Welcome to the fourth installment of the 8am Coffee With series. This month I had the chance to catch up with my good friend Cindy Bissig. A genuine digital nomad, a person who makes her living traveling around Japan deep diving and documenting everything she loves: travel, sake and photography while making heaps of new friends and connections along the way. 

I was introduced to Cindy through our mutual pal Josh Barry from ticket and event maestros Zaiko, and we hit it off immediately. Cindy has never been one to take things easy. Always, and I mean always, on the move, I never know where she is from one week to the next. When I organized a morning Zoom chat, I had no idea which part of Japan she would be connecting from. I wasn’t surprised, however, that she was speaking from Sapporo where she was reporting on the city’s renowned snow festival. 

Cindy, a native of Switzerland and her adopted homeland of Ireland where she spent 15 happy years, came to Japan about five years ago and established her own website and company, Obsessed with Japan, in addition to consulting for local and regional authorities. She can now be found promoting sake tourism and sake breweries, hosting and producing sake podcasts, including Sake Unplugged and Sake on Air, and sharing her love of all things sake on her new website, Sake Nomad, which amalgamates her passion for sake, travel and photography. Cindy is also a very proud sake ambassador for Doburoku.

Hi Cindy, how’s it going?

I’m in Sapporo right now and working a lot. It’s lovely and really snowy. The snow festival is here minus the food, which is a bit sad. I think the organizers decided it would be safer if they didn’t have the food stalls. But at the same time, a festival without food stalls is basically just an exhibition of snow sculptures. I feel a little sad for the people who came this year. 

How did you get involved in traveling here, conducting tours and sake?

I guess my business was always based on different pillars. There was always an online site and a real-life business side to it where I would do sake events, or bring people to festivals like the snow festival, as there is very little English used up here, or anywhere really. I wanted to connect people to Japanese culture and for them to be a little more adventurous and curious when they arrive here through food and beverage and introducing them to local things that you wouldn’t find in the big guidebooks. I always thought that when you eat and drink you connect, and I wanted to create experiences for people coming to Japan. 

Although you’re relatively new to Japanese sake, you’re already a qualified sommelier and have taken and passed some pretty impressive examinations. How did that come about? 

I really knew that I always wanted to incorporate Japanese sake into what I was doing with tours, writing and photography. It’s such an integral part of Japanese culture. But I didn’t know anything about it. So, I decided I had to learn about sake. I basically signed up for everything. I did a tasting course at Temple University, I did the international sake kikishi sake sommelier course — and did a coveted Sake Professional Course with John Gauntner, one of the most acclaimed people in the sake industry. I tried to learn everything. I felt like I had to prove myself. Although you can’t stop after getting the qualifications as things are constantly changing. I’ve been lucky as I’ve been able to work with people that are really well connected and really passionate about sake, including the team behind Sake On Air and the breweries I work with. I went from using the beverage as a vessel to introduce people to Japanese culture to wanting to introduce the people who make it, their communities, and tell their stories. A big part of that shift was thanks to Simone Maynard who recently became a ‘sake samurai’ and her project ‘Taste with The Toji.’

Tell me about your project Beyond Sake, which is part of your Sake Nomad site and project? This is where sake, tours and photography combine, isn’t it?

Beyond Sake is still in its baby shoes to be honest, but I’d like to combine everything I am passionate about in this. Writing, photography, storytelling, meeting people that make sake and putting that into a concept that hopefully in the future will have a print version like a photo book or something. I have already started to do a few events. These have happened both privately and have been open to the public, where I combine photography, sake and the stories behind it. I share them on my Instagram and homepage when they happen.

I’d known you for years before I found out about you being a really accomplished photographer. Where did you keep that hidden?

Well, to be honest, I didn’t know about it either. I only really started this about a year and half ago. 

What? That’s amazing. 

So, I used to be an artist. I used to paint and illustrate. Photography, for me, was a bit like — everyone can be a photographer on their smartphone. And so, I always kind of disregarded it. I had a camera that I bought for my business and one day I wanted to take a photo with it and got really frustrated. A friend suggested I try a different lens. So, I invested in a really fancy lens, and I suddenly could take all the photos I wanted. Shortly after, I did my first photo shoot for a potter and never looked back.

What really impresses me is that you even had your own exhibition as part of the amazing Kyotographie festival last year. 

Yes, that was amazing. When I went to Kyotographie the previous year, I really started to understand that, in fact, I have always been a photographer. So, to get chosen as one of the KG+ artists with my own show last year really cemented that. And I actually have another show, “Blurred Reality / Disoriented” as part of this year’s Kyotographie festival from April 15 to April 23 at Mandaracha in Kyoto again with an opening reception on April 15, so please come along.