Photo: kyu3 on Photozou

Japanese Alcohol Traditions – Shôjô: “The Ghost of Japanese Sake”

The culture of alcohol has, as a long tradition in Japan, not only related to typical and traditional drinks, but also in the tradition of importing, adapting or even improving other drinks. Whisky, for example, is a traditional Scottish alcoholic beverage that Japan has imported, adapted and even earned its own space in international awards and valued standards. However, Japan has a prolific variety of different traditional spirits.

Japanese alcohol

Japanese traditional rice wine or sake (酒), known also as “clear liquor” (or seishu, 清酒), is one of the most traditional alcoholic drinks of Japanese culture. Made by fermenting rice that has been polished with the bran removed.

Photo by Simon-sake on Wikipedia.

In contrast to Western wine, where alcohol is produced by fermenting sugar that is naturally found in products such as grapes, sake's process is more like beer's, where the starch is turned into sugars before becoming alcohol. Unlike beer, where conversions from starch to sugar and from sugar to alcohol occurs in two steps like in the case of other rice wines, when sake is brewed these conversions occur simultaneously. Thus, unlike wine or beer, sake contains 18% – 20%, although it is often lowered to 15% with extra water added.

Servers pouring Japanese sake

As the national beverage, sake has a special ceremonial significance. Traditionally, it is warmed in a tiny earthenware or porcelain bottle (tokkuri, 徳利) and sipped from a small porcelain cup (sakazuki, 杯). It is good to know, also, that traditionally in Japanese culture it is insulting to reject an offer of sake, implying that the host or bidder is beneath oneself. 

A sasazuki. Photo by Walters Art Museum on Wikimedia Commons

Historically, the first references to alcohol in Japan are recorded in the “Book of Wei”, in the Records of the Three Kingdoms (3rd century), and the first Japanese written history “the Kojiki” (古事記), compiled in 712 AD. Used for religious ceremonies, court festivals and drinking games, it has been an essential element in Japanese culture and tradition for a long time. However, it also has a dark side.

Photo by kyu3 on Photozou.

The Shôjô (猩々or 猩猩) is a Japanese sea spirit known as “The Heavy Drinker” or “Orangutan”. Traditionally, it is described with a red face, long red hair and pink skin. It is said that it is dressed in green seaweed and lives in the ocean floor. They are excellent healers and create potions in the form of brandy or white sake. This potion is poisonous only to those who are non-virtuous and commit crimes. To the virtuous ones, it is a delicious drink. That is one of the main reasons why this creature is also described with a fondness for alcohol. It can also be a male who traditionally is depicted with long hair, boyish face reddened from drinking sake and carrying a sake ladle.

Photo by 京浜にけ on Wikimedia Commons.

According to the myth, once upon a time there was a gravely sick-man who lived near Mount Fuji. His dying wish was to drink sake. His son searched everywhere but since there was no sake in the house, he went outside to get some. Wandering along the seashore, he encountered a strange-looking-creature with long red hair and a cherry-colored face. It was dressed in seaweeds and was drinking sake from a large cup that never emptied. The boy told the stranger, a Shôjô, about his father. He explained to him that he had no money to buy sake. The Shôjô poured some of his sake into the boy's gourd and he took it back to his father. As soon as his father drank it, he felt stronger and asked his son to get more. After drinking more of the Shôjô's sake, the man recovered completely. The Shôjô kept giving more sake to the boy, but a greedy neighbour, fond of sake, heard the story and sneaked into the family's house to drink it. It tasted like filthy water, so he beat the boy and ordered him to take him to the endless supply of sake. The boy led the neighbour to the Shôjô, and he asked the creature for sake. The Shôjô gave him some and the man became sick. The Shôjô told him that he had given the sake to the boy's father because he was a good man and therefore he was able to exert its beneficial effects on him. But since the neighbour was greedy and selfish, sake was poison to him. The neighbour, ashamed and remorseful, pleaded and begged him not to let him die. Seeing his contrition, the Shôjô gave him an antidote. The neighbour became a new person and was able to enjoy sake again. 

Photo by Tatsuo Yamashita on Flickr.

Nowadays, there are 2 basic types of sake: ordinary sake (futsûshu, 普通酒) and special-designation sake (tokutei meishôshu, 特定名称酒). Ordinary sake accounts for the majority of sake produced, resembling to table-wine. Special-designation sake refers to premium sakes, distinguished by the degree to which the rice has been polished and the added percentage of brewer's alcohol, or the absence of certain additives. Related to the second one, there are 8 different varieties: pure rice very special brew (junmai daiginjôshu, 純米大吟醸酒), very special brew (daiginjôshu, 大吟醸酒), pure rice special brew (junmai ginjôshu, 純米吟醸酒), special brew (ginjôshu, 吟醸酒), special pure rice (tokubetsu junmaishu, 特別純米酒), special genuine brew (tokubetsu honjôzôshu, 特別本状造酒), pure rice (junmaishu, 純米酒) and genuine brew (honjôzôshu, 本状造酒).

Without doubt, sake can be a tasty tradition to enjoy about Japan. Nevertheless, do not forget that you should not abuse it, not only for obvious health reasons, but also to avoid summoning a Shôjô. As Japanese usually say when giving a toast... “乾杯!” (kanpai, cheers!). 

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