What makes a person who is engaged in the Japanese sake industry in Hong Kong, goes back and forth to Hong Kong, Fukuoka, Tokyo, and Sendai for just an exam? The exam is called Sake Diploma, which is held by the Japan Sommelier Association and I would classify its difficulty as ‘torturous’.
Paper 1 is a computer-based 100 multiple-choice questions, which can be dealt with easily, and without doubt I passed. Paper 2 is a tasting exam, attending class is a must even if you are a seasoned sake drinker for many years. Because there is a need to familiarise yourself with the unique exam tasting framework, in any case, you do need a teacher to guide you about how to score points. Since this exam has only been launched in Japan for a few years, there is no corresponding course in Hong Kong (though an international version exists, I prefer the Japanese version better). Even with great reluctance, I still had to make trips to Tokyo for classes. In order to gather more information, I attended 12 90-minute sessions of intensive tasting in 2 schools, led by 4 different teachers.
In Hong Kong, I have an experience that a class starts at 11:00 am, only two students were present until 11:20 am, the other five or six people were nowhere to find. Back in Japan, the nearly 30 participants arrived 10 minutes before class, and seldom had latecomers. Of course, teachers started and ended classes on time. The Japanese are really a very rule-abiding nation.
Since those were intensive classes, teachers spent little time on theory explanation whereas focused more on tasting. 1.8L size bottles were offered as the class size was quite big. Although the quality of sakes was fine, they were slightly lacking in freshness, which made the evaluation more difficult. I had a hard time during the tasting. Luckily I had met one of the teachers before, she knew that I flew to Tokyo from Hong Kong to take the class. She was willing to stay behind and answer my questions even she was in a rush for the next class. She even gave me extra sake for practice and discussion. The teaching method of this teacher was very impressive. She disassembled the questions and taught us how to get the scores, many difficult tasting evaluations were explained at a glance. I had not had such a sense of enlightenment for so long. I have adopted what I learned from her and directly pass to the students who participated in my class, so people who recently attended my classes are quite blessed!
Because of work arrangement, I chose Sendai as my Paper 2 exam destination. It took me a longer time and more money to get there, but this quiet and prosperous city allowed me to concentrate more and I was able to buy lots of shochu to practice. I was very nervous on that day. Maybe I have worn my lucky color, so in the end, I passed it smoothly! Even luckier is that, I took the exam in 2019, otherwise, even if I have the money and time in 2020, I probably could not perform these shuttles for classes and exams!
If I were not a sake teacher, it may not be necessary to live up to such a torturous exam life. Because the new always overthrow the old, if you stand still and others will catch up. You can’t stop learning, and painful exams are inevitable.
Based in Hong Kong / Official trainer of Dassai / Experienced sake educator (WSET, SSI) / JSA Sake Diploma / International sake judge