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Sake and the wines of Japan

Sake and the wines of Japan

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Sake and the wines of Japan

553 pages
7 hours
Oct 29, 2018


Welcome to the ‘new sake’. Until recently it had seemed that the industry was in decline but now the market for premium sake has seen sales flourish both within Japan and worldwide.

Many misconceptions surround Japan’s national drink, from how it is brewed to the relative merits of ginjo, junmai and nama types and from the ideal serving temperature to its ageing potential. Anthony Rose’s new book aims to bring clarity to the confusion surrounding this fascinating wine.

Beginning with sake’s long history, Rose takes us on a journey across the centuries to explain how the industry evolved. Sake has been brewed in Japan for more than 2000 years, though the process only really took off during the Edo period (in Western terms, between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries). The wine’s long history also makes it culturally important and no study of sake would be complete without an exploration of its role in ceremony and religion, and the myths, legends and stories that surround it.

Rose begins his technical notes on sake with an explanation of the different grades of sake. Labelling rules and regulations are given due consideration in order to enable readers to understand the labels on their bottles before the discussion moves on to an analysis of sake’s flavours.

The production process and the structure of an industry that includes 1200 breweries across 47 prefectures, from the small and artisan to major commercial concerns, are covered in detail. The part played by climate and geography in sake’s flavours is explored along with an investigation into the differences imparted by the water, rice, yeast and koji (fermentation mould) used.

Rose devotes an entire section to profiling the most important breweries across the main sake-producing regions and also includes details on the more recently emerged non-Japanese producers. With thorough appendices for those who want to delve further into the statistics this is an essential addition to the library of the serious wine enthusiast or student.
Oct 29, 2018

Despre autor

Award-winning wine and sake critic Anthony Rose writes for Decanter, The World of Fine Wine, Financial Times How to Spend It online and The Oxford Companion to Wine. He is co-chair of the Australia panel at the Decanter World Wine Awards and the Sake International Challenge in Tokyo and teaches a sake consumer course at Sake No Hana in London. A founder of The Wine Gang (www.thewinegang.com), he was the wine correspondent of the print version of the Independent from start to finish (1986–2016).

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Sake and the wines of Japan - Anthony Rose



‘While foreign influence is welcomed, the cardinal rule is never to delegate responsibility to foreigners themselves’.

Alex Kerr, Lost Japan

Even after more than a decade spent exploring sake and Japanese wine, to be asked to write a book on the subject is a challenge that is both enviable and unenviable. Who wouldn’t leap at the chance to immerse themselves in two of the most important drinks produced in Japan, with the attendant lure of the country’s food and culture? Yet to grapple with the intricacies of Japanese society is a dauntingly unenviable task.

Japan is an expanding universe of infinite discovery. Ask a question and it will inevitably take you down a winding alley leading to another and then another until, like Theseus in Crete, you start to wonder if you’ll ever find your way out of the labyrinth. Even then, answers to simple questions are not necessarily straightforward and can often be interpreted in different ways. I empathize with the nineteenth-century travel writer Lafcadio Hearn when he says that he was told by a Japanese friend, ‘When you find, in four or five years more, that you cannot understand the Japanese at all, then you will begin to know something about them.’

There are few blind alleys here. Walk down Pontocho in Kyoto, turn a corner and you find yourself in an ever-expanding, constantly beckoning maze of narrow streets and alleys. The more you delve into Japanese culture, the more you feel that you’re only scratching (and sniffing) the surface. Which is fine, because there’s plenty on the surface to scratch and sniff, but Japanese culture is not skin-deep. It’s a trove of legends, folklore and superstitions, a paradise of aesthetics that’s rich, diverse, profound, dramatic and tremendously satisfying to explore. In those rare moments that you manage to get under the skin, Japan is a wonder of revelation. And sake?

Sake is both a drink and a window onto Japanese society. In history, legend and ceremony, secular and religious, sake is the lifeblood of Japanese civilization. To delve into sake is to time-travel through centuries of ambition, grit in times of hardship, and outstanding imagination and achievement. Visiting one of the many sake breweries that date back to the Edo period (1603–1868), for instance, is a humbling experience. What extraordinary spirit lies behind an endeavour that has managed to survive, navigate and adapt its way through the challenges and hazards of the centuries to bring us the sake that we so enjoy today?

Family heads are justifiably proud of the fact that they are the umpteenth generation of the family to be running their brewery, although in many cases their families started up in other trades, such as soy sauce making, dried herring production or kimono sales. The traditional nature of the Japanese sake industry inevitably seeps through the pores. At one sake brewery, when I asked the president’s son the name of the tōji, the head brewer, he told me instantly, of course, but it was the tōji’s surname. He had to look up his first name. At some breweries, when it came to tasting their sake, tiny plastic cups were apologetically produced, not even an ochoko (sake cup) or wine glass, allowing little in the way of aromatics and flavour to emerge.

The aristocracy of the sake industry mirrors the traditional château system in Bordeaux, with a landed gentry aloof from its customer base. The big difference is that the Bordeaux aristocracy used the merchant classes to set up an enduring commercial network by which it became pre-eminent in selling its wines successfully not only in France but overseas. For the often insular landed gentry of the sake industry, exporting their products more likely meant selling them outside the prefecture of production to Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. It is also the case that the sake industry has suffered a series of crises that might have led to terminal decline, had it not been for the foresight and ambition of a new generation determined to exorcise past demons and restore commercial success.

Traditionally, the sake industry is conservative and closely regulated by the tax authorities. As recently, in sake history terms, as the aftermath of the Second World War, sake had become an endangered species. With a desperate shortage of the necessary raw materials, many breweries went to the wall or merged with others. Overdilution with alcohol and tarting up with sugar and acidity created a massive industry hangover that endured for decades to come. It’s hardly surprising then that sake lost its status as the national drink of choice in Japan. Since a peak of 17 million hectolitres in 1975, sake consumption in Japan has fallen year on year, so much so that the Japanese now drink just a third as much sake as they did 30 years ago – at a time when it accounted for a quarter of all alcoholic drink sales.

Yet for all that, while the image of sake took a knock and the industry spiralled into decline, the last two decades have seen a Phoenix-from-the-ashes-like revival, with sake sales rising since 2011, principally in the all-important premium sector. When consumption tax rose from 5 to 8 per cent, it was claimed that a 1.8 litre bottle at over ¥3,000 (around £20.50) wouldn’t sell, but it did. Exports too are on the move, rising to an all time high of ¥18.17 million in 2017, with their value more than doubling in the last ten years.

How has this occurred? Old heads are rolling in favour of a younger, more open-minded generation. The early 1990s saw a rapid change in the traditional tōji system as family heads who’d been to university became their own brewers. According to the sake expert John Gauntner, ‘no longer does a brewery-owning family need to rely on an old codger from the boonies with a thick country accent. Just send the kids to brewing school, and keep in touch with friends running other breweries. That flow of information, and lots of patience and experience, is very commonly how sake is brewed in this modern era’.

The modern outlook is for brewers to support local rice growers and pay closer attention to, even integrating in some case, their sources of supply. As younger, educated brewery heads have taken over from their parents, their experiences abroad of other industries, such as wine, and the growing popularity of Japanese food, have given them the confidence to be more flexible in trying out new techniques, crafting new styles of sake, and adapting to a revival of interest from an eager younger generation of consumers. Revolutionary changes in technology, combined with the virtues of resilience and an increasingly go-ahead approach have played their part in the reinvention of Japanese sake in a modern idiom. Despite then the rigid hierarchies and the arthritic hand of tradition, rapid and significant developments are changing the sake landscape.

In Kobe, Kenji Kano, the young head of Japan’s biggest brewery, Hakutsuru, was ‘one of the lads’ among a group of us out for an enjoyable evening at a local sake bar. In Akita, I witnessed how Yusuke Sato, the youthful head of the extraordinary Aramasa brewery, is making waves with a controversial sake, commanding prices that other brewery owners in the area could only dream of. I’ve been introduced to a young company executive, Tadanao Kohara, in Shimane Prefecture, who’s applying for crowdfunding.

Launched by Tadanao Kohara and Masahiko Takeshita, The Art of Sake is a start-up with four sake brands, on a mission to revive small artisan sake breweries and put their Junmai Muroka Nama Genshu (undiluted, unfined, unpasteurized) sakes in front of a wider audience. The Japanese football star, Hidetoshi Nakata, is turning heads with his Japan Craft Sake Company and its hugely popular Craft Sake Week. And speaking of DJing, I tell the compelling story in these pages of Richie Hawtin, the acclaimed international techno musician who’s created a sake label, Enter.Sake, with a focus on bringing young people into sake.

Champagne producers too are getting in on the act. Régis Camus, head of Piper-Heidsieck, is collaborating on projects with Dassai and Urakasumi in two sakes under the Heaven Sake label. Richard Geoffroy, the charismatic chef de cave of Dom Pérignon for 29 years, has teamed up with Ryuichiro Masuda of Masuizumi to create a groundbreaking joint sake venture, IWA, in the Toyama foothills of the Japan Alps. With a new sake brewery set in 10 hectares of rice paddy field, the intention behind IWA, launching in 2019, is to create the first branded international Japanese sake, a junmai daiginjō, respecting the established order of rice polishing yet adding a new layer of complexity by drawing on Richard Geoffroy’s blending expertise.

It’s ironic that in this scenario Philip Harper, Tamagawa’s British head brewer in Kyoto Prefecture, thinks of himself as a dinosaur. The tongue is at least half in cheek here because, with a wealth of experience under his belt, Harper-san, as he’s known in the industry, is a much-needed breath of fresh air. He considers the industry overly obsessed with polishing ratios, and is frustrated with the related idea that daiginjō is inherently superior to other styles. He is sad to see sake served cold automatically, and he doesn’t think that sake always has to be drunk young. Despite the rebel in him, he’ll remind anyone who’ll listen that irrespective of grade, style, temperature or age, there is a fundamental set of traditional values to which he adheres: that what sake boils down to is flavour, fun and enjoyment.

It took me a while to discover that for myself. I had long ploughed a wine furrow without giving so much as a second thought to sake. One fateful day in Tokyo, I went out for dinner to a shabu-shabu restaurant. Someone ordered sake and as I was drinking it with the hotpot, all of a sudden, I found myself enjoying it. Enjoying it very much. I still don’t know what the sake actually was or even whether it was a premium sake. At a moment in time when I’d relaxed and stopped thinking about it from a tasting perspective, I found myself lapping it up. The lesson I learnt from my conversion on the road to Asakusa was that you can go blue in the face telling people what a wonderful drink sake is, but until they’ve experienced it for themselves, there’s no point in trying to ram its virtues down their throats. In a nutshell, you don’t so much go to sake as let sake come to you.

Q & A: Everything you always wanted to know about sake but were afraid to ask

Q: Sake or saké and how is it pronounced?

A: Sake is English (pronounced sah-kay), saké is French. Both are valid but I prefer sake.

Q: What is sake, beer, wine or spirit?

A: None of the above. Sake is a fermented beverage made from rice, kōji (moulded rice), yeast and water.

Q: Can you identify rice variety by taste in the same way that you can identify grape variety in wine?

A: The short answer to that is no, the long answer is ‘it depends’.

Q: What is the alcohol content of sake?

A: The average alcohol level of sake is generally between 15% and 17% abv (in contrast to an average 4% to 6% for beer and 8% to 15% for wine).

Q: How many calories are there in sake?

A: Typically, a honjōzō sake at 15% abv will contain roughly 100 calories per 100 ml.

Q: Is the polishing ratio a reliable guide to sake quality?

A: The polishing ratio (seimai-buai) is the percentage of white rice to brown rice after polishing to reduce the protein, mineral and lipid content. It’s an indication of quality, but to single out the polishing ratio as the be-all and end-all would be wrong.

Q: Does sake have regionality, like wine?

A: In general, it’s fair to say that there are regional differences but they’re not as pronounced as those of wine.

Q: Should sake always be drunk from a traditional Japanese cup (ochoko) or is a wine glass acceptable?

A: Sake can be drunk from any vessel you like and there are arguments in favour of both.

Q: Is it OK to drink sake warm or is it considered naff?

A: There’s still a prejudice against hot sake but it’s more than OK to drink sake warm, or hot, up to 50°C.

Q: Is sake better drunk with food, or on its own?

A: Low in acidity and high in umami savouriness, sake is a versatile drink that goes especially well not just with Japanese food but also with many Western foods.

Q: Should sake be drunk right away or cellared?

A: Most aromatic ginjō and daiginjō sakes are designed to be drunk chilled and are generally better drunk young, but as in all things sake, there are exceptions.

Q: Is sake good value and where can I buy it?

A: Sake is good value in Japan, but transport costs, profit margins and excise duties can make it expensive overseas.

Q: Is drinking sake good for your health?

A: Sake doesn’t contain the sulfites or other preservatives found in wines that can contribute to hangovers and other health problems. Having said that, like any alcoholic drink, sake should be drunk in moderation.



Drink the sake of Imanishi Shuzo in Nara, Japan’s capital before Kyoto and Tokyo, and you are sharing in the traditions of a Japanese sake brewery with records dating back more than nine centuries. Much the same goes for Sudo Honke’s Sato no Homare in Ibaraki, where Mr Sudo is the fifty-fifth manifestation of a living legacy that was established in 1141. A quarter of the 1,200 or so active sake breweries in Japan, most of which remain family businesses, are more than 200 years old. The many ways in which this long sake legacy is filtered and reinvented is one of the constant themes of Japanese sake and one of the reasons why drinking sake is like tasting a distillation of Japanese history.

When I drink sake I see a modern extension built onto a fabulous temple whose construction began centuries ago, its frayed thatched roof and sagging timber pillars continually restored to the extent that the ancient outlines of the original architecture remain visible – just. The ongoing renovation process and the new extension may have obscured some of the original architecture but they continue to shed new light on an unbroken chain of tradition. The renovation work is well under way but it is not complete by any means. The more enlightened of today’s sake family heads revere their ancestors while driving the business forward to make it relevant in a world that would amaze their forefathers. The result is that never, since the ancients discovered the alchemy of turning the rice grain into liquid enjoyment, has sake been in better shape.


The history of Japanese sake goes back more than 2,000 years to an era when technologies for making metal vessels, clothes and porcelain were first introduced to Japan. It is generally believed that sake brewing was introduced into Japan at roughly the same time as rice cultivation, following large-scale migration from Korea and mainland China.

Japan’s Historical Periods

Jōmon: c. 10,000–c. 900 BC

Yayoi: c. 900 BC–300 AD

Kofun and Asuka: 300–710

Nara: 710–794

Heian: 794–1185

Kamakura: 1185–1333

Muromachi: 1336–1573

Azuchi-Momoyama: 1573–1603

Edo: 1603–1868

Meiji: 1868–1912

Taishō: 1912–1926

Shōwa: 1926–1989

Heisei: 1989–present

Rice growing began 7,000–10,000 years ago in the mountains around Assam in India and Yunnan in China, arriving in the Northern Kyūshū area of Japan via Chang Jiang and the Korean Peninsula in 400 BC. It had reached the Setouchi and Kinki areas by 350 BC, covering much of East Japan by 100 BC. It was of course the starting-gun for sake production. Now they had the rice, all the ancients had to do was to work out how to turn this little grain of starch into an alcoholic drink. We may take it for granted now, but when you look at how they perfected this over the centuries, you can only marvel at their ingenuity.

Remnants of rice paddies and Japonica rice, especially on Kyūshū and Shikoku, show that the locals were making an alcoholic beverage from rice at least 1,700 years ago and most likely earlier. On Kyūshū, artifacts including a wooden pestle and mortar, ceramic pots with holes at the bottom thought to be for steaming, along with other pots and jars, suggest that sake-making was already flourishing in the third century AD. As the Chinese text, the Wizhiworenzhuan, made clear, the Japanese enjoyed singing, dancing and drinking sake: the forerunners no doubt of the karaoke singers and kan-zake (hot sake) drinkers of today.

Without the modern technology that polishes away the outer bran of brown rice to get to the inner white core, it’s hard to imagine how the ancients could have even perceived the drink we enjoy today. In early times, they relied on priestesses and young women to chew rice so that the enzymes in their saliva hydrolysed the rice starch and turned it into fermentable sugar. Mouth-chewed alcoholic beverages go back to 1000 BC and, astonishingly, it was even practised in Okinawa and Ainu on Hokkaidō Island until 1954, when it was abolished by the prohibition on home-brewed alcohol.

It is not recorded if this mouth-chewed sake (kuchi-kami) made after the rice was spat into a pot and fermented by wild yeast was nectar or not – as it was offered at shrines to the relevant deities, only the gods can know. What can be said with certainty is that Dark Ages sake didn’t bear much resemblance to the refined product we know and love today. More likely, it was viscously porridge-like and would have gone off quickly, if it was ever on – most likely within days, if not hours.

Rice cultivation became established between the fourth and seventh centuries, during the Yamato Dynasty, based around Nara, and skilled sake brewers took control of sake production. In 701, a government office, Sake no Tsukasa, or Sake Control, was set up, with sake brewing managed by officials of the imperial court. The government agency had offices throughout Japan and sake production increased in line with an expansion in the production of rice. According to Dr Yoshihide Tamada of the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, annual production of sake was an estimated 45,000 litres.

The biggest pot excavated from this era held over 400 litres and while it’s likely that the Emperor and his aristocratic acolytes enjoyed getting tipsy as much as the next person, it was much used at festivals and in ceremonies. During the Heian Period it was also popular with nobles who would play the game of floating sake cups. Every year on 3 March, noblemen had to write a poem before the sake cup floating down the river appeared in front of them. They then drank the sake and floated another cup, while their poems were read elsewhere.

Drinking sake must have spread beyond the imperial court and the houses of noblemen because as early as 646 AD, an edict was issued instructing people to drink less. It was made following excessive consumption by the working classes but seems to have been largely ignored, since similar edicts followed in quick succession. Sake taxes were first applied in 878 AD to raise funds for the aristocratic warrior classes.

There is evidence that the Chinese evolved the malting of barley into the development of rice kōji from rice grown along the Yangtze River by refining qu, Chinese cakes of microbially infected grains used in huangjiu (rice wine) and baijiu production. There is also evidence that the Japanese developed kōji grown on single grains of rice as early as 600 BC, although it never evolved into blocks or bricks as used in China and Korea.

According to sake writer Hiroichi Akiyama, the Harima Fudoki, a regional report to the imperial court written around 713–715 AD, refers to sake made using rice mould: ‘sake was brewed when dried steamed rice absorbed a large volume of water by accident and became covered with mould, which then grew on it’. Discovery of this mould, whose enzymes could break down the starch in the rice grain without the need for chewing, was the most significant contribution at the time to sake brewing practice.


In the tenth century book Engishiki, written between 905 and 927 AD, details of sake-making carried out at the imperial palace by professional officers, known as Sake no Tsukasa, are exhaustively recorded. Each process had its own room specially designed for the technique in question. Thus in one special room, rice was polished, or more accurately pounded, by the women in charge, using wooden mortars and pestles, and then steamed on a portable Korean-style kitchen range. Recently discovered kōji mould, called getsu, clearly a superior substitute for mouth-chewing, was used to make rice kōji in the kōji room and mashing was carried out in the fermenting room. Filtration and pressing were introduced using cloth bags.

The Engishiki decribes a variety of different types of sake including Go-shu, a favourite of the Emperor used for ceremonies, sweetish Goi-shu and Rei-shu sakes, and Sanshusō to be drunk on New Year’s Day. There was also Ton-shu, a diluted, quick-brewed sake intended for lower level functionaries. And for the ceremony to mark the first harvest of the year, there was Shiroki, or white sake, and Kuroki, black sake. It also describes the practice of drinking sake warm in winter as a way for aristocrats to entertain their guests.


From the diaries of Isabella Bird, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, 25 July 1878:

The ceremony did not correspond with the rules laid down for marriages in the books of etiquette that I have seen, but this is accounted for by the fact that they were for persons of the samurai class, while this bride and bridegroom, though the children of well-to-do merchants, belong to the heimin … After this, which was only a preliminary, the two girls who brought in the bride handed round a tray with three cups containing sake, which each person was expected to drain till he came to the god of luck at the bottom … An old gold lacquer tray was produced, with three sake cups, which were filled by the two bridesmaids, and placed before the parents-in-law and the bride. The father-in-law drank three cups, and handed the cup to the bride, who, after drinking two cups, received from her father-in-law a present in a box, drank the third cup, and then returned the cup to the father-in-law, who again drank three cups.

Rice and fish were next brought in, after which the bridegroom’s mother took the second cup, and filled and emptied it three times, after which she passed it to the bride, who drank two cups, received a present from her mother-in-law in a lacquer box, drank a third cup, and gave the cup to the elder lady, who again drank three cups. Soup was then served, and then the bride drank once from the third cup, and handed it to her husband’s father, who drank three more cups, the bride took it again, and drank two, and lastly the mother-in-law drank three more cups. Now, if you possess the clear-sightedness which I laboured to preserve, you will perceive that each of the three had imbibed nine cups of some generous liquor!

More than a century after Isabella Bird’s observations, couples still tie the knot in a traditional Shinto wedding ceremony, exchanging three cups of sake three times, indicating their willingness to share life’s troubles in years ahead. This ritual is known as san san kudo (three times three is nine), and the three cups represent heaven, earth and mankind. Shinto rituals remain so deeply embedded in the Japanese psyche that sake plays an important role in the many festivals and ceremonies that take place throughout the year.

Kagami-biraki is a ceremony typically performed at celebratory events, in which the wooden lid of the sake barrel, the kagami, is smashed open by hosts and honoured guests with a wooden mallet and the sake is served to those present. It’s a popular way of launching house-warming parties, sporting events, company opening days and wedding receptions. It traces its origins to another kind of kagami-biraki ceremony, ‘the breaking of the mochi’ (the soft, sticky Japanese rice cake) on 11 January. At New Year, samurai households would make an offering to the gods of a stack of mochi to represent the kagami. The mochi would then be broken into pieces and eaten on 11 January to represent the biraki, or ‘opening’.

People taking part in rituals, such as the bearers of portable shrines, will purify their bodies first by drinking sake offered before a sacred festival. At the big one, on New Year’s Day, sake flavoured with natural herbs steeped in sake or mirin, known as toso, is customarily drunk at breakfast to bring the new year in with a bang. Tōkashu sake (sake with peach blossom petals) is drunk at the peach blossom festival, Momo no Sekku, on 3 March and the Emperor’s Rice Planting ceremony is held in festivals throughout Japan to celebrate the new planting. It would be impossible to go through the cherry blossom season without sake and, in cities throughout Japan, office workers are sent out to cordon off suitable picnic and viewing spots and order in pizza.

Autumn moon viewing, tsukimi, wouldn’t be the same without sake and this is shortly followed by the Chrysanthemum festival, Chōyō no Sekku, on 9 September, before International Sake Day reminds us on 1 October to spread the sake word worldwide. As winter sets in, snow viewing sake, Yukimi-zake, is duly made for the purpose and then at midnight on 31 December sake is drunk from ceremonial lacquerware at Shinto shrines as an offering to the gods in the hope of prosperity for the new year, which kicks in, hours later, with toso at breakfast.

Rice itself is so integral to Japanese culture that many spirits inhabit a single grain. There are different theories as to how many. Some say six, others say seven, and others again say 88. There are six spirits riding on a komedawara, a rice bag containing 1 hyō (about 60 kilograms) of rice. In Shinto, seven spirits remind us of Shichifukujin, the Seven Deities of Good Fortune. Seven elements are needed to make rice – earth, wind, cloud, water, insects, sun and people. Prayers for a big crop, the gokokuhojo-sai festival, are made to the seven noble agricultural farming spirits. Meanwhile, when you break down the kanji (Japanese script) of rice 米, it is sometimes said to become 八 十 八, or 88, representing the 88 processes from growing the rice until it reaches the table. Spirits are everywhere in Japan – not surprising, as it is said that there are eight million of them.

In medieval times and earlier, sake was offered to the gods to pray for divine assistance with a good harvest in spring, to thank the gods in the autumn for the bounty bestowed and to pray for good health and good luck at the beginning of the new year. With rice as its principal ingredient, sake has long been strongly connected with agricultural deities. If the rice is consumed by the god, the sake receives the power of the god. It was also believed that the god of sake brewing descended from above and his spirit entered the Sugidama, the ball of dried cedar pine needles hung outside the brewery in the brewing season.

Among many stories compiled by the old imperial court, the legend of the St George and the dragon-style slaying by Susanō no Mikoto of the Yamato no Orochi, a giant dragon with eight heads, stands out. At Konda’s Yasaka shrine in Tsukuba City, there’s an elaborate carving depicting dragons drinking from jars. This is the scene of a famous episode in the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), Japan’s oldest extant written text of tales and legends published in the early eighth century.

Expelled from the realm of the Gods and descending to earth at Izumo (in Shimane Prefecture), our hero, espying a pair of chopsticks floating down the river, soon came across an old lady weeping. When he asked her what the problem was, she replied that an eight-tailed, eight headed dragon had killed their other daughters and was coming back for the last daughter that evening. Securing a promise of the daughter’s hand, Susanō no Mikoto ordered Yashiori no Sake to be made, a high-alcohol drink (most likely made from nuts or fruit) brewed eight times from the previous mash, instead of water. Quick work!

It was then poured into eight pots placed on eight gated platforms. The unsuspecting and apparently somewhat pea-brained monster drank simultaneously from each jug and, as you often do after a skinful of sake, obligingly fell asleep. It was a shoo-in for the Lord High Executioner to chop off the dragon’s booze-filled heads one by one. Susanō’s symbolic sword is said to have become one of the three great treasures of the Japanese imperial family.

According to Dr Momokazu Katō, author of 5000 Years of Japanese Alcoholic Beverages, the standard method of brewing 144 litres of sake at the time was to use 180 litres of rice, 72 litres of kōji and 162 litres of water. He also gave details of the ceramic and bronze vessels to be used, and described how to properly heat the sake. Chilled sake was enjoyed in the summer by the addition of ice that had been stored during the winter.

From around the tenth century, sake brewing began to be centred on temples and shrines and brewing methods were developed that led to an improved product. The early sake would have been unfiltered, and so cloudy, like today’s doburoku: strong, rough, but tasty stuff straight out of the fermentation vessel, in other words. During the Heian era though, brewers started to press the sake by putting it into bags and allowing the refined sake to drip through so that it finished up clear, or clearish, at least.

Historically, sake has had a close relationship with Shinto, in which the natural world is thought to be possessed by gods and spirits. Sake was offered to the gods along with agricultural produce and foods, which they would then enjoy together. In one Shinto ceremony known as O-miki, a small amount of sake is drunk by a Shinto priest in a symbolic prayer to the gods. The ceremony uses white porcelain flasks (miki-dokkuri), and small cups that are ubiquitous on the altars of shrines. There isn’t an abundance of tasting notes from the period but the militant Buddhist monk, Nichiren (1222–82), described aged sake as ‘coloured like blood squeezed from human veins’.

The bodaimoto yeast starter method is said to have begun at Bodaisen Shoryaku-ji Temple in Nara in the thirteenth century, during the Kamakura Period. In the so-called soyashi process, uncooked rice is steeped in water where it collects naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria from the surroundings before being used to make the yeast starter. In 1988, the head monk of Shoryaku-ji Temple got together with the Nara Institute of Technology and a group of breweries to revive the process. Bodaimoto is the precursor of the kimoto yeast starter method, which is recognized as the beginning of modern sake brewing.

Despite the fact that the Kamakura government banned the sale of alcohol in 1254 and 37,274 sake pots were destroyed in Kamakura City, sake brewing continued to flourish between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. According to the venerable sake expert Shuji Horie, ‘as time passed, the Kamakura government started to lose its samurai spirit and fell into the same mistakes as the Heian government: continuous sake parties’.

With the advent of the Muromachi Period and trade with China, the basic techniques of sake brewing in use today were largely developed, and traditional Japanese culture flourished: the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, painting, gardening and Noh theatre. In the production of sake, brewers began to use lactic acid fermentation to inhibit microbial contamination, adding kōji, water and steamed rice in mashing stages to the first kimoto-method shubo yeast starters. In line with economic growth in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, improved strains of rice are also likely to have contributed to sake quality.

Buddhism, an import from China in the mid-sixth century, was also gaining ground in Japan, and often Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples shared the same grounds in peaceful harmony even though alcohol is not specifically part of Buddhist worship. Sake drunk by the clergy in temples and shrines was known as Hanyutō. Offerings of sake are still made at Shinto shrines today, around ten of which make a form of sake for religious purposes. Underlining its ceremonial significance, sake continues to play an important role as a gift at festivals and weddings, and on the morning of New Year’s Day, families gather and join in drinking sake as they wish each other a long life.

The Tamon’in Diary, a record of daily temple life written by monks between 1478 and 1618, mentions various aspects of brewing recognizable today. They include rice milling, the additions of kōji, rice and water to the fermentation process in three stages, heating to ‘remove the evil humours’ (effectively pasteurizing before Pasteur) and clarification. Previously, polished rice had only been used to make kakemai (steamed rice), but brewers started producing morohaku, ‘double white’, that is, polishing the rice for both the rice kōji and the steamed rice. Sake was made twice a year, between February and March for summer sake, and from September to October for New Year sake.

The record of the Portuguese translator João Rodriguez, from 1600, shows that it was customary to drink warmed sake between the ninth day of the ninth month, a seasonally significant day called the Chōyō no Sekku (the Chrysanthemum Festival), and the third day of the third month of the following year, known as Momo no Sekku (the Peach Festival). The rest of the time, sake was drunk cold. ‘It is a good drink and gentle for the stomach’, wrote Rodriguez; ‘it takes longer to digest than wine, so if you drink a lot you feel tipsy for longer. It took until the early eighteenth century for warmed sake to be consumed all year round. According to John Gauntner, health factors inherited from the Chinese, along with keeping warm in winter, were among the reasons for drinking sake warm.


The prosperous Edo period (1603–1868) saw continued expansion and improvement in the sake industry that led to sake being produced on an industrial scale. The focus of production began to shift from Nara to Itami, in Hyōgo, which became the forefront of technological advancement and large-scale sake production. While polishing the rice had previously been done by individuals, using a large pestle and mortar or simply stamping on it, now waterwheels began to be used for more efficient rice milling. With increasing manpower, the ability to mill rice increased. Karausu, the traditional stone mill introduced from China, transformed milling work.

Land value in the Edo period was determined by the amount of rice it produced. The measurement used was the koku, equivalent to enough rice (about 150 kilograms) to feed one person for one year. This equated to

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