The Many Flows of Sake

Japanese style pub, izakaya in Hiroshima, 2019

How is everyone doing? Hard to believe the year will be over in two months! I have been happy to see some glimmers of new light with a COVID-19 vaccine becoming more probable and good news related to the Tokyo Olympics. I’m eager to hear even more good news soon!

 

Today I would like to talk about sake, which is Japanese rice wine. Do you like sake? As soon as Japanese food was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013, interest in sake increased, and now there are many fans of sake all over the world. Sake is made in ten countries in various regions around the world. The United States has the second highest sake production volumes after Japan.

 

Predictably, sake has a long history. The first sake was brewed during the Yayoi period over 2000 years ago, immediately after the introduction of rice production from China. Since then, sake has been deeply intertwined with Shintoism.

Torii, shrine,
Torii at Shirakawa Hachiman Shinto shrine in Shirakawago
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Temizuya at Fushimi inari Shinto shrine in Kyoto

Shintoism has a primary tenet emphasizing self-purification. When visiting a shrine, the torii (large gate) through which you pass serves as a boundary between the sacred place inside the shrine and the place where humans live outside. We enter the sacred place and rinse our hands and mouths at the “temizuya or chozuya” (a receptacle holding flowing water) to purify ourselves before visiting the shrine. Originally (and we’re talking many hundreds of years ago), people would cleanse their whole body in a nearby river or the ocean, but nowadays, it is sufficient to focus on the hands and mouth. Also, as you most likely already know, the Japanese take off their shoes before entering their home – and this is another custom along the purification ritual line. The boundary between the outside and the inside of the house is well demarcated in this way. That’s why you should take off your shoes before you enter the house from the outside, and then immediately wash your hands and gargle. A methodical, thorough bathing before going to bed is also based on the ​​cleansing beliefs discussed here.

 

Admittedly, I’ve strayed off topic a bit, but you’ll recall I was saying that sake is closely related to Shintoism. The theoretical alteration being that you can purify your place or body with sake. When building a new house or building, the priest of the local shrine comes to the dedication ceremony, and sake offerings too are present in these scenarios. In addition, we invite local priests to seasonal beach and pool openings to pray for prosperity and safety during their use. When we hold such a safety prayer festival for the god of water, we perform a purification ceremony with sake. 

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Tokkuri & choko Photo by kinakomochi-san

Sake is an integral part of Japanese traditional events

In Japan, many people revel in singing and dancing under the gloriously blossoming cherry trees in spring, and the sake we drink at this time is called Hanami Sake (“hanami” literally means to view flowers). It is believed that the god agricultural prosperity dwells in the cherry tree, and since ancient times people have prayed for a good harvest by singing, dancing, and drinking under the cherry tree.

Tsukimi sake
Tsukimi Sake, photo by unic san

Come autumn, there is” Tsukimi Sake”. This is a custom started by the aristocrats of the Heian period (794-1185). It all started with singing, dancing and drinking while watching the moon’s reflection in the cup, and thanking the gods for a good harvest while communicating with nature. In winter, there is “Yukimi Sake,” intended to drink while looking at the snowy landscape. Beyond these seasonal varieties, there are additional sake types associated with various celebrations and ceremonies.

Tokkuri
Tokkuri
yukimi sake
Yukimi sake (Atsukan) by Miko san

These days, as a chill sets in across Tokyo, I like to warm up sake and drink it that way. It is called “kan” or atsukan. The sake to be heated is poured into an individually sized (well, it depends on the individual!) sake bottle (tokkuri) expressly made for hot sake, as shown in the picture. It is then warmed by immersing it in hot water or, nowadays, simply by microwaving it. The now-warm brew becomes sweeter and mellower. When you drink it, your body pleasantly warms up. It’s a special pleasure of life to drink this with friends and lovers while enjoying wintery shareable specialties such as oden.

 

If you come to Japan during the cold winter months, be sure to order some hot sake at a Japanese restaurant or izakaya. Simply say “atsukan de onegaishimasu!” and the magic will soon be yours. One of the pleasures of traveling around Japan is enjoying local sake in the small, artistic sake drinking cups known as “choko”.

kikizake experience
Sake Tasting
reishu, 冷酒

We routinely put on unique sake events, including the pairing of sake with sushi, and our foreign guests always enjoy it immensely.

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Gekkeikan Sake Brewery in Fushimi, Kyoto

Nature and sake both await your enjoyment

About 70% of Japan’s land area remains as forest, so it is indisputable that there is still much nature left in Japan. I sometimes think I should live more in dialogue with nature, as ancient people have done. I hope everyone will come to Japan and enjoy Hanami Sake in the spring, special festival sakes in the summer, Tsukimi Sake in the fall, and Yukimi Sake in the hot springs during winter, plus different kinds of sake while communing with nature.

See you next month!

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