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Japanese literature student turns cheesemaker in French Alps

Published on March 20, 2008

   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 acheesemaker in a tiny village perched high in the French Alps.   "I was studying literature when what I really wanted to do was work in thecountry, 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, haslived since October 2007 in this village of 242 residents, where he has becomethe 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 saidwith a smile.   He rises before dawn and spends his days alone in his cheesemakingworkshop, where he listens to the radio or Japanese rock music, moving betweenvats of cheese and the cellar where he stocks the product.   Yamaguchi left Japan six years ago after a bad experience with a milkproducer in Hokkaido in the north of the country, where he didn't like theintensive farming practices.   "There were too many cows on a very small area that we had to squeeze toomuch milk out of them. It just wasn't my thing. So I decided to leave forFrance," he said.   Watching the mountain stages of the Tour de France cycle race on televisiongave him a taste for the Alps.   "Next to the cyclists there were cows, and that was my first vision of theAlps, of farming there," he recalled.   When he arrived he couldn't even count to 10 in French, so he set aboutlearning the language, and after three years was fluent.   Then he returned for two years to Japan to work on an assembly line in aHonda factory to save up for a course in cheesemaking at an institute inFrance.   There he learned the trade and all the technical terms that go withcheesemaking.   The local Haute-Maurienne Vanoise dairy collective first took him on for awork placement and then gave him a full-time job, to the satisfaction of hisemployers and his colleagues.   "Miki is the most conscientious of many of the cheesemakers I've met," saidPauline 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,"she said.   "In just a few months he made enormous progress. Look at the cheese hemakes, it's got great texture, the blue is nicely spread out. I live forcheese, and for Miki it's the same," she said.