At first it seemed so improbable I almost dismissed it out of hand. My friend Susan's friend Lara's husband is a Japanese lecturer at Middlebury College in Vermont and was on the hunt for someone to talk on the subject of sake. I live in Toronto, where the only direct flight to Vermont stops in early spring when ski season is over. Weren't there more qualified, and more to the point, closer-at-hand speakers on sake?
Yet somehow, thanks to the sheer persistence and strategic planning of Japanese Club president Michiko Yoshino (whose superpower is finding underappreciated sources of funding on campus) and sensei Masahiro Takahashi, the event actually materialized on a sunny April 13. I had not been back to MIddlebury since I was a student at the Middlebury Language Schools' summer intensive program in Japanese many years ago. I remember it for its excellent teaching, Olympic-level kanji cramming and the fugitive, surreptitious sense of wrongdoing that was apt to arise whenever my friends and I spoke in outlawed English.
At lunch at the Japanese language table, I sat with about 15 other students as servers took our orders in Japanese and brought food served family style. (Why wasn't food this good when I was in college? There was no quinoa, or curried chickpea soup back then!). In impressively fluent Japanese they spoke of their study abroad and research grant plans (which include studying the transmission of moral values through popular live "hero shows," and examining Japanese humor through the traditions of kobanshi informal comic storytelling and the more formalized rakugo) and discussed the logistics of how to fit professor Stephen Snyder's Japanese workshop in literary translation into their schedules.
Before my talk, I also chatted with professor Linda White and learned about her interesting research and forthcoming, feminist-oriented book on Japan's koseki , a labyrinthine, outdated system that reflects Japan's ancient customs and biases. (I admit, after these two afternoon experiences, to feeling an overpowering sense of college student envy.)
In my talk, I discussed the history and culture of sake in Japan, described how it is made, its different classifications, and told some stories gathered during the course of my reporting on sake. No one fell asleep (I think) and one student later told me that if she had heard my talk when she was a sophomore, she would have applied for a Middlebury grant to research her own Japanese brewing passion--craft beer!
The highlight of the evening was a four-course dinner at the Middlebury-owned restaurant 51 Main, organized by manager Karen LaFlamme. There, a sold out crowd (except for a few surprisingly good-natured underaged attendees) enjoyed four sake pairings from Vermont Wine Merchants. Thanks to a wonderful group of students and faculty members, my visit was an unforgettably fun experience. And, it was gratifying to see sake culture infiltrating this remote New England hamlet!