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The Origin of Sake

Updated: 4 days ago


A scene depicting brewers from the Edo Period in Nada.

There are many things we still don’t know about the history of sake. One example is the question of its birthplace. Three regions – Shimane, Nara and Hyogo - all claim to be its rightful birthplace, and all actively promote this aspect when trying to attract inbound tourism. So how do we determine which of them is correct? Well, before any discussion can begin, we need to first qualify exactly what we mean by sake.


As no doubt most readers will know, the word sake in Japanese refers to all alcoholic beverages. Nihonshu, however, is used to refer specifically to those made by fermenting rice and rice-koji. Finally, seishu serves as a legal term for nihonshu which crucially stipulates the separation of solids (lees) from the mash, a process often referred to as ‘’pressing’’ in English. This last definition is crucial to this discussion as it helps draw a line between the origins of alcoholic beverages made from rice, and those by the more sophisticated techniques utilised to make modern definitions of seishu.


Historians are yet to determine where and when the first alcoholic beverage made using rice occurred in Japan. There are many theories but given that the earliest archaeological sites of rice cultivation in Japan were found in Kyushu, geographically close to China and the Korean peninsula where the techniques originated, most historians agree that sake would most likely have followed the same path and spread up through the Japanese archipelago from there.


This early sake would have been rudimentary and most likely involved chewing uncooked rice that would be regurgitated into vessels of some sort until alcohol could be detected. This method is known as kuchi-kami, often wrongly reported to have been carried out exclusively by so-called shrine maidens, young female virgins who were given the task of chewing the rice. In truth, kuchi-kami sake made in shrines is just a small part of its history, and its production was carried out by ordinary people, both men and women, throughout several regions in Japan well into the modern era. Furthermore, sake from ancient times such as this bear little resemblance to modern seishu and it wasn’t until Japan’s Medieval Period (widely considered to be from 1185 until 1573) that the techniques that define modern seishu finally began to take shape.


Of the three regions previously mentioned, only Nara and Hyogo specifically claim to be the birthplace of seishu, whereas Shimane often uses the more ambiguous term nihonshu, or simply sake. Therefore, before we even begin investigating their respective claims, there is already a clear distinction to be made. However, as Shimane is often referenced in books and articles as ‘’the birthplace of sake’’ without this distinction being made, it needs to be investigated within the same framework. So, let’s look at each of these three regions and their respective claims to determine which of them truly deserves this coveted title.


Shimane

The history of Shimane is deeply entwined with Japanese mythology. Before the prefectural system was introduced with the Meiji Restoration (1868), the current boundaries of Shimane Prefecture consisted of three provinces: Iwami, Oki and Izumo. The latter of these is home to Izumo Taisha (officially Izumo Oyashiro), a Shinto shrine thought to be the oldest in Japan. The main deity is Okuninushi no Okami, who according to both the Kojiki (711-712) and Nihon Shoki (720) – Japan’s two oldest official historic accounts – was responsible for Japan’s creation. Therefore, the main purpose of these documents was to provide an origin story for Japan’s Imperial Family. However, they also contain some of the earliest references to sake, and it is these two sources that Shimane primarily rests its claim.



Izumu Taisha in Shimane Prefecture.


Most commonly, this comes from the tale of Susanoo-no-Mikoto, the Storm God, and his battle with an eight-headed serpent known as Yamata-no-Orochi. In brief, upon descending from heaven to Izumo, Sasanoo encounters an elderly couple weeping for their daughter who is to be sacrificed to appease the dreaded serpent. Susanoo makes a deal to slay the beast in return for their daughter’s hand in marriage. He does so by instructing them to brew a strong batch of sake, fermented eight times and divided into eight vats, one for each of the serpent’s heads. With the beast duly obliging by drinking all eight vats, Susanoo seizes the opportunity by killing the inebriated serpent.


The story of Yamata-no-Orochi has ensured a long history of association between Izumo and sake. Coupled with Shimane’s undoubtably impressive tradition of sake brewing, the narrative that sake originated here has taken root over the years. However, although we have little way of knowing how sake was made back when the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki were written, including the method of multiple fermentation mentioned, we do know that the techniques that define modern seishu weren’t established until several centuries after they were written. Shimane’s claim to be the birthplace of sake therefore rests upon ancient mythology, and there is nothing evidential to suggest that it is the rightful birthplace of sake or seishu.


Nara

Nara’s claim to be the birthplace of sake is a strong one. Whereas Shimane’s rests on mythology, Nara’s is backed up by an extant medieval brewing manual and the dairies of business savvy Buddhist monks. As mentioned previously, Nara’s claim is specific to seishu, putting it in direct competition with Hyogo who makes the same claim. So, before we look closer at the primary resources supporting this claim, it is important to first establish what differentiates seishu from the other rice-derived alcoholic beverages that proceeded it.


The key to understanding the meaning of seishu 清酒 is the first Chinese character, or kanji, that comprises this two-syllable word. This has the meaning of pure or cleansed. Its opposite can be found in the original kanji used for nigorizake 濁酒, which nowadays is often written using kana (Japanese syllabary) and translated as meaning ‘’cloudy’’ or ‘’coarsely filtered’’. However, the alternative reading, doburoku 濁酒, refers to an unrefined beverage that, although still made by fermenting rice and koji, differs from seishu to the extent that they can be considered opposites within the nihonshu spectrum. Specifically, there is no legal requirement to separate the solids (sake kasu) from the liquids, resulting in an unrefined brew similar in appearance to modern nigorizake.


One of the primary sources supporting Nara’s claim, the Goshu no Nikki (Sake Journal), widely regarded as the first book on sake brewing still in existence, provides us with insight into the development of brewing techniques that would make something closely resembling seishu possible. Historians are still unclear as to when it was written, with the two most popular theories being either 1355 or 1489. It contains the recipe for 6 types of sake, thought to be the most popular styles or brands of the time, including one called goshu of which the book takes its name.



A stone marker at Shoryaku-ji in Nara inscribed with the words The Birthplace of Japanese Seishu.

Two of the other recipes are brands of sake produced in temples, the most famous of these being bodaisen brewed at Shoryaku-ji in Nara. As a result of their access to more advanced brewing technology from China, sake brewed in temples during this time is thought to have been superior quality to their competition, specifically the unrefined doburoku being produced in sakaya (private enterprises mostly based in what is now modern-day Kyoto-City). Methods such as pasteurisation, dankake (stage mashing), and, crucially, the separation of lees using cloth bags are all mentioned.


The Tamon’in Nikki, essentially a diary kept by the monks of a sub-temple of Kofuku-ji in Nara between 1478 and 1618, also contains details of these new brewing methods, documenting the use of sake made by polishing both the rice used for koji and that added straight to the mash, a method known as morohaku. Most of these methods are the still the foundations of modern sake brewing, and it is said to have all started at Shoryaku-ji. It is specifically this that Nara stakes its claim to be birthplace of sake, and today a stone marker can be found outside the temple to commemorate this.


Hyogo (Itami)

The last region for consideration is Hyogo, or more specifically Itami located just north-east of Osaka. Hyogo is best known these days within the sake industry for the brewing powerhouse of Nada, a narrow stretch of land spanning roughly 24 kilometres from Kobe City in the west to Nishinomiya in the east. Nada rose to prominence during the mid-to-late-Edo Period (1600-1868), a time of incredible growth in the sake industry. It continues to produce more sake than any other region and is home to some of the largest sake breweries in Japan. However, up until the middle of the Edo period it was nearby Itami that enjoyed the most growth and success. Sake from Itami, collectively known as either tanjo (the tan is from Itami and jyo means to brew in Japanese) or itami-morohaku, dominated the Edo market with famous brands like Kenbishi, Otokoyama, and Oimatsu, paving the way for Nada in the future.


The story of Itami’s rise began in 1600 in the small village of Konoike, now part of Itami City, when Shinroku Yukimoto, the son of a famous samurai from the Warring States period (1467-1568), sent sake by packhorse to Edo. The enthusiastic response from consumers in Edo became a platform for one of the biggest sales booms in sake history. Over the next century, the population of Edo swelled to over 1 million, providing the perfect opportunity for sake brewers in and around the capital (still Kyoto until 1868) to sell their wares. During this time, Kyoto and its vicinity was known as Kamigata, and Sake sent to Edo from here became known as kudari-zake, which roughly means ‘’to send sake down from Kamigata’’.


The enterprising actions of skilled merchants like Yukimoto, who fused this commercialism with the brewing technology developed in Nara, gave brewers in Itami an advantage over the competition. For the first time, sake was being made on a large-scale by professional brewers under the auspices of the Shogun. Free from the numerous challenges of prolonged conflict, sake brewers were able to concentrate on developing their craft. What followed was a raft of innovative new techniques and commercialism the likes of which the industry had never seen.


One notable development was an early method of filtration. Brewers discovered that if wood ash was added to the mash and allowed to settle it would turn what had been up until that point a turbid sake into a clear one. The term used was sumizake, and how it was discovered has become folklore in the industry. The story goes that a disgruntled employee of a sake brewer decided to take revenge on his owner by tipping the ash from the brazier into the tanks of sake. When they awoke the next morning, not only had it not spoiled, but it had also become clear. However, although not known for certain, some historians believe that this story is apocryphal, and more likely the method was created through a concerted effort to improve quality. Regardless, as filtration is not a requisite for making seishu (filtration and pressing are not related), it doesn’t support Itami’s claim to the rightful birthplace of sake.


Itami rests its claim on the early efforts of enterprising merchants such as Yukimoto who first made sake possible on an industrial scale. As we have already established, although the brewing techniques that define seishu were first practiced in Buddhist temples in Nara, it was Itami that took this knowledge and applied it to large-scale brewing. This laid the foundations for today’s sake industry, and a stone plaque can be found in what was once Konoike Village with roughly the same inscription as the one found at Shoryaku-ji in Nara.


Conclusion

Like most things in the world of sake, the story of its origin is complicated. Of the three regions discussed in this article, one is based on ancient mythology. The real contention lies with the remaining two who both make the same claim to be the rightful birthplace of seishu. In trying to decide between them, the crucial point for consideration is whether you believe that what was achieved in Itami was central to the concept of seishu. This issue will therefore remain subjective and, with very little potential for anything further to come to light to help resolve the issue, it is likely to stay that way.


Personally, I believe that the essence of seishu is found in the methods that are used to make it, not the scale to which it is made. Therefore, from the two serious candidates I believe that Nara is the rightful birthplace. What was achieved in sake brewing during the three centuries that proceeded the Edo Period provided the industry with the necessary techniques that continue to make sake the wonderful beverage it is today. Although widely believed within the industry that sake was later perfected during the Edo Period, a view I also share, the foundations were already in place, inherited from temple brewing in places like Shoryaku-ji. What was achieved in Itami, and in its predecessor Nada, undoubtably propelled the industry to new heights of consumerism, and began a national obsession with sake from the Kamigata region. However, it was Nara that provided them with the necessary techniques and knowhow to make a product of national recognition.


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