Tracing patriarchy and family history with sake

Photo credit: 
Illustration by Hitesh Singhal, with thanks to Rjiksmuseum.
Kaori Maeda's picture
Kaori Maeda
December 14, 2017
The weight of tradition.

I grew up with an untouchable bottle of sake. At that time, the bottle was just “sake” to me: nameless and faceless. Like Asahi beer, it was brown, but far more patriarchal.

Sake was thought to be a drink for men, often shared among comrades. In Japanese, the word “sake” could imply liquor in general, or Japanese sake (nihonshu, made with rice and water). At 1.8 litres, a bottle of issho-bin is ten times bigger than itto-bin (18 litres), and usually reserved for special occasions like the New Year. During my childhood, this bottle was my grandfather’s dining companion. I was far too young to be his drinking buddy, and my dad was always working. He worked from before I woke up and after I went to bed, six days a week. My grandfather was like my dad, but my dad forbade me to spend time with him. He was worried that my granddad was a bad influence and would spoil me. So, the two men hardly talked to each other. I don't recall them ever pouring each other sake. But somehow, the sake left in the bottle was always less than my granddad remembered. 

My granddad was a soldier in the Second World War. He was left with nothing but a homeless family when he came back from the war, and hence my dad was taught that money is what keeps family alive and together; that is what love is. When I was 17, my grandad passed away after spending six years in hospital. 13 years later, it was at a local sake-tasting event that I was finally able to put a name to his bottle of sake. Hosted by the Society for Nada Sake Research (SNSR) since 2011, the event is held annually at the end of September ahead of Sake Day (October 1). This is when sake brewing begins after the harvest of sake rice. Nadagogo breweries present Nada no Ki-ippon, their fresh sake for the year, to be assessed for quality control. The sake must receive the SNSR seal of approval before being presented to the public.

Nadagogo is the centre of Japan’s sake production, made up of five sake-producing villages in and around Kobe City. It is a district within Hyogo, my home in Japan. Hyogo is the number one sake-producing prefecture in the country, followed by Kyoto, which has around 80 breweries out of the 1500 all over Japan. Freshly brewed Nada sake is dry and austere in character, and is called “masculine sake”. This can be credited to Miyamizu (hard water) that flows through the city of Nishinomiya. The spring water is rich in minerals and perfect for boosting the fermentation of rice, which is essential to sake brewing. 

In contrast, sake from Fushimi (in Kyoto) is called feminine sake. Brewed with soft water or Fushimizu, it tends to be soft and sweet. Sparkling sake, Mio, is a good example. “The sweetness of sake rice, coupled with Fushimizu, makes the pairing of sake and fruits heavenly,” suggests Ms Shirakawa, publicist at Takara Shuzo. Masculine sake from Nada becomes round and mellow as it matures over time, too. When brewed with the most ideal sake rice—Yamadanishiki (or “the king of sake rice”)—cultivated and produced in Hyogo, the finished sake has a smooth taste and rich aroma. This makes Hyogo the most prolific sake producer in Japan. 

After trying a few samples at the sake tasting event, I asked my companion, my maternal granddad, which sake he liked best. Raising a honey-coloured one, he said, “For me too, Kenbishi, the one that your other granddad loved.” Unknowingly, my maternal granddad had given a name to my erstwhile nameless bottle of sake.

Kenbishi is a sake company that started as a sake brewery in 1505 in Itami, a city bordering Osaka. The name Kenbishi—inspired by Acala, the Buddhism guardian deity with a sword—is written with two Chinese characters: sword (剣) and rhombus (菱). Kenbishi is the oldest sake brand in Japan with over 500 years of history. It has grown to become one of the most acclaimed sake breweries in the country. Since Kenbishi minimises filtering, their sake is golden, honey-hued, and matures well like wine or brandy. It is rich and full-bodied (masculine), yet soft and round—perfect with meat, fish and other varieties of cuisine. The owner of Kenbishi, Mr Shirakashi, suggests pairing Mizuho (aged Kenbishi) with Comté cheese: “A sip of Mizuho with a touch of sweetness and umami embraces the aroma of Comté and amplifies its flavour, leaving a lingering aftertaste.”

The circulation of sake started in Japan in the 8th century, when a sake brewery and office was placed within the Imperial Court in Kyoto. In the 15th century, sake suppliers started to appear in the streets. Sake started to be shipped to Edo, the then capital of Japan (now Tokyo), in the 17th century. Kenbishi was so popular locally as well as in the capital that it was termed the sake of the Edo period. Kenbishi’s komo, the straw barrel wrapping, was sometimes used as samurais’ winter coats. It is said that the 47 loyal samurai from Ako City opened a barrel of Kenbishi in Edo, toasting to their solidarity and swearing to avenge the death of their master. 

In pursuit of quality sake, the 18th century saw technical development in sake brewing and established the model on which the current sake brewing process is based. Today, while many sake brewers give way to metallic tools and machines, Kenbishi preserves their undying tradition and way of sake brewing which requires more time and labour. Processes include milling, washing and soaking the rice, steaming, preparing koji (rice fermented with mold), developing yeast culture (yeast starter), mash (the addition of more rice, koji and water in three stages over four days), pressing, filtration, pasteurisation, and finally aging. Their ideology stills the hands of time. Even though their ways remain unchanged, their moments of glory are strong. The Kenbishi bottle is an embodiment of the company's faith in their sake. It is a legacy of my family, as sake is a legacy of Japan.