Beginning in September, I began the Sake Service Institute’s International Kikisake-shi correspondence course. I finished the course, passed, and am now a certified International Kikisake-shi! So let’s talk about that process and what it actually means.
The course is set up to require at least three months, despite the fact that all the materials including the tests are provided at the beginning of the course. There is a textbook, which was newly revised, and a CD-Rom with the tests and answer sheets.
The textbook covers a wide range of topics considered important for someone looking to become a Kikisake-shi, from the history and development of sake to current production methods, rices, and serving. It also covers the business of selling sake, as the core target for this certification is people working in the service industry selling sake directly to consumers. Thus there are sections about serving, glassware, pairing and vocabulary for describing sake flavors.
There are three tests, and it doesn’t matter when you send them in: they will only mark one test a month, so this course is at minimum three months long. You can also take more time, up to one year they say. After you successfully complete the three tests they’ll send your certificate and lapel pin a month after the final test.
In addition, they mark the test the month AFTER you start, and if you send it in after the 20th of the month it goes into the next month’s batch. Thus I started at the end of June, but due to the timing my first test was marked at the end of August. Then September, and October, and I finally got my certificate in November.
Overall, I found the textbook incredibly interesting if somewhat haphazardly written (there are lots of odd English expressions, typos and other indications that the English version was produced by Japanese speakers with a low budget for checking). It covered a lot of what I wanted to know as a translator (i.e. vocabulary and terms of the industry) as well as helping me contextualize a lot of things about the different ways sake is made.
Things that I learned from this course include the actual processes behind yamaoroshi and yamahai kimoto; appropriate tasting techniques including order, temperature changes, and vocabulary to explain perceptions; some advanced label reading vocabulary; and some guidance in pairing.
So I learned a lot, and I’m glad I did it. However, I do not feel like an “expert” as the title might imply. This course was, frankly, easy. Not in terms of remembering and using the knowledge contained within, but overall the tests were simple fact questions…and the textbook is right there. It was rote knowledge, and open book at that.
There is one section covering tasting, which required tasting notes on two sakes including flavor profiles, serving suggestions and pairing. This section worried me initially because I’m not at all confident in my ability to identify aroma and flavor notes, but when I actually did it I realized there is no way to score such a test. It’s purely subjective. It’s not like those blind tests where you have to identify wine terroir or sake type by nose and tongue alone. It’s just…write what you think about the sake.
So now that I’ve finished it, here’s my verdict: as a professional certification, it’s a nice way to show that you are vested in the topic enough to take the time and money to study. It is not evidence of expertise or mastery, but that you’re actually interested in putting in the work. As such, it should look good on resumes and business cards, but I imagine those in the know will still look for real-world skill and experience when considering things like work.
For those considering taking the test, I highly recommend at least a little Japanese reading study because many of the terms used are not translated so much as explained in English. Being able to say the Japanese terms properly and maybe read some kana and kanji should help your retention, as well as your image as a Kikisake-shi if you go into the work.