A Sake Sojourn – Part 3
The former Japanese capital of Nara, to the east of Osaka, was the next stop on my sake sojourn after Fushimi. Since the area around Nara was larger and included a number of historical sites, we decided to hire a driver. While the area is most famous for the deer park around Todai-ji Temple's Daibutsu, the world's largest Buddha statue, and the world's oldest wooden pagoda at Horyuji Temple, a little research led me to discover Nara is considered to be the "birthplace" of Japanese sake.
The former Japanese capital's history of sake began with the establishment of an Imperial Brewing Department, "sake no kami," in the Nara palace around 700 AD. Brewing further expanded into Buddhist temples as monks continued to develop brewing technology originally brought back from China. In fact, the temples on Bodasen mountain in Nara are believed to have first developed the yeast starter known as bodai-moto and Nara is now home to the Bodai Moto Research Centre which is devoted to keeping the brewery method alive.
One of the most amazing sake innovations to come out of Nara all the way back in the 1500s (300 years before Louis Pasteur) was the pasteurization of sake by heating it up to 65C°. While I didn't appreciate all this history before planning my trip, it added a great deal of richness beyond the two main sake-related draws to the area, the Ōmiwa Shrine and Harushika Brewery.
Ōmiwa Shrine, the oldest shrine in Japan, has been producing sake for Shinto rituals for centuries, resulting in the sacred sake offered to the gods being called "miwa." At the foot of the sacred, cedar tree covered Mt. Miwa, the Shrine contains Omononushi-no-okami, Sake no Kamisama 酒の神様, The Deity of Sake. Miwa no kami 三輪の神 or Matsuo-sam is famous as the kami ("god") who presides over sake. The auxiliary Ikuhi Jinja Shrine (活日神社) is dedicated to Takahashi no Ikuhi no Mikoto (高橋活日命) who was enshrined as a deity of chief sake brewers ("toji") by Emperor Sujin.
We were fortunate enough that, despite speaking no English, a Ōmiwa Shinto priest was willing to perform the O-miki ritual with us where we sipped sake from a white porcelain cup in front of the temple altar. The ritual stems from the Shinto belief that by drinking the sacred sake, one is taking a bit of the god-force into him/herself to become at one with the gods – arguably, not that dissimilar to the symbolic meaning of Christian communion.
That brings me to the recent celebration of the Sake Matsuri on November 14th held at Ōmiwa Shrine, in which brewery owners and toji join together to pray for a safe and successful brewing season. Central to the festival is the sake symbol Ōmiwa Shrine is most famous for – sugidama/sugitama (aka sakabayashi) - the large cedar branch balls which hang in front of sake breweries and shops throughout Japan and elsewhere around the sake-loving world.
The cedar balls traditionally originated from the Ōmiwa temple, whose monks harvested the green branches from the surrounding sacred trees of Mt. Miwa. On the first day of the festival, the old, now brown, sugidama at the front of the temple is replaced with a fresh green one.
Leaves from the Japanese cedar, called "sugi," were originally tightly bound to create a container used to store sake and prevent it from going bad. Tanks for sake brewing and masu sake cups were also once made of cedar wood. The hanging of the new, green sugidama outside the brewery after Sake Matsuri signifies the production of the season's first batch of sake.
In addition to acting as a sake signpost of sorts, the sugidama signifies gratitude to the sake gods and prayers for safety and prosperity in the coming sake productions. Originally, it was believed that once the sugidama cedar branches had turned brown, the sake would have aged enough for drinking. Unfortunately, as we were there before Sake Matsuri, there weren't any sugidamas available for purchase and I still haven't found a way to import them into Singapore.
Having visited the spiritual heartland of sake, it was now time to sample the originally sacred brew. While there are more than 50 breweries in Nara, almost all are very small and don't have English-speaking tourist facilities like in Nada and Fushimi. Despite that, the area is home to the Ume no Yado brewery, which boasts Japan’s only non-Japanese sake brewer and author of "The Insider's Guide to Sake," Philip Harper. Some of the more well-known Nara sake brands include Yamatsuru, Tama no Tsuyu, Hanatomoe, Yatagarasu and Hyakurakumon.
This article describes the characteristic of nara’s sake very well.
With limited time and no specialist sake tour guide to set up brewery appointments for us, we stopped at the most tourist-friendly shop in the area, Harushika Brewery. In return for a small fee, we sampled a variety of Nara sake along with traditional Japanese tsukemono pickles pickled in sake lees (a by-product of the brewing process). The tasting lasted less than an hour and included English notes on each sake we tried. While nothing stood out enough to purchase after the tasting, we did buy the delicious sake-flavored ice cream and received a Harushika souvenir sake cup.
Harushika Brewery Shop
24-1 Fukuchiin-cho, Nara 630-8381
Tel: 0742 23 2255
While Nara didn't offer as many sake brewery tastings as the other stops of my Sake Sojourn, being at the heart of Japanese sake history and the spiritual source of the surgidamas seen at izakayas around the world is a day trip I'd definitely recommend sake lovers take the time for when in Osaka.