A guest feature by Chris Pearce, Founding President of the International Sake Association.
Woodblock illustration from the Nippon Sankai Meisanzue, a sake-making textbook published in 1799
Many places on earth have a fraught relationship with alcohol. Some view it as a convivial companion and enabler of happy occasions, others as a threat to the health of the nation. How countries regard social drinking gives a clue to their general level of forbearance: those that disdain alcohol seem lacking in tolerance while those that embrace it tend to be more liberal and forgiving. In the latter category one would have to place Japan first and foremost. No other populace on earth embraces alcohol with the affection, openness and enthusiasm that Japanese people do their traditional sake, as well as everything else drinkable in a bottle, keg or can.
The earliest Chinese account of Japan appears in a Han Dynasty record from the third century BC, where the natives are described as “short, tattooed and drinking all the time.” One can imagine those distant Jomon days, when Japan was heavily forested and rich in game, blessed by abundant water and free from the scourge of war. People lived in small hamlets as hunters and gatherers, rice cultivation not having yet arrived from Korea. All it took was some mulberries trapped between tree branch and trunk, some rain and warm weather, and natural fermentation would kick in to produce a few sips of mildly alcoholic giggle juice. When the Yayoi settlers introduced rice cultivation, there was even more joy to be had, and no doubt the villagers sloshed back the rice beer by the bucketful.
After awhile a discovery came along that kicked the alcohol content of rice beer up to more satisfying levels. Somebody must have steamed some rice, chewed it up for an invalid or small child and then left the masticated gruel in a corner on a cold winter’s day. The amylase in saliva converted the starch in rice into glucose, and natural yeasts in the air happily set to their work of converting glucose into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Since it was cold in the hut, and the yeast happened to thrive at low temperatures, outside bacteria were kept at bay so that after a few days the alcohol content shot up to 6% instead of the 3% or so of rice beer. Such a striking occurrence would not go unnoticed, and before long there must have been people all over the valley madly chewing away on whatever rice they could get their hands on.
When it came to volume though, this method of sake-production, which required large numbers of willing, cavity-free young girls as chewers for the premium grade, had obvious limitations, and it took another fortuitous accident of nature for sake to achieve the alcoholic impact that would entrench its pivotal position in Japanese culture. This time a few spores of mold landed on a bowl of steamed rice, left out on a warm, dry day, and as their rhizomes penetrated the rice kernels enzymes were released which converted the starch in the kernels into glucose. Then the weather turned cool as rain began to fall and dripped onto the molded rice–just enough to make a sweetish slurry that yeast could feast on. This time, though, as the yeast produced alcohol, the mold continued to release glucose into the mix as it broke down nutrients in the rice. Instead of fermentation ending after several days, as in the case of rice beer, it could continue for a week or more with the alcohol content rising gradually throughout the process.
These were days when shamans served as intermediaries between the human and spirit realms, able to leave their bodies at will and enter those of birds and animals. Illnesses were cured and curses absolved by interventions into the spirit world. The release from everyday reality that alcohol grants must have been enthusiastically endorsed by the village healers, bestowing on sake an aura of sanctity from very ancient times. Seasonal rites to propitiate the gods, as described in the Kojiki and Manyoshu, contain references to sake, which is seen as cleansing, pure and a catalyst to communication between human beings and the Shinto gods. But admiration for sake’s salutary affects was hardly limited to the shamans. While an ordinary man may not be able to abandon his body, he does need to abandon his cares for awhile and obtain, if only in his own mind for a few hours, release from the constraints of family, society and his own limitations. And sake would do it. Just a few sips and the tribulations of daily life were forgotten as the euphoria of sake enjoyment set in.
These two strains, one with sake as the intermediary between shaman and the natural world (in some parts of Japan a drunken man is said to be possessed by the “kamisama”) and the other as the congenial life companion that helps return us to our original guileless nature, combine to give Japan its positive outlook towards alcohol enjoyment. Of course there are plenty of countries where people enjoy wine, but the importance of inebriation in drinking aesthetics is somewhat depreciated as aficionados dabble with food pairing or go in for analyzing grape varieties, regions, vintages, etc., not to mention devising outlandish flavor descriptors filled with marshmallows, hazelnuts and gooseberries. Sake-drinkers, on the other hand, have few pretensions; they hold alcohol in genuine affection and believe that the consciousness-enhancing attribute of sake is basically a good thing in its own right.
At various sake tastings and staff trainings over the years I have trotted out the theory that one reason sake is picking up new admirers is the quality of the alcohol inebriation. Experienced drinkers agree that each alcoholic beverage has its own distinct footprint. A few hours of beer drinking produces plenty of manly camaraderie, but also a very full belly, making it hard to maintain a sharp edge to the conversation. Spirits on the other hand, even when cut with water, hit the body a lot harder than fermented recreational beverages. It’s hard to pace oneself for four or five hours with scotch, and the distilled alcohol seems to produce a deeper fatigue the next day. Wine, while it has a high enough alcohol content to maintain a lively atmosphere, has always seemed to me to be something you enjoy with a meal rather than on its own. There’s just too much acidity in alcohol made from fruit–on average wine has seven times as much acidity as you find in sake. As long as you pair it with food, wine is a great companion. On its own with a few appetizers, over a lengthy evening, I have some misgivings.
With an alcohol content of fifteen percent, sake metabolizes at just the right pace to sustain an animated–OK, highly animated–conversation. The low acidity and glucose content–now that most sakes are dry–mean that you can drink it without tiring for hours at a stretch, fortified by nutritious morsels of sake appetizers and frequent draughts of fresh water. (It helps too that the cups are so small, as this tends to keep gulping to a minimum.) Sake is the only one of the three great families of fermented beverages produced through dual simultaneous fermentation, during which over a dozen amino acids find their way into the sake vats. This too may contribute to the mental acuity many sake drinkers experience, or think they experience, when sipping away.
Getting back to why sake is so ingrained in Japan’s culture and religion, I think it all comes down to a reverence for rice, which stretches from prehistoric times up to the present day. I can vividly recall coming over the bluff from Shirahama harbor on Iriomote Island, where I grew rice for two years in the mid-70s. The fields of freshly planted seedlings opened up before us like an emerald lagoon on the approach to Sonae village. In those days everyone still practiced yuimawari, with each household helping the next with the planting, and receiving their help in return. Raising the rice seedlings was also a community effort. Everything in village life revolved around the rice planting and harvest. After the long, hard labor of preparing those paddies, your fellow villagers showed up to help you plant from morning until dusk. When you gazed out over your planted paddies and raised a glass of awamori with everyone afterwards, it was more than just sake in a glass. It was a toast to the natural world and to friendship, without which we could not exist in the world: a truly timeless sentiment, and surely worthy of another round.