I recently read somewhere that if you want to figure out what your path should be or what you really want to do with your life, you should pay attention to who and what you envy. For years, I have read my college alumni magazine and always thought Yukari Sakamoto had the most fun sounding jobs among not only our graduating class of 1989, but anyone who was writing in to the magazine with their life updates. Sommelier. Working and living abroad in Japan. Graduating from the French Culinary Institute. Doing food writing. Publishing a book/guide to food and sake in Tokyo. Every time I saw one of Yukari’s alumni updates, I couldn’t help but think what she was doing sounded so much more fun than whatever I was doing. But they were reminders of things I loved—writing, food—and where I should be going.
Although we went to a relatively small school and had some mutual friends there, I didn’t really know Yukari (who used her American name, Karla, at that time) when we were at school. But I’ve been happy to connect with her recently over our mutual love of food and writing, and I’m excited to share her story—one that I definitely have been interested in hearing about for quite some time—here.
Like most of us that were kids in the 1970s, Yukari Sakamoto didn’t have much exposure to world-class cuisine growing up in a small Minnesota town north of Minneapolis. Although coming from a half-Japanese family exposed her to some foods that gave her a leg up on most Midwesterners (heck, most Americans!) at that time, it wasn’t until Yukari got her first job after college that she got a taste of what great food and wine could really be.
Following college, Yukari went to work with Carlson Marketing Group, formerly a division of the Carlson, a hospitality company based in Minneapolis and owners of hotel brands such as Radisson and Country Inn & Suites. Although she had been a music major with a concentration in piano at school, her Japanese heritage again gave her a leg up when the company was looking for Japanese speakers who could work with clients such as Honda and Toyota. For 10 years, Yukari traveled the world doing incentive trips and business meetings for corporate clients, staying in world-class hotels and taking clients out for high-end cuisine. It was on these trips—and while living in Japan—that she was first exposed to French food and wine and her interest in food began to develop.
“It was a world where—growing up in Minnesota and going to school in Iowa—I’d never experienced,” she said.
Although Yukari’s serious interest in food didn’t emerge until she was exposed to fine dining during her work at Carlson, she says she did have an interest in cooking from the time she was about eight or nine years old. According to Yukari, as a child, she and her brother were “latchkey” kids. Her father had passed away when she was in the early years of elementary school. With her mother working to support the family, she and her brother would cook for themselves or for the family at night.
“I remember even as a kid going through my mother’s Good Housekeeping magazines or whatever, looking for recipes and cooking from there. The interest was there—it wasn’t that high-end or French, but that interest in cooking [was there] because we were the ones that were eating it. Because we were cooking before our mom came home, we had some control, based on what was in the house, on what we would eat.”
Having a Japanese mother also helped Yukari appreciate that not everyone ate the same things all the time. Although she recalls kids at school in Minnesota commenting that the seaweed-wrapped rice balls she sometimes brought for lunch were “nasty” or “gross,” they were normal for her. And because this was before even sushi had become popular in this country, the family either had to get large care packages of ingredients from her mother’s family in Japan or had to drive twice yearly from Minneapolis to Chicago, where the closest Japanese supermarket was, to stock up.
After stints of living in Japan due to her job, eventually Yukari found herself living in New York, where her exposure to yet another topnotch food scene continued to inspire her. “Being exposed to the hospitality industry from the restaurant and hotelier side was something I found very exciting,” she said.
Having been bitten by the food and wine bug, she started dreaming about moving back to Japan to open a small, casual wine and food bar that served different food every night. So at the age of 35, Yukari enrolled in culinary school at New York’s French Culinary Institute (now known as the International Culinary Center). But after she began working in restaurants while she was in school and realized the amount of money, time and energy it would take to own her own restaurant, she decided having a restaurant was more than she wanted to take on. Although she knew she wanted to do something related to food, she wasn’t quite sure what that should be.
Then fate stepped in to help her decide.
During school Yukari had worked in the wine cellar at the famous Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. As it happened, her graduation from culinary school was scheduled for late September 2001—two weeks after September 11.
“That turned the whole world upside down,” she said.
Not only did Yukari lose friends in the attack, but as a former employee of the Twin Towers, she had been through evacuation trainings and was close enough to the situation to intimately understand what her co-workers had experienced that day. As is to be expected, the experience changed her perspective and priorities for what she wanted in life.
“It was a unique opportunity to step back and re-evaluate life and what’s important in the world,” she said. “And I thought, ‘it’s time for family, that’s all that matters. You know, who cares about material things?’”
Because most of Yukari’s family is based in Japan, she put Japan on her radar as the place she wanted to live and work. After finishing her certification as a sommelier, which she pursued simultaneous to her culinary degree, she moved to Japan in 2002 and began working at a Japanese winery so she could begin to build up her vocabulary of Japanese words related to wine. Working as a sommelier, she continued to immerse herself in Japanese cuisine on the side, getting increasingly acquainted with the food and customs surrounding it.
Then, while she was living and working in Tokyo, food-writing opportunities began coming to her. Local publications began approaching her, asking whether she could write about Japanese food for them. Her training in both food and wine, as well as her Japanese and English language skills, helped her tremendously in this regard, she said.
“I thought, ‘oh, yeah, that’s perfect I’d love to write about Japanese cuisine,’” she said.
Because she was writing for local publications in Tokyo, Food and Wine magazine noticed and approached Yukari to see if she’d be interested in being a stringer for them in Tokyo. After gaining that exposure, she began getting more and more global writing assignments. Then chefs and food writers who had seen her articles began contacting her to ask if she would be willing to show them around the Tokyo food markets while they were visiting and translate for them. Although she continued to work full-time as a sommelier, the food tours began taking up more and more of her time on her days off, eventually leading to the start of a business providing food tours in Tokyo.
“I literally started out just as a volunteer, taking chefs and food writers around Tokyo. Then I realized that there were tourists who were also interested in visiting the markets. So I started actually charging money. At first it felt weird because I’d only been doing it as a volunteer at first. Then to get money at something that I really like and enjoy was a lot of fun,” she said.
Between giving food tours and working in the wine department of a depachika—large food markets that sell pretty much everything imaginable that are housed in the basements of Japanese department stores (much like the food markets at Harrod’s in London, Yukari said, but at a much higher level)—Yukari found herself becoming an ambassador for Japanese cuisine. Because she was frequently asked by tourists to explain to them what different things were at the depachika, she began thinking she could write a book about Japanese cuisine and the food culture in Japan.
“That was the inspiration for writing my book,” she said.
Yukari spent approximately a year writing Food Sake Tokyo, a guide to Japanese food in and around Tokyo. The first half of the book, she says, is a look at Japanese cuisine, preparation, seasonal ingredients and culture, with tips on how to eat Japanese food. The second half is a guide to different food shops and restaurants throughout the city. After putting together her book proposal, she found a literary agent to shop the idea around to publishers and they were able to find a publisher that was already publishing similar guides, the Terroir Guides, to other cities throughout the globe. Yukari’s book was the first Asian city guide in the Terroir series. Although she said she did get an offer from another publisher to make the book more of a coffee table book, she was glad to have the book become part of the series because she’d envisioned it to be the kind of guidebook that people could put in their backpack or purse and carry around Tokyo while they were visiting.
Yukari currently runs the food tour business, which is also named “Food Sake Tokyo,” with her husband, Shinji, an expert in Japanese seafood. Tours typically include trips to Japanese food markets. They go to Tsukiji seafood market, the world’s largest seafood market and to the depachika, Yukari said. For clients that have already visited the markets, Yukari and Shinji may take them to different food shops or to visit historical areas of Tokyo that have old markets or shops that have been around for generations.
“It’s great that so many people are interested in Japanese cuisine. They’re familiar with it, but they don’t speak the language, they don’t know all of the ingredients. And [on the tours] they’re close to a bunch of seafoods that never get exported. They see ingredients that they’re familiar with, but at a deeper level. And also there’s the ability to sit down with customers and eat a meal together, talk about how things are prepared, how they’re seasoned, why they’re plated a certain way. It’s nice to be able to be that bridge—that ambassador for Japanese cuisine,” she said.
Tourists can also opt to try an izikaya, or casual sake pubs that serve local fare, at night as part of the tours. Because many izikaya do not have English menus and their staffs usually do not speak English, having a guide that can take them through the menu is key. Flights of sake are also usually offered, allowing visitors to try different styles of the wine.
“It’s fun and it’s great watching people make that connection with sake,” Yukari said. She also observed it’s also fun to watch people who like to think they’re adventurous eaters find out they’re much more conservative in their tastes than they think they are once they’re presented with internal organs or offal—especially when that’s all that’s on the menu, she said.
“It’s fun observing all that. Even for me, as a Minnesotan, when I first came here, I couldn’t eat raw seafood. Even growing up eating Japanese food in Minnesota, we never had any sushi quality seafood. For me, it took a while to get used to. There are some things still that I just can’t put into my mouth,” she said.
Tours are typically available four to five days a week from Monday through Friday. All tours are private and limited to two people so that they’re not being intrusive as they go through the markets. Thus far, Yukari and Shinji have not done any marketing or advertising for their tours. All of their clients, whom Yukari describes as “people who are passionate about food” are either people who own her book or who come to them through word of mouth, following her blog, through Twitter or recommendations on Chow.
“They travel around the world and visit the best restaurants and it’s fun for us to recommend things to them in Tokyo. It’s fun helping another foodie,” she said.
The tours have also afforded the couple the opportunity to meet renowned chefs and food writers along the way. Yukari says they have hosted Chicago Mexican cuisine expert and chef Rick Bayless a few times. “He’s very nice and down to earth, so curious,” she said. Top Chef contestant and New York restaurant owner Dale Talde, who uses a lot of Japanese techniques in his cooking, has also been a tour guest. “It’s very cool to get to spend time with chefs like that,” Yukari said.
Although many Americans have had more exposure to Japanese cuisine nowadays than when Yukari was growing up, there are many things that Americans may not understand about Japanese food. According to Yukari, the Japanese diet is quite healthy and very rich in vegetables. She says whenever she comes home to the U.S. she has a tendency to put on weight, in part because she eats a lot of American comfort foods like burgers and pizza. In contrast, most Japanese meals are very rich in vegetables, she says—even breakfast, which can include things like salad and miso soup with tofu, spinach with sesame oil and soy sauce. In addition, portions tend to be much smaller. There’s also an emphasis on fermented foods. She said fermented products such as soy sauce, miso, vinegar, even sake, tend to be key ingredients in many Japanese staple dishes.
Seasonality is also very important in Japanese cuisine, not only when it comes to seasonal vegetables, but also seasonal fish. Even in most U.S. sushi restaurants, the same varieties of fish are usually served year round, Yukari says. Not so in Japan. Some fish are farmed all year long, but there are many seasonal fish that are only available for a few months each year. Some sakes, she said, are also seasonal. In fact, many sakes are actually unpasteurized and meant to be consumed fairly quickly, unlike wine, which can be aged.
Of course, Japanese cuisine is also rich in umami, often called the fifth taste, which is a rich, savory flavor (as opposed to salty, bitter, sweet, or sour). Many umami-rich foods begin with a base of dashi, Yukari says, which is made by combining kombu seaweed with bonito fish flakes that have been steeped together. Because it’s so flavorful and satisfying to the palate, a little bit of umami can go a long way, Yukari says—plus it has no calories so it’s also very healthy, she said.
Although Yukari and Shinji have been offering their food tours full-time in Tokyo for the past two years, they also get a lot of requests from clients not just to tour markets but do cooking class together so they can learn how to use the ingredients they see in the markets. As such, Shinji, recently went back to cooking school so that the couple can add cooking classes to their tour offerings. While he’s been in school, Yukari has been providing tours on her own.
“The hope is to open up a cooking school somewhere in Tokyo next year,” she said.
The couple plan to offer classes that cover anything from filleting fish to learning how to assemble a bento box or creating food and sake pairings. That way clients can also have the experience of cooking their own Japanese food at home rather than just in restaurants.
Working for themselves has also provided the Sakamotos the opportunity to have the time they want and need for their family, including their young son. By creating their own work and schedules, Yukari has been able to achieve that time with family she was looking for.
“It’s been great to be our own bosses and to follow our passion and do what you love. It’s nice not to have to work for somebody else any more and do something that we love. And everyday we meet new people and make new friends. I love what we do. I’m so happy we’re doing this. And it allows us family time with our son.”
What drew you to food?
I think it was the travel job with Carlson Marketing Group. That was the tipping point to make it a career.
Why food tours and a cooking school?
Because we can be ambassadors for Japanese cuisine to help people connect with food. But also because it’s nice to be your own boss and work on your own.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
The markets—whatever they have that day. And it’s funny, sometimes you’ll go to the market thinking you’ll make something else but you get to the market and you find something that’s finally in season and you’ll take it home. So finding what’s at the markets.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten in building the business and would you have any advice for others?
That’s a good question. The best advice came from Elizabeth Andoh, she’s the author of several cookbooks, and she’s been a mentor to me for several years and she helped me get my first wine job in Japan. But she said ‘under promise and over deliver.’ She said, ‘under promise but be ready to give more than you promised.’ Sometimes we’ll go on tour with a client and we’ll think, maybe we can do this or maybe we can do that, but instead of offering that up right away, it’s better to have a few things in your back pocket and offer a few things that they weren’t expecting. That makes it a special event on a tour—like being able to sample sake together. Under promise and over deliver. A lot of Americans over promise, ‘we’ll get you this or we’ll get you that.’ It’s better to offer up the basics and if the opportunity presents itself, to offer up more than they were expecting.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Logistics. You know, Tokyo’s a very hard city to get around in. Meeting up with people. Sometimes we’ll meet up with them at their hotel. People will get lost on the trains when we’re trying to meet at the market or something. It’s just a matter of being flexible and [being able to] laugh and put them at ease, being able to tell them not to worry. But that’s also part of the fun of Japan—that it’s easy to get lost and the fact that if you do get lost, a Japanese person will help you find where you’re trying to go. It’s been great to work with clients who say they love the Japanese people, they love the culture, the hospitality is so nice here.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
Meeting new people everyday and helping them make that connection to Japanese food.
The department stores, the basements of the department stores. One, because I used to work at one, so for me, every time I get to go to the depachika, no matter which one it is, I always feel like I’m at home there. The other reason why it’s so great is you have most different types of Japanese food found at the depachika, so for the customer it’s so amazing for them to see gyoza and yakitori, tempura, sushi, wagashi, which is the Japanese sweets. It’s all under one roof in a small area—Japanese pickles—and it’s so much fun to watch their eyes light up like ‘Oh my god, look at all this food’ and there’s bento boxes and ramen and then on the other side there’s a counter that’s selling rice that you can have milled to your specification there. The depachikas. Nobody ever leaves there underwhelmed. They’re always blown away going into those. And for me, living in Japan, it’s a reminder of how spoiled we are that we can buy French baguettes or croissants, we can buy marbled wagyu beef … Every time I go in I pinch myself and think I’m very blessed to be living in a country that has so much. And they all say, ‘why don’t we have this in America?’ I don’t know. There should be.
Are there local food artisans in Tokyo that you admire?
Lots of them. There’s one guy who has a rice stand—I think he’s got 50 different types of rice there and you go and they mill it for you right there. And when you bring it home and eat it, it’s so amazing. There’s pickle shops—people that will make pickled vegetables, but also sometimes fruits are sometimes pickled. There’s a knife vendor, where they make their own knives there. And the tofu shops—those are great. They make their own fresh tofu everyday and some are deep-fried and some are soft tofu, some are firm tofu, so depending on how you want to eat it, you pick a different type of tofu.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
Oh, probably a hamburger and French fries. Oh, you know what it would be? Probably American bacon, because it’s hard to find here. You can get a burger and fries here, I can even get New York style pizza, but it’s hard to get bacon. So when I visit the States, it’s something that I eat for breakfast every day. Crispy bacon.
Favorite Tokyo food/resto/chef?
Yes, it’s called Den. It’s a small restaurant, you sit at the counter and the chef creates each course and he reaches over the counter and he places it in front of you. It’s all seasonal. It’s a long meal—it’s usually over two hours, and they pair each course with a different kind of sake. The chef is very nice, he’ll answer all our questions about how each thing was prepared. He’s very passionate about what he does, and it’s one of those restaurants that all the top chefs that come to Tokyo come to visit. So you have Rene Redzepi of Noma, was just in Tokyo and that’s where he goes to eat, so it’s fun to know that what I like is also what a lot of other people like. It’s all seasonal ingredients, the menu’s constantly changing, so it’s fun to go back to. And the sake’s good. Also, the dishware that he uses is beautiful. He had this beautiful ceramic sake cup that I just fell in love with and I ended up tracking down these cups and buying a set for myself and I’ve never done that before. In Japan you’re constantly eating on beautiful dishes and you admire them and say ‘this is beautiful, this is beautiful,’ but that was the first time I’d held a cup in my hand and said ‘oh my god, I need to have this at home so I can have that same experience every day.’ So it’s fun to eat at a chef’s restaurant where he also has that same passion for tableware and he’s got a collection that he’s constantly changing it. Just when you think it couldn’t get any better, he presents another dish. That type of eating is called ‘kappo,’ and that’s where you’re at the counter and the chef is preparing dishes and you can converse with him and have that rapport with the chef but also watch as the dish is being assembled. That’s a very Japanese experience—so that’s were we go to celebrate birthdays or special occasions. It’s not a place we go that often, it’s a big commitment of time, and it’s also a lot of food.
Food Sake Tokyo
To read more about some of the places mentioned in this article, click on the following links:
Den – Yukari’s favorite restaurant in Tokyo:
The ceramics Yukari bought after eating at Den:
The pickle shop Yukari loves at Tsukiji Market:
Photos courtesy of Yukari Sakamoto, Food Sake Tokyo.