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Sake used in Shinto rituals and the arrival of kōji from China


Sake is deeply rooted in Japan’s history. From the fact that it was used in Shinto ceremonies, it would seem that sake was thought to have mysterious and magical properties.


For example, sake is mentioned in some of the oldest and most famous Japanese texts in existence, including the Kojiki (the oldest Japanese chronicle), the Nihon Shoki, and the Man’yōshū. In these texts, sake was referred to as “kushi.”


It is believed that the word kushi was used to mean “medicine.” It also had connotations of “wondrous” or “miraculous.” Evidently, the effect alcohol had on people was regarded as something quite extraordinary.


Sake and the eight-headed monster serpent
In the Kojiki, which was completed in the year 712, various legends are recounted. In particular, the Izumo legend in which Yamata no Orochi (an eight-headed monster serpent) appears is famous.


The story goes that Susanoo no Mikoto was visiting the part of Shimane Prefecture known as Izumo and came across an elderly couple who were weeping inconsolably. When he asked why they were weeping, they told him that they had had eight daughters, but each year an eight-headed eight-tailed monster serpent, Yamata no Orochi, came and ate one of the daughters.


And now it was time for Yamata no Orochi to return and devour their last daughter.


Upon hearing this, Susanoo no Mikoto made up his mind to destroy the monster serpent. The first thing he did was to transform the daughter into a comb and hide her in his hair. Then he directed the old couple to make a strong brew of liquor, pressed seven times, and to place it in vats in front of eight gates. The sake referred to in the legend is a variety known as yashiori no sake.


When Yamata no Orochi appeared, Susanoo no Mikoto managed to get the serpent to drink the sake, after which it fell asleep. Thus he was able to destroy the serpent by chopping up his body.


So sake appeared in ancient legends. We can surmise that sake was an important element in these legends because of the remarkable effect it had on people who consumed it. And from the fact that alcohol is mentioned in such ancient texts, it’s clear that sake was familiar to many people of that time.


The arrival of kōji from China
Kōji is indispensable in sake brewing. Because it performs the function of converting starch to sugar, it is an essential ingredient. It is because of kōji that it is possible for fermentation to take place. It is mentioned in the Kojiki that sake was produced using kōji and presented to the emperor, so we know that sake was made with kōji from at least this time.


Kōji is thought to have come to Japan from China. However, when the Japanese method of brewing sake is compared with brewing methods used in China, it is clear that the processes are very different.


In China, the main ingredient is wheat flour. After kneading it into a brick, a rhizopus mold is propagated in it to produce kōji. In contrast, steamed rice is used to propagate the mold used to create kōji in Japan. So when we compare brewing methods in China and Japan, we can see that both the source of starch and the type of mold propagated in it are different.


In view of these differences, it would seem that while the theory that kōji originally came from China is convincing, the notion that the technique of producing kōji with steamed rice originated in Japan is also well supported.


Whatever the case, it is known that by the Nara Period (710–794) the fundamental techniques of brewing sake still used today had been gradually developed. By this time, it was no longer saliva that was being used to convert starch into sugar to produce kuchikami-zake. Instead, microorganisms were being harnessed to do the job.

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