Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Kanpai! (Cheers!)

(This post is from Karen, and well-timed for our consideration of carnival. Thank you Karen!)

Like many things we’ve come across in our studies of Japanese religions, legend has it that sake (酒) originated in China. Sake production and consumption dates back to 2200 B.C.E. and according to the tale, sake was presented to King Wu of Zhou who enjoyed the drink so immensely that he went on to pass a law banning its consumption for fear of, “Sake [being] so good that people will surely be unable to limit their drinking and will ruin themselves and the country” (Naotaka). The ban was said to have been short lived and sake eventually made its way across the sea to Japan in the sixth century.

In Japan two forms of sake were produced and these were originally made by masticating rice. Depending on who was doing the chewing, you would either end up with the sake for religious rituals or the sake for social imbibition. Young virgins were the only ones who could produce the former (Naotaka). Yum!

As a derivative of rice – the paramount crop of Japan – sake has become key in many Shinto rituals and has taken on a purifying aspect. Sake production for Shinto use ultimately made its way to the sakadono or shrine’s wine hall where two types of ritual sake (also known as miki) were made: shiroki (light sake) and kuroki (dark sake) (Schumacher). These were produced for the numerous Shinto rituals where sake is the central element, such as naorai where a ritualized collective consumption of sake takes place. The sanku is another example of a ritual practice involving sake and is traditionally done at celebrations that honor a local or household kami. The ceremonial procedure involves sake, rice, cloth, or money being sprinkled about the four corners and the center of a ritual site, as an offering to the kami. A further instance of a sake ceremony traditionally performed at a Shinto shrine is the San-san-kudo (three-three-nine times). This ritual takes place during the Shinto marriage service, and involves the bride and the groom taking three sips of sake each from three nuptial cups as part of the ceremony’s matrimonial binding (Gauntner). (Check out a modern day san-san-kudo at

Nature produces rice from which we get sake, therefore sake is considered to be, “a blessing from the gods” (Yasutaka). As a lot of sake is consumed because of its purifying nature (and because lets face it, its just that good), rituals must be performed in which sake is the key offering for the kami. This is because, as we have learned, to be virtuous and to show respect and thanks to the kami, their gifts to us must be returned to them. Also, sake is unique because of the light intoxication felt after its consumption. This inebriated feeling is likened to the feeling of being carried off into another world (Yasutaka), perhaps clarifying for us why sake is given such a special status in Shinto rituals.

Before I wrap up, here are a few interesting sake-related things:

The ten virtues of sake from “Mochi-Sake” (Cake and Sake), a kyōgen play:

  1. Provides a friend when alone
  2. Produces harmony for all people
  3. Allows ordinary people to greet nobles with ease
  4. Justifies meeting with friends
  5. Provides companionship while traveling
  6. Promotes long life
  7. Is the king of 100 medicines
  8. Helps sorrow to disappear
  9. Aids recovery from fatigue
  10. Warms the body in the cold

(borrowed from Naotaka Shinfuku’s “Japanese Culture and Drinking”)

Become a sake expert:


Learn how to pair sake with food:


A guide to sake ceramics:


~guest blogger, Karen Simon