Chiaki Takahashi: sparking a sake revival and forging connections.
Laura La Monaca
Chiaki Takahashi grew up in the quiet alcoves of a temple in Tokyo, where her father, a Buddhist priest, attended to those who gathered there. On some occasions, Takahashi’s father would shoo her away, but still she would peer out of the back room with curious eyes. Watching her father provide comfort and guidance to the distressed stirred something within.
Now in her 50s, Takahashi still thinks of those childhood moments that shaped her. She realizes she is like her father—instilled with an innate desire to help others find paths to well-being.
Initially, Takahashi fulfilled this desire as a medical researcher for stress-induced disease. It was undoubtedly important work, but over time, Takahashi began to feel increasingly less invested in it. After a particularly long, arduous day, a moment of clarity arrived. While enjoying a nightcap, Takahashi realized she could parlay her expertise in science—honed from years of experiments, data crunching, and clinical trials—into an entirely new discipline: sake brewing.
Today, Takahashi runs Islander Sake, Hawai‘i’s only sake brewery, which officially opened in the spring of 2020—more than 30 years since O‘ahu’s last sake brewing company, Honolulu Sake Brewery, closed its doors after nearly 80 years in business. Recognizing Hawai‘i’s long sake tradition and the deep cultural ties Hawai‘i and Japan share, Takahashi is committed to reestablishing sake as a favorite local drink.
Sake brewing is relatively simple, she explains through an interpreter. Its formulation requires only a handful of ingredients: rice, koji, yeast, and water. And while many consider sake’s fermentation process akin to laboratory work with its strict emphasis on temperatures, measurements, and monitoring, Takahashi and her business partner, Tama Hirose, are quick to bring up more abstract factors like the local culture.
Sake making involves living organisms—koji and yeast—and like all living things, they are susceptible to influence from their environment. “People here in Hawai‘i are relaxed,” Hirose says. “So maybe microorganisms are relaxed.” Takahashi nods in agreement. She fell in love with Hawai‘i when she first visited in her early 20s, drawn to the beauty, people, and easy pace of life in the islands.
Whether due to Takahashi’s scientific precision or the aloha spirit that invariably works its way into each bottle, Islander Sake’s growing fanbase is testimony that something is working. The company’s portfolio of junmai ginjo, junmai daiginjo, and island-inspired sakes flavored with tropical fruits, such as pineapple and lilikoi, have proven to be crowd pleasers. But behind Takahashi’s desire to spark a sake revival in Hawai‘i and beyond is another, more personal intention—to bring people together.
Despite recently moving its brewery operations from Kaka‘ako to Hawai‘i Island to meet the company’s growing production needs, Hirose and Takahashi have no plans to abandon their community on O‘ahu. In the brewery’s stead, the partners debuted Hanale, an omakase-style restaurant, in February 2022. “Hanale means ‘annex’ in Japanese,” Hirose explains, referencing an informal gathering area for guests outside one’s home. “Like a small space to relax with friends.”
At a recent dinner seating, the air is convivial as Hirose warmly welcomes guests entering Hanale from the streets of Honolulu’s Chinatown. Behind the L-shaped counter, chef Hirokazu Ogame is deeply immersed in preparations for the night’s service. A visual symphony of courses soon follows, each dish an overture to the next. The food is exquisite in its simplicity: sheer slices of saba nestled upon paper-thin ribbons of cucumber, bloom-shaped portions of hamo on shiso leaf, intricately carved ika, richly marbled otoru. All are a nod to Japanese minimalism, Takahashi explains, allowing flavors to shine in their most pared-back form. Paired with the sake, each dish soars anew.
The evening progresses. Peeking through a noren curtain, Takahashi observes her guests. Some are laughing and clinking their glasses together, extending their conversations to the tables around them. Others sit in silent contentment, bellies full. Thousands of miles away from her homeland, and worlds away from her previous work in medical research, Takahashi smiles at the group gathered before her. Here, medicine is no match for the healing powers of happiness.