Saké to Drink, Saké to Enjoy—Part 2

So, the saké is brewed and ready for drinking.  No, not just drinking.  For enjoyment too.  During my twenty-four year stay in Japan, there was never a time when drinking saké was not a pleasurable event.  This had much to do with the circumstance in which I found myself.  I was lucky enough to drink with house-building carpenters when they had finished erecting the framework of a new house.  Saké and salt were first sprinkled on all four corners of the framework at ground level to give thanks for what had been achieved in safety, and then the eating and drinking began.  What a happy atmosphere there was.

All kinds of fun and silliness are allowed at hana-mi—a time to enjoy the cherry blossom
and each other's company.
I drank with fellow university students, friends and colleagues and every time without fail it became an experience that I shall never ever forget.  It was not just the company and saké that made the experience so good.  There was no unpleasantness, just pure pleasure and enjoyment.  I cannot deny that on a few occasions inebriation was a regrettable outcome but on the whole, there was no embarrassment.  Oh, the hana-mi parties!

The enjoyment had much to do with the conviviality of the surroundings.  Japanese bars are so welcoming, the staff so attentive and the food and saké so good.

As many readers will know, if a group of people are drinking at a pub or bar in the UK, one member of the party may buy a round of drinks—one drink for each person.  And then each person will do the same.  Recently, however, some people will share the cost of a bottle of wine.  Nowadays people will often just buy their own drinks.

In Japan friends will generally share the cost of drinks and snacks evenly.  In some cases a recognised “sponsor” will foot the bill.  But are there any other pieces of essential etiquette associated with drinking?  As a foreigner you will often be forgiven for any “mistakes” in behaviour but to increase your credibility and to show respect for your host, a little knowledge can go a long way.

A Bezen-ware guinomi and tokkuri—matching drinking cup and flask.
Many gatherings begin with beer with which to say kampai or cheers.  Then some people will drink saké and others may stick with beer or move on to another beverage.

But first you must decide at what temperature you would like to drink your saké.  Traditionally it would be at room temperature—ohiya.  Perhaps as a result of chilling white wine, you might decide to indulge in reishu—chilled saké.  Or then you could have it warmed—atsukan.  Different target temperatures will modify the flavour as will the bracketing of those temperatures.

A saké bottle label for Otoko-yama.
Usually someone will be eager to fill you glass or cup, which you should hold while it is being filled rather than leave it standing on the table.  Then you should do the same in return.  The more friendly the gathering a break from this protocol is allowed, so pouring your own drink is acceptable.  If you are holding your glass or cup, it may be taken as a sign that you would like someone to fill it for you.

Small saké cups are called choko and sometimes hold little more than two or three sips but if the saké is of good quality, quantity is not so much of a consideration.  You should be savouring the flavour and aroma of the saké instead.  Such a small cup is of little use to the more serious drinker out with friends.  They are more likely to use a larger guinomi, or even a small glass.

A selection of choko—only big enough for two or three sips.
Saké is often provided at a table in a flask called a tokkuri.  If a number of men are drinking together, flasks are sometimes laid on their side as a sign that they are empty.  That’s acceptable in some bars and at large gatherings, simply because whoever is serving will know which flasks to clear away.  Such a practice is not, however, acceptable at a high-class restaurant or in formal company.  It doesn’t look so good either.

From l. to r.—Made by Yasuhiro Satake, a lacquerware choko imitating a tea bowl.  A more traditional style, a simple modern version and one with the zodiac sign for the year of the horse.
While choko and guinomi are the norm, and small tumblers are sometimes used too, there is still another vessel for drinking saké.  It’s a masu.  It is actually a measuring box, which was used in the past in different sizes for measuring out commodities such as beans and rice, rather than weighing them.

From l. to r.—A bentwood and lacquered guinomi from Gallery Chikiriya; an old simply decorated one; a modern one and a turned and lacquered version made by Yasuhiro Satake.
Made of cedar, the wood helps to provide an unusual drinking experience to which a small heap of salt on one corner of the masu provides an interesting variation to excite the taste buds.

A selection of masu more for decoration than drinking perhaps but they all fit together in the box.
A masu also figures in yet another way of enjoying saké.  A small glass is stood in a masu and filled with saké until it overflows into the waiting masu.  First you drink from the glass and then either drink the overflow directly from the masu or pour it into the glass to finish it off.  Alternatively, the masu is placed on a small saucer but the result is the same—pour till is overflows.  In whichever case it is not such a refined way of drinking.  Having the saké to overflow is really nothing more than a display of generosity as opposed to meanness.

Yuko Yokoyama Photo © Copyright
There are also highly respectful and elegant ways of pouring and drinking saké but, to do them justice, I would really have to devote a separate post to them.  It is important to say, however, that the drinking and even pouring of saké varies from occasion to occasion and with whom you are drinking.

A saké bottle label for Yoshinogawa.
Although the drinking of saké can be such a pleasurable experience, many sayings about this alcoholic beverage are cautionary, especially about any excessive indulgence.  But that is not so unusual.

One says “Drinking too much saké and sleeping in the morning is the road to poverty”.  Another simply warns that “Drinking too much is bound to lead to trouble”.  The beneficial side to drinking saké is also acknowledged, however.  “Saké is an elixir to lift the spirits”.  And, “Saké is a gift from Heaven”.  But one of the most popular sayings is, “In moderation saké is better than any medicine”.   In whichever case, the Japanese would not be who they are without saké.

Unless stated all photos Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you feel will be interested.  Many thanks
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.

No comments:

Post a Comment