Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Like the manga about which I wrote a while back sake –as is its international name since the word used in Japan is “nihonshu”/日本酒 that is “Japanese alcoholic beverage”- is one of those “classic” Japanese subjects about which I feel insecure: I constantly see it around me –in the votive barrels in front of Shinto shrines, in the izakaya menus, in supermarket shelves, in weddings and opening ceremonies, on graves and in advertisements and as an ingredient in dozens of recipes- but I never got involved with it so I could find the details that make a Kubota junmai-daiginjo-shu (純米大吟醸酒) from Niigata better than a mass-produced “One Cup” by Ozeki sold in konbinis in a drinking glass packaging and usually bought (or left empty next to smoking areas) by the homeless; considering that I don’t care much for its taste, I doubt I ever will.
What I find impressing when it comes to sake is an inconsistency between the way it is promoted and the reality I experience in everyday life: on one hand everybody refers to it as “Japan’s national drink”, everybody talks about its history going back over 1000 years, everybody praises its brewing techniques involving top quality rice, water and knowledge and secrets handed down reverently from one generation to the next and on the other, very few order it over whisky or beer in restaurants or bars or buy it in liquor stores. And even though in a country of 130 million people “very few” means “quite a few” perhaps they are not enough since fro what I hear, sake breweries are diminishing literally with every passing day and those who can really appreciate its intricacies are not more than those who can do the same with wine in Western societies.
With time I tend to reach the conclusion that sake is akin to green tea, sumo, sushi or brush and ink calligraphy: one more of those elements that the Japanese believe define them because they must define them, one more piece of their cultural mosaic which can’t be missing because if it does, it leaves its image incomplete. Even though it has lost in their preference the place it probably had 100 years ago and even though most Japanese now drink it in special occasions, it remains –if only by name- the drink more closely identified with their national identity and the one which has the closer-knit relationship with their countless religious and secular traditions. As long as these traditions continue existing –and there are no indications they will not- sake will continue accompanying them even as a formality; as often happens in Japan, the difference between form and essence is irrelevant.
“Kanpai” (かんぱい) means “cheers” in Japanese –it’s the most common generic toast.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.