The experiences we have when we travel and the new friends we make throughout our journeys are always a reason to propose a toast. Of course, depending on the destination you visit, you’ll toast with a glass of Riesling, if you’re in Germany, a shot of tequila, if you’re in Mexico, or in the case of Japan, a cup of nihonshu, known worldwide as sake.
Origins of Sake
In the Japanese culture, any kind of alcoholic beverage is known as sake, even if it’s beer or wine. The word nihonshu is used by the Japanese to name this liquor elaborated from rice. However, the Japanese sell it abroad with the name sake because it’s the term that has become popular in the western world.
Sake possesses a history of 2,500 years, that is, since growing rice became the main agricultural activity in Japan. There are various stories regarding its origin, some historical, some mythical; but what they all agree on is that, since the beginning, this drink was produced mainly for the consumption of the emperor and for ceremonial uses. That’s why in the 15th century it was only brewed in Buddhist shrines and temples, where they developed the elaboration techniques that are still used nowadays. Before that century, fermented rice was already used to produce koji –a type of fungus that comes from cooked fermented rice and that is part of the ingredients needed to prepare miso soup– but then it started being used in the production of diverse jisaké (regional sake) and, particularly, in the elaboration of morohaku sake, a version that’s very similar to the one we drink today.
Sake Rice Varieties
When you travel to Japan plan a long trip and prepare to try the multiple varieties of cold and hot sake you’ll find. There are close to 50 types of rice that are utilized in the making of sake, but it's not the same kind as the one used in meals. Specifically, if you visit Hiroshima prefecture, try Omachi; in Nagano, order Miyama-Nishiki. In Hyogo, visit Nada-ku, one of the best sake producing areas. Its specialty is the Yamada-nishiki sake, whose rice is treated with water that’s rich in calcium and potassium both of which improve the refinement quality.
The fifth Taste of Sake: Umami
Sake tasting is related to the concept of umami (delicious) which in Japanese culture is a fifth taste, discovered by Kikunae Ikeda in 1909. According to Ikeda's results, the fifth taste is related to the amount of amino acids within a certain food. Sake also contains them.
Describing umami is difficult because it's a combination of different flavors, so you’ll have to travel to Japan in order to discover it. According to experts, a top-quality sake has umami, an indescribable and engaging flavor that catches your taste buds.
Apart from drinking sake in restaurants all across the archipelago, DINKtravelers recommends visiting the Otokoyama Sake Museum in Asahikawa, Hokkaido prefecture, where apart from seeing a permanent exhibit, you’ll learn, first hand, the process of elaboration of sake, with information available in English for foreign travelers. Also, don’t miss the Kobe Sawanotsuru Museum, in Hyogo prefecture, where you’ll learn about the culture of sake consumption. There you’ll also get the chance to visit their exclusive Tax-free souvenir shop!
Premium Japanese Sake
According to the Japanese, the quality of sake depends on three main factors that are commonly described with the phrase waza-mizu-kome:
Waza – technical knowledge for its elaboration
Mizu – quality of the water used in its production
- Kome – Quality of the rice used in its preparation and malting
From these factors sake has different classifications according to its quality, the best one is known as Junmai Daiginjo, due its handcraft elaboration it only contains rice and koji.
A Toast With Sake
Japan is a country that’s full of rituals, and drinking sake is no exception. The ritual for drinking sake is accompanied by the Japanese idea of oshaku, which means sharing and serving each other. Follow these simple rules to enjoy sake like a native:
The main etiquette rule when drinking sake in Japan is never to drink alone. Wait until other diners are poured their drink and for one of them to offer a toast, to which everyone will reply: Kanpai!
Whoever is sitting next to you will refill your ochoko (sake cup) with his/her own tokkuri (sake bottle). Be reciprocal and pour that person more sake from your own bottle.
When someone pours you more sake, show courtesy by holding your cup with both hands, one at the cup's base and the other around. Watch the process without looking elsewhere.
Even if the cups are small, avoid drinking the sake in a single drink; remember that Japanese consider sake important to develop a healthy social life.