Random Musings: Cultures of Japanese Sake

Cultures of SakeI enjoy sake. I don’t have the opportunity to drink it very often, and I don’t really know much about it, but I do enjoy it and have an interest in it. Fortunately, I recently had the opportunity to hear Natsuki Kikuya, the founder of Museum of Sake, give her presentation “World of Sake: How It’s Created, and Where It’s Going.” Kikuya is from a family of sake brewers which is part of a collective in the Tōhoku region of northern Honshū. She currently works with chefs in the United Kingdom as a sake sommelier and is in the process of developing a sake documentary; her personal mission is to introduce and promote sake across Europe and the rest of the world. The craft and culture surrounding sake and sake brewing is broad and deep. A comparison can easily be made with wine culture, but Kikuya has found that in the West a “translator” is often needed for sake. Whereas wine has an extensive vocabulary already established to describe it, traditionally sake has had only two descriptors: dry and sweet.

SakeSo, what is sake? In Japanese, “sake” is a word that simply means “alcoholic beverage.” However, when the term is used in English, generally it is specifically referring to what is known in Japan as nihonshu. Sake is a fermented and filtered alcoholic beverage that is no more than 22% alcohol by volume. Typically, sake is brewed using only four ingredients: rice, water, yeast, and koji. Approximately 1% of Japan’s total rice production is devoted specifically to the brewing of sake. Though still edible, the rice used in sake is very different from table rice meant for consumption. When making sake the outside of the grains of rice is polished away, leaving behind the starches. In the highest quality sake, more than half of the rice is polished away. (In one exceptional case, only 7% of the rice remained after polishing.) Water is a particularly important ingredient as sake is made up of around 80% water. Water from different sources can significantly change the taste of the sake; generally water with softer qualities is desired. Up until the 20th century, sake production primarily relied on wild yeast, however more than 90% of sake fermentation now uses cultivated yeast. Koji is sake’s “magical ingredient”—a type of mold spore that transforms the starches in the rice into sugars for the yeast to ferment. Sake is often described as being “grown in breweries”; its quality very much depends on the human techniques involved and there is less emphasis placed on vintage as a result.

During her talk, Kikuya outlined a brief history of sake and its development in Japan. Sake had its beginnings over 2,500 years ago, originating as the “drink of the gods” and was associated with Shinto shrines. Between the 7th and 12th centuries, sake came under control of the court. During that time there were thirteen different grades of sake appropriate for the different ranks of nobility. In the Middle Ages the center of sake production moved to Kōfuku-ji in Nara and other Buddhist temples. At this point in history distilled spirits from abroad began to be introduced to Japan as well. The Edo period saw the rise of brewing specialists and the center of sake production once again moved, this time to Itami and Edo. Previously sake had been made year-round, but as the brewing techniques were refined during the Edo period it became a winter-specific process. The Edo period also saw the establishment of izakaya and the culture of eating outside of the home; sake was no longer just for nobles. Homebrewing was prohibited in 1899, mostly for tax reasons, and so sake brewing became more of a corporate affair during the Meiji era.

Sake Aisle

Oishinbo, A la Carte: Sake

The 20th century brought the “era of synthetic sake.” When rice was not readily available (during times of war, for example), techniques were developed to compensate for this lack, such as the introduction of syrups. The quality of the results were not always particularly good. And then there is sake industry today, which is focusing on modernization, localization, and globalization. This includes the creation of “new gen” sake, such as sparkling sake and sake with low alcohol content, as well as the use of sake in mixed drinks. At one point there were over 4,000 breweries in Japan. Sadly, the industry is dying and only around 1,200 breweries currently remain. Of those, the top twenty account for 80% of the sake production in Japan, however local breweries are beginning to gain increased support. There are several theories as to why interest in sake is declining in Japan: the continued Westernization of the country, the aging and shrinking of the population, and the fact that younger generations simply don’t seem to be drinking sake. Although the sake industry is still dominated by men, Kikuya knows of at least ten women heads of breweries. Interestingly enough, in addition to Japan, the United States is also a leading producer of sake and currently has seven to eight breweries of its own.

Prior to the Kikuya’s talk, my knowledge of sake had primarily been gleaned from what I myself had tasted as well as from manga like Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki’s Oishinbo (especially the volume Oishinbo, A la Carte: Sake) and Masayuki Ishikawa’s Moyasimon. I was quite happy to discover that those series have actually provided me with a fairly strong introduction to and basic understanding of sake and the sake industry, including some of the more unusual and interesting historical tidbits. So, even if you don’t have the chance to take advantage of the knowledge of a sake expert, picking up a copy of Oishinbo, A la Carte: Sake and following it up with a bit of Moyasimon (the manga or the anime) is not a bad place to start. (Toko Kawai’s short boys’ love series The Scent of Apple Blossoms also features a sake brewer, though I haven’t read it yet to be able to say how educational the manga might be.) For those interested in learning more about sake, Kikuya’s Museum of Sake is also worth a look, as is Discovery UK’s series Discovering Sake. And sometimes the best way to learn about something is to simply experience it for yourself. Have a taste!

My Week in Manga: June 3-June 9, 2013

My News and Reviews

I was traveling for work for most of last week. Despite my hectic schedule I somehow still managed  to post a few things here at Experiments in Manga. First of all, the Umineko: When They Cry manga giveaway winner was announced. The post also includes a lengthy (but certainly not comprehensive) list of video game manga that have been licensed in English. I also posted the most recent Library Love feature which consists of quick takes of manga that I’ve read from my local library. Technically, if I was strictly following Library Love’s bimonthly schedule, it should have been posted in May. But then I went to TCAF and ended up writing about that instead. (It took place at a library, so that counts, right?) Anyway, expect the next Library Love to be posted sometime in July. Finally, for the first in-depth manga review of June, I took a look at No. 6, Volume 1, the first volume in Hinoki Kino’s manga adaptation of Atsuko Asano’s series of science fiction novels. I enjoyed the anime adaptation of the novels, but was disappointed by its rushed ending. I’m looking forward to seeing where Kino will take the manga adaptation. I’d love to read the original novels, but it’s highly unlikely that they will ever be licensed in English.

Because I was traveling and doing stuff for work for most of the week, I didn’t have as much time to trawl the Internet for interesting articles. (If I’ve missed any big news, please do let me know!) However, I did come across a series of reviews and in-depth analysis of Naoki Urasawa’s manga series Pluto by Jeffrey O. Gustafson of The Comic Pusher. Also, the call for participation for the Skip Beat! Manga Moveable Feast has been posted! Laura at Heart of Manga will be hosting the Feast from June 17 to June 23. Hopefully, I should have a review of the first omnibus in the series ready to go by then.

Quick Takes

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Episode 4: ¥ €$ by Yu Kinutani. Much as the name Stand Alone Complex implies, the individual volumes of the manga largely stand alone—assuming that you have at least a vague familiarity with the Ghost in the Shell universe. This particular volume adapts the fourteenth episode of the Stand Alone Complex anime, “Automated Capitalism ¥€$.” It’s been a while since I’ve actually seen the anime, but from what I remember the manga seems to be a very straightforward adaptation. I largely enjoyed Kinutani’s artwork, although some of fanservice is not at all subtle. The Major has always had somewhat questionable attire, but a few of the clothing choices in ¥€$ are particularly absurd. 

Liberty Liberty! by Hinako Takanaga. I tend to really enjoy Takanaga’s boys’ love manga. While Liberty Liberty isn’t my favorite work of hers—it isn’t particularly compelling or groundbreaking in any sort of way—it’s still an enjoyable read and a solid story. Kouki is a cameraman for a local television station who happens upon Itaru nearly passed-out drunk in a pile of garbage. Kouki’s camera is broken in the resulting scuffle and Itaru ends up working for the station in order to pay off the debt. Despite an unfortunate beginning, he actually has some useful skills to bring to the group. The romantic elements in Liberty Liberty are fairly chaste but include an adorably awkward confession of love after Itaru develops a crush on Kouki, who has feelings for another coworker.

Thermae Romae, Omnibus 2 (equivalent to Volumes 3-4) by Mari Yamazaki. It’s been about half a year since I read the first Thermae Romae omnibus, but I do recall enjoying it quite a bit. What I don’t remember is if it made me as unabashedly happy as reading the second one did. This series honestly makes me laugh out loud. Thermae Romae has just enough of the ridiculous about it to make it very funny. And, as a bonus, I end up learning about Roman and Japanese bathing cultures. The last story in second omnibus actually turns the series into a time travel romantic comedy which has yet to reach its conclusion. Unfortunately, there’s currently no release information available for the next volume.

Moyashimon, Season 1 directed by Yūichirō Yano. Sadly, only two volumes of Masayuki Ishikawa’s manga Moyasimon were ever released in English. I was excited when Crunchyroll began streaming the anime adaptation which closely follows the manga. I quite liked the manga so I was glad to have the opportunity to spend more time learning about microbes and following the strange antics of agricultural college students. Moyashimon is an incredibly quirky series with an incredibly quirky cast. It does seem as though the series can’t quite decide what sort of story it should be. Sometimes its serious while other times its rather goofy. It can be legitimately educational, but it can also be mindless entertainment. Either way, I tend to enjoy it and find it amusing.

My Week in Manga: October 10-October 16, 2011

My News and Reviews

Last week I posted a couple of reviews. One was for the third book in Kaoru Kurimoto’s The Guin Saga, The Battle of Nospherus. It’s certainly not perfect, but I’m liking this series more the more I read. I also posted a review for Love Hina, Omnibus 1 by Ken Akamatsu as part of the Love Hina Manga Moveable Feast. The Feast is usually a monthly occurrence, but this October we’ll be having two! Starting next week, the Horror Manga Moveable Feast will be hosted by Lori Henderson at Manga Xanadu.

This past weekend was the New York Comic Con/New York Anime Festival. I didn’t go, but I did keep an ear out for announcements. I was particularly excited to hear about the some of the manga that Vertical will be releasing next year. First off, they rescued Osamu Tezuka’s Adolf, which happens to be the first manga I ever read. It’s been long out of print and I don’t own it, so I’ll definitely be picking up Vertical’s new edition. I’m also really excited that Moyoco Anno’s Sakuran was licensed, too. Finally, I was happy to find out that Viz will be picking up Yun Kouga’s series Loveless with volume nine. Tokyopop published the first eight volumes. And speaking of Tokyopop…it looks like the company is trying to get back into the manga publishing game. I got to watch the drama unfold on Twitter. It will be interesting to see how things develop.

Oh, and one last thing. Many of you know that I like to make lists. Well, someone has made a great one for me (well, not really for me exactly). Paul Gravett, who edited the soon to be released 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, has a mini companion site. You can browse by all sorts of things including country, so it’s easy to figure out all the awesome comics from Japan that made the list.

Quick Takes

Maoh: Juvenile Remix, Volumes 1-2 by Megumi Osuga. I’m not sure what I was expecting from Maoh: Juvenile Remix, but I think I was hoping for better. It’s not that the series is bad per se, there were some parts I really liked, but there was a huge plot hole in the first volume that threw me out of the story and made it hard for me to enjoy the rest of it. I wouldn’t turn away future volumes, but at this point I don’t think I’ll be seeking them out, either. The series is based on Maoh, a novel by Kotaro Isaka and I believe that Grasshopper, another of his novels, is also an influence. I’m actually more interested in reading these than I am the rest of the manga; unfortunately, they haven’t been translated.

MBQ, Volumes 1-3 by Felipe Smith. For the most part, MBQ didn’t work for me. For much of the series I found myself wondering what the point of it all was. The story lacks focus, particularly early on, and many of the scenes seem tangential. MBQ is chapter after chapter of over-the-top, in your face, unflinching absurdity. This is definitely not a comic for kiddies, folks. That being said, the series was frequently entertaining and Smith’s artwork is extremely well done. It’s very dynamic and bombastic and fits the story, if you can find it, very well. Occasionally, MBQ does come across as a bit self-indulgent. Personally, I prefer Smith’s later series Peepo Choo, which is just as graphic but more coherent.

Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture, Volumes 1-2 by Masayuki Ishikawa. I really hope that Kodansha will continue publishing Moyasimon in English, because it’s a great series. Moyasimon is both educational and entertaining, whether it’s exploring the usefulness of microbes or relating the antics of the students and professors at the agricultural university. Ishikawa draws great facial expressions and the microbes, which one of the characters can see with his naked eye, are adorable. I also love seeing the clouds of germs and the characters’ reactions. Moyasimon has a tendency to get a little text-heavy on occasion, easily explained away by Professor Itsuki’s inclination to launch into lectures, but it’s an enjoyably quirky series.

Teahouse, Chapters 1-2 by Emirain. I have been reading Teahouse ever since it started as a weekly webcomic the March of last year. I don’t remember where I first learned about it, but I eagerly await each page. The printed volumes include scenes (generally explicit) not found in the online version as well as additional bonus material. There’s a lot of sex, but there’s a story, too. The Teahouse is a brothel with both male and female courtesans serving both male and female clientele. But as a yaoi comic, Teahouse focuses on the male pairings. The art is great and looks even better on the printed page than it does online. I like seeing pretty guys with some actual muscle definition.

Giant Killing directed by Yuu Kou. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a huge sports fan, but I really enjoyed Giant Killing. Takeshi Tatsumi has been brought in to coach the league’s worst soccer team to victory. All the footballers have strong personalities both on and off the field. It’s fascinating to watch them try to find balance between themselves as individual players and as a team. As far as I know there are currently no plans for a second season, but the conclusion is fairly open and there are enough loose ends that there’s room for at least one more. I would certainly watch it! As a bonus, I absolutely love the opening music “My Story” by The Cherry Coke$.