Sake is strongly associated with Japan. Admittedly, when we think of sake, most of us automatically think of Japan. This strong relation, however, was not always evident. In ancient times, alcoholic beverages made from rice were consumed all over Asia. Things changed with the arrival of the distillation technique in the region. Most of the so-called "rice-wines" would eventually be replaced with stronger local spirits. In Japan, however, sake strived and has been valorised to the point where it became central to Japan's identity and culture.
Why did sake flourish so well in the country of the rising sun and disappear elsewhere? The answer is Shintō.
Shintōism is the native religion of Japan, where sake plays a crucial part in bringing humans and gods together.
(Torii Gate leading to Shinto shrines)
"Shintō is an optimistic faith, as humans are thought to be fundamentally good, and evil is believed to be caused by evil spirits. Consequently, the purpose of most Shintō rituals is to keep away evil spirits by purification, prayers and offerings to the kami."
The connection between sake and the Shintō religion dates back to the oldest written documents in Japanese history. The Kojiki (712 AD) and the Nihon Shoki (720 AD) are both records of ancient Japanese history.
In these volumes, we can find the incredible story of the storm god Susano-o, banished from heaven and sent to earth due to his reckless conduct. There, he rescued a maiden from being eaten by an eight-headed dragon using one delicious weapon, you guessed it, sake! Susano-o brews eight vats of sake for the creature to enjoy. Once he got the beast intoxicated, he defeated it with a sword he had found in one of the dragon's tails. This sword is one of Shintō's "Three Sacred Regalia." Sake saved the day!
(Susano-o slaying the Yamata no Orochi, woodblock print by Toyohara Chikanobu)
From there on, "nihonshu", or sake, played a central role in Shintō ceremonies and rituals.
To this day, sake and rice are two of the most important offerings made at Shintō shrines. The drink is offered to the gods to request blessings for abundant harvests, sufficient rainfall, health, and gratitude. In ancient times, Shintō priests would brew the sake themselves in their shrines; the drink was called "o-miki" (sacred sake). Today, however, priest get their "sacred sake" from local breweries, which regularly donate to their local shrines.
(Offered decorative sake barrels (kazaridaru) near the Meiji-Jingu Shrine in Tokyo.)
As Japanese culture developed, the use of "nihonshu" extensively diversified. The exchange of three nuptial cups conducted in front of the gods at Shintō shrines plays a central part during traditional Shintō weddings. The custom is called "san-san-ku-do". The bride and the groom sip from each cup three times, hence the "three-three-nine times". Three cannot be divided into two, making it an auspicious number for a wedding in Japanese culture.
(The san-san-ku-do ceremony.)
Another custom called "kagamibiraki" is also widespread. For various events, such as opening a new company or the celebration of New Year, people open a massive 72-litre barrel by breaking the lid with a wooden hammer. The sake is then shared with the attendees, and the party can get started.
By making sake a central part of its early religious life, Japan has preserved and developed the drink to let it become the delicious nectar we have the privilege to enjoy today.