For most foreigners, sake is often equated to fermented rice wine. So if you go to a restaurant and just order “sake,” you will probably get a quizzical look because for the Japanese this could be mean beer, whisky, wine. The word for rice wine is “Nihonshu,” literally Japanese liquor.
For the love of Nihonshu
・You can drink it hot, cold or at room temperature
In summer, you can order for a cold nihonshu “reishu” and in winter, you can get it hot “atsukan” or lukewarm “nurukan.”
・Sugidama or Sakabayashi
A ball made of Japanese cedar (sugi) needles is hung in front of the brewery to signal that fresh nihonshu production is on its way. Depending on the region, the production process begins in early autumn and is complete by early to mid May. The sugidama changes its color over time from a fresh green to a brown indicating that nihonshu is now ready for consumption! Today you see these outside restaurants that take pride in their nihonshu collection as well as shops selling mainly nihonshu.
・Sake barrels at shrines and Shinto rituals
When you visit shrines, you will most likely see massive barrels placed on top of each other. Most breweries donate sake barrels to shrines for business prosperity. The shrines serve this nihonshu during various festivities and once empty, the barrels are placed together on top of each other for decoration (kazari-daru).
During Shinto rituals, you will see the priest pour “o-miki,” sake for god, and sipping sake brings you closer to the divine.
・Served in a tokkuri and drank in an o-choko
Just like you have different glasses for wines, nihonshu has its own unique vessels.
Usually at an izakaya or restaurant, you would order a tokkuri, which looks like a small jug. You will be provided small ceramic cups called “o-choko” that hold a similar amount as that of a shot glass. Apparently, there are two reasons for it being served in small cups : to avoid over drinking and the chance to pour more often for one’s drinking companion. You never pour your own drinks at a gathering!
・Omotenashi and nihonshu
Omotenashi is a loaded word and it can mean a “spirit of self-less hospitality.”
Sometimes, your choko will be placed in a “masu,” which is usually made from cypress wood, and as a sign of generosity, the server will pour nihonshu till it overflows into the masu.
・Hirezake (fin sake)
Say what? A blowfish (fugu) fin is grilled, added to a cup of hot nihonshu and covered for a couple of minutes. The fin adds a subtle savory flavor and drama.
No trip to Japan is complete without trying nihonshu!
Don’t forget your friends back home as Nihonshu and any one of the accompanying ceramic vessels can make for great souvenirs!
In the next article, we will introduce a sake brewery close to Tokyo where you can learn about the process of making nihonshu as well as enjoy tasting different varieties.