Saké to Drink, Saké to Enjoy—Part 1

In place, the sugidama sends out a message to all that see it.  Masao Matsumoto Photo © Copyright
The British drink beer, the French drink wine and the Japanese drink saké.  Well, as severe generalisations these statements are useful, although nothing more than what they are—generalisations.

Cedar fronds are pocked into a wire ball.
Masao Matsumoto Photo © Copyright
A wire ball needs to be completely covered with cedar fronds.
Masao Matsumoto Photo © Copyright
The ball is trimmed and then the sugidama is put in place.
Masao Matsumoto Photo © Copyright
It is probable that saké was first made in Japan some fifteen-hundred years ago.  Initially it seems not to have been a particularly strong liquor but gradually fulfilled various religious needs as well as being used on festive occasions at the imperial court and for drinking games in a slightly more potent form from the end of the eight-century onwards.  It was not until much later that it became a drink of the general populous and these days it would not be wrong to call it the national tipple.

The inner sanctum.  The white plaster walls of the sakekura—a store house with thick wall—are as much a part of the brewing scene as the distinctive aroma.  Masao Matsumoto Photo © Copyright
Steaming of the rice.  Masao Matsumoto Photo © Copyright
Today there are saké breweries all over the country.  Some of the larger ones produce in excess of seventy-thousand kilo litres a year, while the smaller ones each make between 200 to 1000 kilo litres per annum, mostly using traditional labour-intensive methods.

No outsiders allowed.  This is the room in which the koji is put to work on the steamed rice.  Masao Matsumoto Photo © Copyright
A small brewery such as the Nakajima Brewery in Wajima still follows traditions, including the making of what is called a sugidama.  Cedar tree fronds are fashioned into a large ball, which is usually hung under its very own little roof, beneath the eaves of the brewery.  And what is it for?  Firstly it is made to give thanks to the deity of saké and to ask for protection.  Secondly it is a sign that a new brew of saké has been made over the winter.  The fresh green of the cedar fronds shows that the new brew is now beginning its maturing process and so, as the green gradually darkens to a warm brown as the fronds dry, it is an indication of the ageing of the saké, which will be ready in the autumn.

Traditionally, cedar wood barrels were used in the making of saké, hence the use of cedar tree fronds to make a sugidama.  Modern brewing methods, however, have seen the introduction of ceramic-lined or stainless steel tanks, resulting in a major improvement in the quality and purity of the saké, especially since the beginning of the twentieth-century.

Fermentation tanks.  The gentle sound of bubbling and the aroma from the mash are a sign that things are happening.  Masao Matsumoto Photo © Copyright
Although sometimes called “rice wine”, saké is brewed more like a beer than wine.  Rice is first washed and steamed before yeast and koji are mixed in.  Koji is a rice cultivated with a mould—aspergillus oryzae.  The mixture is then allowed to ferment with more rice, koji and water added over four days in three batches.  The resulting mash sits from between 18 to 32 days and is then pressed, filtered and blended.  Result: a clear liquid with a distinctive fragrance and broadly speaking either a dry, sharp flavour or a  heavier sweetness both of which have their own followers.  Me?  Well, I enjoy the dry, sharp flavoured brands.

There are a number of different types of saké as well as several grades.  The top ranking grades are more expensive, they have the most complex flavours and rich aromatic qualities.

Part 2 will follow soon.

Grateful thanks to Masao Matsumoto for the photographs and information, and to Nakajima Sake Brewery for its cooperation.  Thanks, too, must go to John Gauntner at sake-world.com for his expert advise.

Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.  Thank you.


Educating the Young

With a Little Help….
Wood as a material has been used by human-kind for a very long time but it was not fashioned in any significant way until after the development of stone tools and then later by the production of metal tools.  In time this led to an age when all manner of tableware such as drinking vessels, plates, platters, spoons and bowls were commonly seen along side more utilitarian pieces of household goods like buckets and, of course, all kinds of furniture.

Contemporary Treen—David Woodward, the well-known turner, has recently started to produce a lot of functional pieces of treen rather than turning pieces simply for display.  This is partly because of a visit to Japan and becoming exposed to the everyday pieces turned and lacquered tableware he saw when he was there.  He has not as yet tried using true lacquer as a finish.  At present he is using several coats of sunflower oil and then finishing with a pure bees wax.  He has also been pleased with the look of a walnut oil finish, and favours a matt or satin finish for his work.  David Woodward Photo © Copyright
It was tableware and smaller items made of wood which came to be known in Britain as treen.  As treen plates were used they became impregnated with the remains of what was placed on them and with regular washing developed the kind of patina that these days would be exalted by some but condemned by others.

The warm colour of the wood is enhanced 
rather than masked by the oil finish of 
David’s work.  
David Woodward Photo © Copyright
Surely wood harbours germs and bacteria.  Well, that would certainly be the commonest reaction to wooden tableware as it is to chopping boards.  Recent research, however, has shown that, if properly maintained, wooden chopping boards are less likely to cause infection than plastic ones.  This was discovered by Dean O. Cliver (Ph.D.) who undertook research prompted by the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

So, apart from the humble fruit bowl, why has treen tableware more or less disappeared from our homes?  In England during the latter part of the the seventeenth-century wood was still to be found on the dining tables of the gentry but it was gradually being replaced with articles made of pewter, silver and ceramics.  The less privileged members of society, however, had to be content with wooden bowls and spoons for some time.

In Japan, however, pieces of tableware made of wood are still in use today.  But that statement must be qualified.  Tableware made of wood would not still have been used today if it were not for true lacquer as a finish.  True lacquer provides a durable coating to all kinds of tableware and with relatively little extra care can be used on a daily basis for many years.

After 30 years of almost continuous use, a cheaper true lacquerware bowl shows signs of wear but it can be easily repaired.  Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright
Wajima is one of the many places in Japan where lacquerware is still being manufactured and it is especially noted for its durability.  This being the case, it would seem reasonable to expect everyone, even the young, to know at least something of its merits and attributes.  But, as is often the case, familiarity breeds contempt.

A soup bowl is raised to the lips and, although the soup may be hot, the ground and several coats of true lacquer on the wooden core of the bowl mean that it is not too hot to handle and the sensation on the lips is a pleasant one.  Many woodturners in the U.K. are disappointed that the true lacquer finish completely masks the wood grain of the core.  Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

It was some fifteen years ago that the Wajima Lacquerware Cooperative discovered that even many local people were using cheap synthetic pieces of lacquerware in preference to the locally produced and infinitely superior authentic article.  This came as something of a shock and steps were immediately taken to make people more aware of the craft on their doorsteps.

Tray-tables set out with bowls 
in the style of a traditional 
wedding. Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright
It was, in fact, the Saishitsukai, a group of very particular ladies, who on a voluntary basis got things moving.  Just who are these ladies?  They are okami.

It must first be realised that the running of a family owned lacquerware workshop is not only the domain of men.  The wife of the head of the family—okami—is as much involved in the day to day running of the business as her husband.  She needs to be mindful of the needs of all the staff, including those with specialist craft skills, and must also be alert to the needs of the customer.  So, compared to many other businesses, the position of okami is of special importance.  They take particular pride in their work, have a strong sense of responsibility and purpose and make a significant contribution to how well the family business thrives and prospers.

Part of this work of informing the public involved introducing the art and culture of authentic pieces of local lacquerware to final year pupils at local primary schools.  The cooperative was seeking to make friends for its product by making sure, for instance, that if and when a young man or woman left the Noto Peninsula to get married or to work in another area of Japan, at least they would be able to knowledgeably sing the praises of Wajima true lacquerware wherever they settled.

A school lunch set out on table-trays.

Holding the bowl of rice in the left hand, other food is conveyed to the mouth over the rice to avoid any spillages.

Although presentations began at pre-school level, it was a request from a local primary school which really set the ball rolling.  The project has now been in place for more than ten years and pupils graduate with their own personalised lacquerware bowl.

Tea is poured in a genteel manner.  Having a loose fitting lid ensures a controlled and elegant position of the hand.

No scourer!  True lacquerware requires careful handling and rewards us with a finish that matures in colour and appearance over time.

Careful drying is also essential.  No dishwashers please.

The sessions at school last about 30~40 minutes over the lunch period and include instruction in manners.  Everybody joins in serving and setting out  the meal, which is served in the traditional way on low tray-tables placed on the floor.  Teachers have seen an unexpected improvement in the manners and general attitude of the pupils and so, what was initially seen as a way of making the pupils more aware of true lacquerware has helped to prepare the children for life in the wider world by equipping them with some social skills they will benefit from in the future.  Even hearing that Buddhist monks put a little hot water in their rice bowl to release the last few grains of sticky rice from the bowl and then drink them makes the children realise that food should be treated with as much respect as the tableware and the people who are involved in providing and preparing it.  All this can be learned with a little help.

Unless stated otherwise, photographs are courtesy of Yoshiko Daiku.  Photo © Copyright

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