Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sake Objects

(As a follow-up to Garland's post on tea, below, here is Joshua's post on sake. Thanks Joshua!)

For centuries, sake has been the most important and popular intoxicant in Japanese society. It has played a significant role as the object of religious worship and traditional ceremonies. According to the Japan Sake Brewers Association, "In Japan, sake has always been a way of bringing our gods and people together" ( The religious function of sake, therefore, can be seen as an intermediary between the real world and the spirit world. With such an important function to fulfill within the religious realm, many objects associated with the drinking of sake have also taken on a religious significance.

For example, the Omiwa Shrine in Nara Prefecture houses a deity of sake brewing. The sugi (Japanese cedar) leaves at the shrine were traditionally used to create a sugidama, which is a container made of tightly bound leaves used to store sake. Following the first batch of sake made at a brewery each year, it is placed in a sugidama, and hung out in front of the brewery. The sugi tree and its leaves are religiously significant for the Japanese as it is said that if sake is placed in the sugidama, it cannot go bad (

Also made from the sugi tree is the masu, a square box of 180 millilitres made from sugi wood which is traditionally used to drink sake from. During feudal times, the masu was used to measure rice but over time came to be used as a cup for sake. This new function arose because the strong cedar taste associated with the masu complemented the sugidama’s flavor. However in modern times, the masu has generally been replaced by the ochoko or simply a glass. In Japanese restaurants though, it is not uncommon to see a mix of the past and the present: a glass placed inside a masu, with both the glass and the masu filled to the top with sake as a sign of hospitality.

In addition to the religious and traditional significance of objects associated with sake, many are also works of art. This can be seen in the variability of artistically designed tokkuris (flasks) or ochokos (cups). Unlike in Western society where glasses and bottles associated with drinking alcohol have little artistic relevance, artistry in objects associated with sake is essential to one’s enjoyment of the sake. The tokkuri is a ceramic flask in which sake is typically served. It usually has a large body and a narrow neck, however, it may come in all shapes and sizes. The tokkuris are hand made by potters. Same goes for ochokos, which are small cups from which to drink sake. They usually broaden at the neck to allow the aroma of the sake to move upwards. It is believed that the nicer the tokkuri or ochoko is, the more enjoyment one will receive from drinking its contents( Therefore, as a result of the importance placed on sake in Japanese culture, the objects associated with its brewing and drinking have also taken on a special significance.

~guest blogger, Joshua Kropveld