, his senses harmonized with the tastes, smells, and atmosphere around him, forging moments of utter bliss as he gradually developed a better understanding of exactly what it was he was investing himself in, and why.

With ample hands-on experience, Justin decided a grasp on standard, more official sake practices was the necessary next step in his career, so he studied to become a “sakasho” (Master of Sake), a certification offered by Japan's Sake Service Institute. There were only 300 sakasho as of Justin’s certification in 2017, and he was the second non-Japanese person at the time.

This, along with his prior certification as a “kikizakeshi” (Japan Certified Sake Sommelier), opened the floodgates to his career, and industry players from all over Japan began contacting Justin hoping to hire his talents to help with their projects. The days of Justin going out of his way to track down opportunities firmly ended.

Expanding Beyond Brewing

After establishing himself as a brewer, Justin’s next step was to broaden his impact on the industry. He founded the business Potts.K Productions with his wife, a passionate chef and licensed tour guide, to help kickstart projects devoted to brewing, fermentation, and food in Japan. This included Koji Akademia, a project started together with his mentor, Nakaji. Prior to the pandemic, they offered workshops and seminars encouraging households and professional kitchens to integrate koji-making into their lifestyle and business.

Justin believes communication is key to closing the gap between urban consumers and rural producers. Many farmers and such lack the know-how to appeal to their city-dwelling audiences, and their value is lost amongst the noise of the modern world. It’s the role of Potts.K Productions to pin down exactly what makes them special, and work with locals to help them form a discernible, alluring brand.

One such project is UDON HOUSE, a lodge in Kagawa—Japan's udon heartland—that blends accommodation with culinary education. Rather than heavily curated, touristy experiences, visitors are thrown right into the center of Kagawa’s udon culture, and a special bond is inevitably formed. Boasting a well-designed website, and housed in a stylish, renovated Japanese “kominka” homestead, ventures like UDON HOUSE delicately balance jazzing up local cultures while taking care not to alter their underlying characteristics.

Sharing His Passion With the World

Though Justin was racing all over Japan with fingers in many pies, his heart and soul remained in sake. Naturally, he was eager to find a way to make the elusive culture of sake more accessible to general audiences, especially those living abroad or who don't speak or read Japanese.

Being an avid podcasting fan, he was dismayed by the complete lack of sake-based podcasts at the time, and took it upon himself to rectify the situation. However, podcasting had yet to become mainstream in Japan, and there was a lot of number crunching and presentations before his project was given any attention. With a solid idea and his own clout in the industry, Justin eventually received support from the Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association (JSS), and was able to assemble a team of English-speaking sake experts to help him host the podcast.

Through podcasting, Justin and the team aimed to “expand the dialogue around sake and shochu” through down-to-earth, human stories rather than technical explanations. The first episode of “Sake On Air” was released in October 2018, and it celebrated its 80th episode milestone in March 2022. Each segment, all of which are free, focuses on a new element of the industry and culture, from deep dives into sake regions to interviews with industry players and more.

Justin's Hopes for the Future of Sake

Justin believes sake is perfect the way it is. Rather than imposing change, he seeks to showcase its charm by telling the stories surrounding it. Justin doesn’t want to turn rural breweries and farms into global tourist attractions, but instead hopes to capture what makes them special and present that to those interested.

Despite this, Justin says the sake industry has evolved dramatically since he entered, and he predicts plenty more change on the horizon. Many breweries have grown more willing to throw out the rulebook, experimenting with new, unconventional brews, while also looking to older traditions for inspiration.

Browsing Ponshukan, Justin pointed out several new brews worth keeping an eye on, including the stylish GO-POCKET series from Tsunan Sake Brewery, where Justin was drinking with the brewery president the previous night. These handy sake pouches are designed to be easily brought outdoors, tying in with the growing popularity of outdoor camping in Japan. For Justin, breweries like Tsunan Sake Brewery that can tactfully balance honoring their roots while staying aware of the latest trends are what will help prevent sake from growing stale and unfashionable.

Alongside innovations in brewing and drinking, Justin has also seen a lot more movement around the fringes of the sake industry, such as in education and promotion. There are now numerous projects, including his own, aiming to popularize exploring Japan through sake and other related products. This includes farming experiences, sake pairing courses with local food, cooking classes, meets-and-greets with brewers and farmers, and izakaya crawls.

Despite all this, from pure data alone, the domestic sake industry is a dwindling market. With the ever-increasing popularity of sake overseas, many in Japan are instead looking towards the international market as its savior. While this is undoubtedly positive news, Justin feels that Japan shouldn’t be relying solely on worldwide sales to prop up the sake industry.

“Expanding and growing the world of sake internationally is a wonderful thing – and the industry should continue to pursue it relentlessly – but I think that a world where the beverage’s future is contingent solely upon its ability to succeed internationally is a rather sad one. If Japan can re-learn to appreciate the ways in which sake is fundamental to preserving the most meaningful elements of [Japan’s] culture and the quality of the peoples’ livelihoods, then we’ll be on the path to the kind of future I can get excited about.”

As for his own projects, Justin hopes that Sake On Air will one day expand into different languages. Rather than simply translating current content, he dreams of having people across the globe create podcast content catering to their own audiences, allowing non-English speakers the same opportunities to uncover the world of sake. This, in turn, will attract more people to Japan, and highlight the true value of sake culture both domestically and abroad.

How to Make the Most of Sake While in Japan

Justin believes that a lot can be gained from an appreciation of sake. Aside from the delectable taste and good-old drunken fun, sake embodies a microcosm of all that is appealing about Japan. Within sake is a wealth of local cultures, traditions, and histories, connecting like-minded individuals through a shared palate. Its presence permeates virtually every facet of a community, from farmers and brewers to izakaya and bars.

Sake is further colored by the climate, soil, and water of the area it was born in, compressing the surrounding natural goodness into a single beverage. Paired with regional, home-grown cuisine, it serves as an intimate encounter with a locality, and is just as important as touring the sights and mingling with residents.

“Just get off the beaten path and you’ll have your own experience. There’s nothing more authentic than that,” Justin says. While respecting the diversity in metropolises like Tokyo, Justin is adamant that “the future of Japan is in the countryside” and that fans of Japanese food and drink will enjoy a much more profound encounter exploring outside city limits.

Making the Allures of Japan Easily Accessible

Following in the footsteps of Justin Potts through the treasure trove of sake, produce, and cuisine in rural Japan will undoubtedly lead to a deeper appreciation for Japanese culture. With tourism gradually recommencing, we’re excited to see what shape Justin’s work and the Japanese sake industry as a whole will take in the future! To keep up with the latest in sake and Justin’s own projects, check out Sake On Air and Potts.K Productions at the links below!

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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