It might not be obvious at first, but the act of pouring sake for someone is not just a modern dining tradition; it has roots in Japan’s native religion of Shinto. In fact, Shinto’s influence on the Japanese lifestyle extends to sake culture. Notice, for instance, the deep reverence the “toji” (brewmaster) has for rice, water and the land surrounding the brewery. This is a reflection of the Shinto belief that sacred spirits take the form of all things important to life. Another example that goes hand-in-hand with sake culture is the practice of sharing a meal equally among members of a group, which follows a Shinto tenet regarding group harmony.
Similar to Shinto — which is in many ways not just a religion but a philosophy and lifestyle — sake is more than a beverage. Sake is intentional and communal, and sharing sake with a meal is a starting point in building and strengthening relationships.
At Tippsy, we love to make any and every occasion an opportunity to drink sake, but here are a few Japanese traditions where sake plays a key role.
“Kagami biraki” is a tradition that marks new beginnings and important events like weddings, corporate anniversaries and sporting events. It also takes place in early October, when brewers and friends celebrate World Sake Day, the start of the brewing season.
A wooden mallet is used to break through the wooden lid of a sake cask. The cask varies in size depending on the guest count, and the largest one can hold an impressive 72 liters of sake! The honor of the strike is held by the host, VIP guests or designees, and it’s a lot of fun to watch them “plan” their strike as the emcee proceeds with introductions and commentary. There are a lot of head nods, smiles and anticipation for the moment, and on the third call of “Yoisho!” the barrel is broken.
Then, the sake is happily distributed in “masu” (cubic sake cups made of Japanese wood) to all the guests for a group kampai and sharing of good fortune.
San san kudo
Another sake-related tradition performed at Japanese weddings is “san san kudo,” which means “three three nine times.” Here, three special “sakazuki” cups are stacked on top of each other in a tiered arrangement to symbolize the couple’s ancestral past, present and future. As the couple take turns drinking from each cup three times, they are brought together in marriage.
Sakazuki are shallow, wide, footed sake cups that are traditionally used in weddings and other formal ceremonies. A unique feature of sakazuki is that they typically only hold two or three sips worth of sake, which moderates sake intake and allows the host to show their hospitality by refilling the cup. Some sakazuki are made with special techniques, like this gorgeous silver, moon-like cup, and others are more casual for daily life, like the “Shohogama” Somekarakusa Sakazuki.
Of the ancient words that describe sake, “miki” or “omiki” has survived into modern Japanese. Omiki is the offering of sake to the gods when making a request or thanking them for good fortune. As sake is considered a gift from the earth and a blessing from the gods, brewers rely on divine favor. They visit their local shrine or offer omiki at a small altar inside the brewery itself to pray for a successful brewing season.
Another important function of omiki is during groundbreaking ceremonies. Prior to constructing a home or other building, Shinto priests offer omiki to purify the land of evil spirits and pray for the protection of construction workers and the building’s new inhabitants. After the ceremony, the sake is shared by participants in “naorai,” a communal act of partaking in the food and sake after it has been offered to and blessed by the gods.
Perhaps the most extensive and significant naorai is performed by the emperor of Japan during an annual ritual called “Niinamesai.” Under the American Occupation, all Shinto rituals and ceremonies including this one were abolished by General Douglas MacArthur. Every November, however, the Niinamesai is still privately carried out by the emperor and two assistants within a special hall of the Imperial Palace. Once labeled as “The Emperor’s Most Difficult Ritual” in an article by Japan Forward, it is a highly ceremonial one that sees the aged emperor clad in long robes and conducting several rounds of offerings during a two-day period. In sharing sake with the gods, the emperor prays for the divine protection of his people.
Changing of the seasons
One of the major Shinto beliefs is respect for nature, and this is widely practiced and observed across all of Japan. These nature-focused celebrations have extended far beyond the country. Most of us are familiar with “hanami” (flower-viewing) during cherry blossom season, but “tsukimi” (moon-viewing) has become increasingly popular in the United States, too.
As sake breweries are closely in tune with the changes in their environment, many produce seasonal sake that reflect the beauty of the seasons and the seasonal foods that come along with it. In autumn, for example, “hiyaoroshi” is the specialty sake to look forward to. This type of sake is pasteurized only once in the spring, stored and aged over the summer, and bottled in the fall sans the second pasteurization, which gives it time to deepen its umami aromas and flavors.
Using a sake warmer or tokkuri in a warm bath to gently warm this sake to a desired temperature is a great way to experiment with the versatility of hiyaoroshi. “Guinomi” cups, like this beautiful copper-hued vessel, add to the autumnal sensory experience.
Sake is Japan’s spirit
Sake is an enjoyable beverage with aromas and flavors like no other. What makes it extra special, however, is how it truly reflects the spirit and the history of Japan, and the importance of connecting people with nature and the divine — and with each other.
In a 2000 presentation to the Japan Society in New York City, Daimon Yasutaka, sixth-generation brewer of Daimon Brewing Company, offered an insightful explanation of sake’s role as the pinnacle beverage:
“The most important of all the food and drink items offered to a god is sake. Sake itself is a blessing from the gods, and it is created by brewing rice, another gift from the gods. Not only that, the light inebriation we feel when we drink sake is a special feeling that can be likened to being transported to another world, so it is viewed as a very special drink amongst the offerings.”
It would be difficult to find a ceremony where sake is not part of the celebration in some form, and yet, one does not need to be ceremonious to enjoy sake and everything it represents.
“Shinto: A Japanese Religion.” Asia Society.
Hirata Paku, Kayoko. “SAKE 101: Kagami Biraki.” Sake Times, 2022.
Hoy, Selena. “You Can Expect These 6 Customs at a Traditional Japanese Wedding.” Brides, 2022.
Ito, Koichiro. “Inside the Niinamesai: The Emperor’s Most Difficult Ritual.” Japan Forward, 2017.
“Thanksgiving and Sake: Niiname-sai (Shinjo-sai).” Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association, 2021.
“Matsuri.” Encyclopedia Britannica.
“Shinto literature and mythology.” Encyclopedia Britannica.
“Omiki or Omikisakaya.” SakeFan World, 2018.
“Sake in Japanese Tradition and Culture.” Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association.
N. Matsumoto and M. Tremblay. “Exploring the World of Japanese Craft Sake.” The Textbook for International Kikisake-shi, 2nd edition, April 2020.
Yasutaka, Daimon. “Sake - Drink of the Gods, Drink for the People.” Speech to Japan Society, New York City, 2000.