Meet Reiko Hirai!

Meet Reiko Hirai!

Reiko is passionate about sharing Japanese culture, and  in June of 2020, she opened D.C.’s first exclusively Japanese beverage company, D.C. Sake cō.   She’s created a platform for DC’s sake-loving community to come together and that’s exactly what the “co.” in “D.C. Sake cō.” stands for: collaboration, community, and connection.

Reiko has chosen the “Saga Sake Saga” Set to pair with Masako’s recipes.  Each of the three bottles in the set has a unique flavor profile including crisp, tropical, and umami.  These three bottles highlight the versatility in flavor, texture, and pairing ability of sake.

You can order the “Saga Sake Saga” Set on HERE and get free delivery in DC!

Kinfood: Where did you grow up?  What was your childhood like there?

Reiko: I was born and grew up in Kyoto, an ancient capital of Japan. Rich in history, filled with Traditional Japanese cultures, and surrounded by beautiful mountains.  Kyoto is home for some of the oldest temples and shrines in Japan. But of course as a kid, little did I know that I was actually living in one of the most historic cities in Japan.   At home, I lived with 12 family members (Grandparents, Parents, brother and sister, three older cousins, two distant relatives). You can imagine there was never a dull moment.  I was such a tomboy, my grandfather always tried to “teach me” manners as a Japanese woman…  which … was in vain…  lol

When I was seven, my family (just an immediate family moved to Kentucky for a year and a half for my dad’s work.  While facing the language barrier for the first time in my life, I was also exposed to the concept of “Different culture’ for the first time, too.  As a small child,  I was so surprised and envied to learn that kids in America never had to mop the classrooms after school!  Also, this was the first time that the Japanese ‘thing’, the Origami, brought me new friends.  Though short, this experience living in the US certainly planted something deep in my heart enough to eventually return to this country.

Kinfood: Where did your journey with food begin? What was your favorite meal growing up?

Reiko: It had to be home.  As I said earlier, I lived with 12 family members growing up.  And my mother cooked everyday for all of us.  Everyday, for 12 people…  When I think about it now, I have nothing but respect for her…  But my favorite meal growing up was “Nabe” on the weekend.  Kind of like a hotpot.   All 12 of us (sometimes more) will gather around the table, with two more three hotpots spread out in the middle.  We then sit around the table, share the foods in the hotpots and eat what it felt like all night.

As for sake, however, my family was never a big drinker.  My Dad sometimes took beer, but never remembered him enjoying sake.  So in a way, I was never exposed to Sake growing up, until I came to the US.  As for me, I think I am the biggest drinker in my family at this point.. Shhhh….  

Kinfood: What's one of your favorite memories surrounding food, sake, and community?

Reiko: I enjoyed playing basketball in Junior high, and played drums in the Rock Bands when in high school. 

Kinfood:  What brought you to the US?

Reiko:  I loved my family, I had lots of friends.  I wasn't too crazy about studying, but I thought I would be attending some university in Japan and perhaps finding a job doing something somewhere.  But as it got closer to mid high school, I started to develop this powerful urge to explore the world outside Kyoto.  Maybe because of my experience living in KY for a year and half.  Or is it because I started to feel the community in Kyoto was just too small?  I don't quite know the exact reason, but all I know was that I had to explore.  I told my parents that I wasn't  attending University in Japan, but I wanted to goto United States.  Long story short, at the age of 18,  right after I graduated from high school, I was on the plane to the USA.  All by myself with one suitcase.  

Since then, I moved to DC.  Worked for so many different fields until I opened my first business in 2006 which I still run to this day, as an Event and project management company, working on and for many Japan related contents and for Japan related organizations like National Cherry Blossom Festivals, Embassy of Japan, and more.  

Kinfood: How did D.C. Sake cō. Start?

Reiko:  While running my event & project management company, I had started to have multiple opportunities to work with Sake.  The Japanese government started to put many efforts into exporting Sake, as more Japanese food started to become popular in the US.  While working on these projects, I too started to really expose myself to this one of the most delicious beverages in the world. The more I started to learn directly from the breweries about amazing stories of their sake, the more I genuinely started to fall in love with sake that is so rich in history and its craftsmanship.

But at the same time, more I helped to put together the sake related events, the more I started to hear this question.  “OMG this sake is amazing!  Where can I get it!?”  

The truth was, there was no place.  A few may be available in some restaurants, but the vast majority were not available.  When it comes to the retail shops, there were close to none.  And this exact fact started to really bother me.  “ Can someone help bring these sake to the consumers?”

Thats when I decided to become a solution and created the DC Sake co.

But I did not want the DC Sake co to just be the regular retail.  Since it is an e-commerce business strongly tied to the community, I wanted to create a community in DC where people gather, because they enjoy Sake.  We look forward to collaborating with many local talents like Masako and Kinfood, and staying connected with the community!

Kinfood:  D.C. Sake cō. keeps you very busy!  How would you spend your dream day off in the DMV? 

Reiko: DMV has so much to offer.  Especially nowadays with so many exciting restaurants opening, and interesting and fun local products available.  I would love to just get together with my close friends and simply enjoy exploring ever changing DMV offerings!   I also enjoy hiking too, so spending time with my fur boyz are also a huge part of my day off activity.  AND…  I enjoy playing drums!

Kinfood:  What’s something you’re looking forward to coming months and years?

Reiko: Not because I love sake so much, but  I definitely look forward to one day sake becoming part of DC’s everyday dining culture.  Many people still think sake should only be drunk with Sushi & Sashimi.  Or even Japanese food.  But it really isnt.  Sake goes really well with Cheese, Pizza, Salad…  even with Chips or chocolate!  I really think sake is one of the easiest beverage to pair the food with.  That is why I genuinely feel Sake should be something everyone should at least have one in the fridge, just like some of you may always have wines and beers at your house!  

When i think of this, DC Sake co is still very much work in progress, and I still have so much to do and I can do. But for now, I enjoy meeting so many fascinating people that the sake brings us together, and totally looking forward to spreading the sake love!

It's been a joy to get to know Reiko better and her passion for sake and Japanese culture is catching.  We're lucky to have her in the DMV community and be sure to visit for her excellent sake selection!

Photos by Amber Breitenberg

Special thank you to Wakako Tokunaga ❤️

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