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Sake. 日本酒。


S a k e

Sake, Nihonshu, 日本酒 . . . its history in Japan extends back and back, before recorded history.  Rice, water, rice mold (yes, mold), yeast, time.  It’s brewed, fermented, but it’s not a beer.  It drinks like wine.  It’s simple, yet it manifests itself in countless varieties  –  tastes, tones, temperatures.  I plan to emphasis the social and spiritual side of sake, but before doing that feel that some history and other basics are in order.

Please note that this is not meant to be the definitive, last word on sake, just my take on some of its history, basics and the way its integrated into Japan’s culture.  I do, indeed, provide links within this piece to several wonderful, in-depth sake websites that have assisted me immensely in my working-up this article.

A bottel of sake & menu. Okariba. Kyoto. 2009.

A Brief History

While the recorded history of sake in Japan goes back to the Nara Era (710-794), it’s believed that sake brewing in Japan goes back several hundred years B.C.E., with the advent of wet rice cultivation in Japan.  However, brewing rice wine in China goes back several millenia before that.  Sake was first made in Japan by the villagers gathering for rice-chewing parties — chewing the rice with other grains then spitting-out the mash into a communal tub.  This process simultaneously “polished” the rice (more on that below) and introduced an enzyme into the mixture which catalyzed fermentation.  This is called “kuchikami no sake” (or “mouth-chewed sake”) and some people still do it today, thought I do not recommend it.  Here’s an episode (subtitled) from Japanese sit-com about the protagonist “get rich” scheme of making kuchikami no sake.

Thankfully, for purposes of mass production and sterility, the rice mold Aspergillus Oryzae was discovered centuries ago, simply known as koji kin, or simply koji, in Japanese.  The chewing could stop and, instead, a koji’d mash could be introduced to rice (as it’s being steamed) to convert the rice’s starches into sugar, necessary for fermentation.  Soy sauce is similarly “brewed.”

With the 19th Century Industrial Revolution came the industrialization of sake-making and over the successive decades and century came large, stainless steel vats, both hot and cold temperature control systems, quality control protocols for assuring consistency, mass bottling technology, efficient storage and transportation systems, etc.  And, during WWII, the biggest influence on sake production since the discovery of koji came with the introduction of brewers’ alcohol into sake at or towards the end of the brewing process, an additive first used to “stretch” sake production during the lean war years, but which came to be a standard operating procedure — for many, but not all, sakes — in the decades to follow.  It should be quickly noted that it is not the case that sake with brewers’ alcohol added is necessarily of less quality than non alcohol-infused sakes.  As with so many things in life: it depends.

The Basics:  How Sake’s Made

As noted above, sake begins with steamed rice into which the koji is introduced.  Before steaming the husk has been removed and the rice grains have been milled, or polished-down.  Generally speaking, but by no means is it an iron rule, the more polished the rice grains, the higher quality, and more expensive, the sake.  More about that later.  Here I’m going to quote liberally from one of — if not the — definitive sake websites, John Gauntner’s “Sake World,” where he explains a great deal of the brewing process:

Rice is washed and steam-cooked. This is then mixed with yeast and koji . . .  The whole mix is then allowed to ferment, with more rice, koji, and water added in three batches over four  days.  This fermentation, which occurs in a large tank, is called shikomi.  The quality of the rice, the degree to which the koji mold has propagated, temperature variations, and other factors are different for each shikomi.  This mash is allowed to sit from 18 to 32 days, after which it is pressed, filtered and blended.

If you want to know more, and a great deal more detail about each of these steps, I highly recommend John’s site.

Sake Types ( a few of the  many )

There are two basic ways to classify sake, with several sub-groups, and many sub-sub-groups.  In general, though, we look to whether a sake is bottled with or without the introduction of a little brewers’ alcohol at the end of the brewing process.  Sakes that are “pure” sake, that is, with no additional alcohol added, are designated Junmai (純米)  sakes and those with a little added alcohol are just Sake.  The next thing to look at is how much of the rice’s surface was milled- or polished-away before beginning the sake-making process.

The “Top Ends”

If the rice grains have at least 30% of the surface polished-away, leaving a 70% “core” of the grain ready for brewing, it’s called simply “Junmai-shu” ( “Shu” being another world, or designation, for sake) if no additional alcohol is added, and “Honjozu-shu” if alcohol is added.  If at least 40% of the surface is polished-away, leaving a 60% or less core, the sake is called Junmai Ginjo-shu (no brewers’ alcohol added), or Ginjo-shu if alcohol is added.  And, finally, if 50% or more of the surface of the rice is polished away —  leaving 50% or sometimes as little as 35% of its original mass —  and no alcohol is added to the finished sake, that’s a Junmai Dai Ginjo-shu, or Dai Ginjo-shu if alcohol is added.  Note of course that all sake is naturally alcoholic (depending on the type ranging from 18-20% alcohol, which is not uncommonly cut with water prior to final bottling).

Generally speaking, the more of the rice’s surface that’s polished away, the lighter, more fragrant, “cleaner” and complex the flavor.  But categories overlap and a Ginjo-shu may tastes better to you than a more expensive Junmai Dai Ginjo-shu.  There are also “Futsu Shu,” or regular sake that does not fall into any of the above-listed categories.  Most sake is Futsu-shu, just as most wines and beers are inexpensive and enjoyable.  To again quote Mr. Gauntner of “Sake World”: Although a lot of futsuu-shu is cheap, nasty, and vile, there is plenty of sake in this group is perfectly and enjoyably drinkable. One should avoid collectively dismissing futsuu-shu as rotgut.  While some cheaper sake in this group also has sugars and organic acids added to “improve” the flavor (better futsuu-shu does not), note that no sake at all has any preservatives added to it.

Shelf of Sake. Ichiban Yakitori. Sanjo Street, Kyoto. 2009.

Within these broad categories there are many sub-categories of sweet, semi-sweet and dry sakes.  There’s a favorite of mine, Nigori-zake (yes, the “s” becomes “z”), which is unfiltered and unpasteurized, thus, looks cloudy and milky from the rice lees.  It’s only been in the past several hundred years that sakes been filtered at all, that is, until the 1600s, virtually all sake was Nigori-zake.  A legend goes that a disgruntled worker sought to contaminate a batch of sake by throwing ashes into the fermentation tub.  When the tub was later uncovered the ashes had settled to the bottom, along with the milky lees, leaving a crystal clear brew!

Nigori-zaki - にごり酒 (commercial ad)

There are sakes served hot, Atsukan,  熱燗,  (usually the cheaper ones)  and there’s Reishu ( 冷酒 ), or Hiyashi-zake (冷やし酒), for the summer which is brewed for and meant to be served chilled or on the rocks (I love Reishu, but only drink it chilled, not with ice because I don’t want to water-down the flavor).  Note:  sake tasting should be done at room temperature.  There’s Amazake (甘酒),  which, depending on the context, may mean a fruitier, higher bouquet sake, or a traditional, low alcohol, sweet sake, served warm with a little ginger added.  There’s Karakuchi (辛口) – dry sake — and a thousand variations and permutations on those themes.  I tend towards Amazake because it’s so clean and goes with practically anything, including just by itself.  After dinner’s a good time for Nigori-zake.  And, of course, you can have a dry Reishu, or not so dry.  As there are almost 2,000 sake breweries in Japan, options and flavors abound.

Sake’s Spiritual Side

Kazaridaru (decorative sake barrels). Yoshida Shrine. Kyoto. 2009.

.     .     .

Japan’s indigenous religion is Shinto, 神道, literally, “the gods’ way (or road).”   While describing fully or providing an in-depth history of Shinto is beyond the scope of this little piece, it will suffice to say that Shinto is uniquely Japanese, providing a Creation Story for Japan, is animistic (believing that all things, from the soil, to rocks, to trees, plants, to animals, to the wind, are infused with the spirits, both of the things themselves and inhabited or influenced by spirits both a priori and of ancestors and loved ones.  There is no “bible,” and very little in terms of leadership or hierarchy within the priesthood or acolytes.  Shinto shrines, whether grand, humble, or minute, are found throughout Japan, in cities, along roadsides, standing alone or within Buddhist temple complexes, on top of mountains, and perched upon craggy seaside outcroppings.  This site estimates that Japan has around 80,000 Shinto Shrines.  That’s a believable, realistic number, I think.

Shinto Shrines  are usually either Jinja 神社, or Jingu 神宫 —  with Jinja being the all encompassing name for Shinto shrines while Jingu are associated with past Imperial patronage (no more since WWII’s end) or otherwise traditionally connected with the Emperor.  At the larger Shrines newborns are blessed; parents bring their daughters on their 3rd and 7th birthdays and boys on their 3rd and 5th birthdays (wearing their first kimonos); New Year’s is celebrated; betrothed couples visit on their wedding day (or have their weddings at the more prestigious Jingu). At shrines large and small new cars, motorcyles, scooters, credit cards and other family objects are brought for blessing and purification, local festivals are held, seasonal pilgrimages are made.  In many of the ceremonies and celebrations Sake plays in integral, spiritual role.

Dad takes pics while grandpa herds. Heian Jingu. Kyoto. 2009.

A gift from the gods

One must understand that in Japan rice itself is considered a gift of and from the gods.  It’s sustained Japan as its primary staple since time immemorial.  And Sake, a smile-making and semi-magical derivative of rice, is icing on the spiritual cake.  Rice gives life, Sake gives joy (usually).

“In some of this country’s oldest texts the word used for sake is miki 神酒, written with the characters for ‘god’ and ‘wine.’  People would go a shrine festival and be given rice wine to drink, and they would feel happy and closer to the gods.”

Tetsuo Hasuo of the Japan Sake Brewers Association

Interviewed by Alice Gordenker, 2007

Sake, indeed, plays an integral role in shrine life — along with rice and salt — and Japan’s gods or spirits ( kami 神 ), play an integral role in sake: from the fields where rice planted just for sake-making is grown and harvested, to the brewing process, to the sale and distribution of sake, fields and breweries receive Shinto blessings, shrines are visited and patronized by the various sake companies’ corporate officers, ceremonial/symbolic casks of sake (actually empty — which is where the symbolic part comes in) are placed in specially designated areas of Japan’s Greatest Shinto shrines.

Ceremonial Sake Casks (kazaridaru 飾り樽). Heian Jingu. Kyoto. 2008.

Inari Shrines

Inari (稲荷) shrines are Shinto shrines dedicated to the celebration and worship of the Shinto kami Inari — god or spirit of rice, fertility, agriculture and industry.  Inari’s messenger is the fox.  There is a deep relationship between Inari shrines, rice growing and sake brewing, with Inari shrines providing blessings and spiritual solace for those involved in these industries and the agricultural and industrial sectors, particularly in rice and sake, providing primary patronage of and for Inari Shrines.  The most famous of Japan’s Inari shrines is Fushimi-Inari Taisha, the head shrine of all Inari shrines.  It covers Mt. Fushimi just south of Kyoto and is featured here, in this photo essay . . . of mine.  Not so coincidentally, the home office and brewery of Japan’s world-renowned Geikeikan Sake lies a stone’s throw from the foot of Fushimi-Inari shrine.

A small part of Fushimi-Inari Taishas famed Torii Tunnel. May 2008.

Quoting again from Alice Gordenker’s wonderful article:

Shinto shrines and sake manufacturers maintain a symbiotic relationship, in which the shrines conduct rites to ask the gods for the prosperity of the brewers, and — this is where the barrels come in — the brewers donate the grog that shrines need for ceremonies and festivals.

Those ceremonies and festivals and rituals include several of the ones mentioned above. The sacred sake, O-miki (“O” is an honorific), is offered to Aramitama, to appease and placate this wild spirit that’s both without and within us, a spirit of aggression, and valor.  O-miki also thanks Aramitama‘s counterpart energy or spirit of calm, serenity, gentleness, Nigimitama.

When couples marry they drink ritually drink O-miki during the Shinto ceremony (there may be a Christian, or Christian-style ceremony afterward).  During the nuptials, the couple alternates drinking cups of O-miki.  The Shinto priest pours O-miki into a shallow ceramic cup and hands it to the groom, who then drains up the cup with three sips.  The pouring is repeated and the cup is then handed to the bride, who also finishes the O-miki in three sips.  This is repeated twice more, with new cups each time.  By the time this part of the marriage ceremony is completed both the bride and the groom have each taken three sips from three cups, making nine 9 sips in all.  Thus the name of this ceremonySan-San-Kudo (三三九度), literally meaning “3, 3, 9 Times” and symbolizes a bonding of the couple and their families.

During the last months of World War II the Japanese military unleashed its Kamikaze (神風) suicide planes on American Navy.  Before taking off from their bases the Japanese pilots wrote their last letters, tied a hachimaki headband, or scarf, around their head, and partook of a last ceremonial cup of sake. . .  It was a quasi-Shinto rite, and connected them with their brother kamikazes (as group rituals will do) and their homes, as they flew off to their fates.

When you visit a Japanese cemetery — it’s quite a fascinating, even beautiful, thing to do — you will see flowers, coins, spent incense and the like at the memorials of the departed.  It is unlikely that you’ll spend more than a few moments walking around before you see a little 150-200ml glass or plastic jars of sake nestled among the flowers and other gravestone tributes to loved ones.  Along with fruit, or perhaps cakes or sweets brought by a guest visiting for a couple of days, cups of sake are also poured and placed at families’ Butsudan, of home Buddhist temple, for one’s departed ancestors (companies offer Butsudans for every taste and budget).  When asked how a spirit is supposed to imbibe (or eat an orange or bowl of grapes), you will be told that a spirit can extract the flavor or energy from the sake, or apples or persimmons, without any need of physical contact.  To most Japanese the question itself is rather a silly one.  But Westerners ask it all the time.  I certainly did, before I was set straight.


The Temporary Mask-Remover & Pressure Release

Sake, and truth be told, alcohol in general, but in Japan it began with sake, provides an oft-useful oil to lubricate the tightly-meshed wheels of society.  In their day to day work lives Japanese carry with them a well-earned reputation for sticking close to and abiding by an unwritten rule book of formalities, customs, hierarchic considerations and, often, obligatory stoicism.  That’s not to say that in the office, store or factory floor Japanese don’t laugh, kid around, or behave informally.  They certainly do.  Moreover, and as in any country or culture, every personality is different.  Nevertheless, compared to many other nations Japan’s age-, office-, job title-based hierarchies do form a more rigid social structure upon which other social mores hang.  Being aware of this and having a familiarity with some of the subtleties of this structure is as important as it can be confusing to the outsider (businessperson, student, tourist, trade negotiator, etc.).  But at night, after work, in the izakaya or at the year-end bonenkai or New Year’s shinnenkai, with one’s colleagues and bosses gathered round the table, and after the first few rounds of drinks have been enjoyed, the “masks” begin to come off and tongues begin to loosen.  Obviously this is not a thing unique to Japan.  What is exceptional, though, is that in Japan an unwritten and often unspoken rule allows Employee A, who works a rung or two down in the office, college, factory or other workaday world pecking order, to say much of what’s on his mind to Boss B, who will likely as not laugh or himself stoically take it in stride and . . . and this is the important part . . . the next day all’s forgotten.  Mind you, it’s not a matter of “all’s forgiven,” it’s a matter of all’s forgotten, as if Employee A’s making an ass out of himself to or in front of the boss had never happened.  More often than not these little One Act Plays of unabashed honesty, forthrightness, airing of grievances, or blowing off steam occur on the back end of such gatherings when all the people around the table have wound-down their beer drinking and have switched to, or are also enjoying, sake and Employee A and Boss B are pouring cups of sake for each other (and everyone else at the table) — one always pours for another, never pouring for oneself.  To do otherwise would be rude and, indeed, anti-social.

This is not a celebration of drunkenness, mind you.  Rather, it’s an acknowledgment of a quirk (to most Japanese, it would be a natural, perhaps even admirable thing) in Japanese society that allows “steam” to be vented with virtually no repercussions for the person doing the venting.  I speculate that even for those in the workplace who never have and never would get roaring drunk with colleagues and behave like a damn fool in front of them, just knowing, even on an unconscious level, that that outlet is there, that a sake-infused, induced, catalyzed pressure release stays pretty much at-the-ready if needed ( a la “In Case of Emergency Break Glass” ) often helps such people make it through a frustrating day or a endure an otherwise insufferable supervisor, when their American counterparts would be more inclined to make a scene, to commit an act of drama, in the workplace itself, which would be unimaginable, or certainly unforgivable, in Japan.


Connectivity is what sake brings most.  Connectivity between the corporeal and spiritual world.  Connectivity between the person and the moment.  Connectivity between friends, family, new acquaintances or long-time confidantes.  Bashō, Japan’s iconic 17th Century haiku master, treats us to these verses (roughly translated):


At the rustic door. . .
Dusk arrives with a present
Chrysanthemum wine  (sake)

One can interpret this haiku several ways.  I choose to see a person sitting alone, feeling rather ennui-ish, when a friend drops by unexpectedly with a bottle of sake.  The chrysanthemum in the haiku is not a flavor, but, rather, two or three chrysanthemum petals scattered atop the just-filled cups of sake in tribute to and celebration of the season (autumn in this case) and for the pure whimsicalness of it, just a couple of friends drinking sake in the gloaming, laughing and shooting catching up.

.     .     .

A Sake Story

There’s a word in Japanese, YukiMiZake (雪見酒), made by the characters for Snow, See or View, and Sake.  It means to sit and sip (hot) sake while watching the snow fall.  Once, on an ice-cold, moonless evening in December 1990, when I was living in rural Hyogo Prefecture a couple of friends and their wives bundled me into one of their cars and we all drove up to Kinosaki, the onsen, or hot spring, town up on the Sea of Japan.  It was just a little over an hour’s drive from the little town where we lived.  One of my friends was very well-to-do.  He and his wife owned a vacation home on the sea.  When we arrived at this beautiful log home the first thing we did was build a little fire in the pot-bellied stove (imported from Vermont) in the center of the living room, while the women unpacked groceries and began preparing dinner.  They told us, the three guys, to go ahead and get in the onsen while they cooked.  Along with my two friends, I did as I was told.  The onsen was just out back, connected to the house.  The house itself was built on a bluff above and facing away from the sea, so that the back of the house overlooked the churning waves below.  The onsen, a large hot tub fashioned into the rocks and boulders behind the house was on the receiving end of pipes sunk deep, bringing steaming water up into it from below the earth.  It seemed to be clinging to a ledge above the surf, who knew how far below.  As it was night I couldn’t see out into or down towards the water.  The lights from just inside the back alcove lit the onsen area.  We stripped to our natural selves, and got in the scalding hot water, feeling the energizing, and somehow relaxing contrast, between the steaming water and the frigid air.  A few moments later one of the wives brought out a tray on which was a well-warmed tokkuri (ceramic flask) and three sake cups.  Only a moment after sake pours were exchanged and toasts were made (“Kampai!”  乾杯!  —  To the bottom of the cup!), and the first sips of delicious atsukan (hot sake) were taken, we each sat back against our respective sections of onsen, sighed with contentment and, then, watched the snow begin to fall.

.     .     .

Post Script: Regarding that last, personal, tale.  I was and remain somewhat self-conscious of how it comes across, the men lolling about in the hot spring while the women prepare dinner.  I was the only one who felt a twinge of discomfort about that, though.  It was a kind gift, that night, to me from a group of kind people.  And I was able to drink hot sake, luxuriate in a hot bath crammed into the side of a bluff overlooking the Sea of Japan, and watch the snow fall with good friends.  That was the point I wanted to make.  I’m afraid it was a once in a lifetime thing.  Maybe someday again .  .  .

A friend says theres more left. Hitachi, Japan. 2008.