Japanese literature student turns cheesemaker in French Alps
Michihisa Yamaguchi dreamed of being a farmer. Today the 33-year-old is a cheesemaker in a tiny village perched high in the French Alps.
BONNEVAL-SUR-ARC, France, March 20, 2008 - As a student in Tokyo,
Michihisa Yamaguchi dreamed of being a farmer. Today the 33-year-old is a
cheesemaker in a tiny village perched high in the French Alps.
"I was studying literature when what I really wanted to do was work in the
country, become a farmer and look after cows. Cows are really, really nice,"
he said in Bonneval-sur-Arc as he prepared milk to be turned into cheese.
Yamaguchi, nicknamed Miki by his friends here in the Savoie region, has
lived since October 2007 in this village of 242 residents, where he has become
the main producer of "Bleu de Bonneval," the local blue cheese.
He is well integrated but he's also aware that he intrigues many locals.
The iconic image of the French cheesemaker doesn't immediately bring to mind a former literature student from Japan.
"Everyone knows me, even if I don't yet know all that many people," he said
with a smile.
He rises before dawn and spends his days alone in his cheesemaking
workshop, where he listens to the radio or Japanese rock music, moving between
vats of cheese and the cellar where he stocks the product.
Yamaguchi left Japan six years ago after a bad experience with a milk
producer in Hokkaido in the north of the country, where he didn't like the
intensive farming practices.
"There were too many cows on a very small area that we had to squeeze too
much milk out of them. It just wasn't my thing. So I decided to leave for
France," he said.
Watching the mountain stages of the Tour de France cycle race on television
gave him a taste for the Alps.
"Next to the cyclists there were cows, and that was my first vision of the
Alps, of farming there," he recalled.
When he arrived he couldn't even count to 10 in French, so he set about
learning the language, and after three years was fluent.
Then he returned for two years to Japan to work on an assembly line in a
Honda factory to save up for a course in cheesemaking at an institute in
There he learned the trade and all the technical terms that go with
The local Haute-Maurienne Vanoise dairy collective first took him on for a
work placement and then gave him a full-time job, to the satisfaction of his
employers and his colleagues.
"Miki is the most conscientious of many of the cheesemakers I've met," said
Pauline Collonge, who works in the cheese shop attached to the cooperative and who is also a cheesemaker.
"His workshop is ultra clean, and his equipment is always well ordered,"
"In just a few months he made enormous progress. Look at the cheese he
makes, it's got great texture, the blue is nicely spread out. I live for
cheese, and for Miki it's the same," she said.