Introduced simultaneously with rice cultivation and offered to the gods for an abundant harvest, the evolution of sake specific to Japan occurred with the establishment of rice cultivation and the development of brewing techniques.
Yayoi Period (300 BCE – 300 CE)
Sake made mainly from rice was first made in western Japan and the Kinki region after the introduction and establishment of rice paddy farming after the Jomon period (10,000 BCE – 300 BCE) and into the Yayoi period. At the time, the most primitive method called “mouth chewing” was employed wherein heated grains were chewed properly. The grains were turned into sugars by enzymes in the saliva and fermented by wild yeast. Sake made through “mouth chewing” is described in the “Records of the Geography of Osumi Province” and other materials. This method was only practiced by shrine maidens, which indicates that sake production was originated by women.
Asuka Period (550 CE – 710 CE)
At the end of the Asuka period, full-scale sake production by the Imperial Court began with the establishment of a “sake brewing office” under the Taiho Code. During this period, sake production gradually spread throughout the country. At the time, sake was mainly a special drink offered to the gods and the emperor for an abundant rice harvest.
Heian Period (794 – 1185) and Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333)
The Engi Shiki, a collection of governmental regulations practiced during the Heian period, describes how to make ten kinds of sake and how to drink it warm, indicating the development of sake-producing techniques.
Eventually, sake began to be made by temple monks. Called “monks’ sake,” this kind of sake was highly acclaimed. Sake, which was previously offered to the gods, gradually transformed into a drink imbibed by the masses.
During the Kamakura period, traders handled sake brewing, and sake was being distributed having the same economic value as rice. Sake breweries increased in number especially in Kyoto, further widening sake distribution. However, there were samurai who drank too much and ruined their health, or were maimed or killed in drunken rages, thus alcohol was banned in 1252. As a result, the sake industry stagnated.
Muromachi Period (1333 – 1573) and Azuchi Momoyama Period (1558 – 1600)
Realizing that sake taxes were a source of considerable income, in a complete turnaround, the Muromachi shogunate began to encourage sake brewing and selling, and demand for sake increased dramatically. The number of breweries mainly in Kyoto increased, and influential breweries started offering financial services, increasing their economic clout. Sake brewing also expanded in the provinces, resulting in the emergence of the first local sake brands all over the country.
Entering into the Azuchi-Momoyama period of the Warring States period, the daimyo (feudal lord) Oda Nobunaga instituted the “free markets and open guilds” system which allowed sake to be distributed throughout the country. Meanwhile, there are records describing sake from all over the country being served at a cherry blossom-viewing party hosted by the daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi in Kyoto.
Edo Period (1603 – 1868)
During the Edo period, the processes by which modern sake is brewed was nearly complete. This was the period when brewing in the winter started, pasteurization became the norm, sake preparation steps took root, the chief brewer system was established, adding alcohol to sake began, and the spread of crystal-clear sake progressed.
Sake is Indispensable in Japanese Culture
Sake is mentioned in many Japanese myths, and it has long been used in Shinto rituals as a special offering to the gods. Sake still plays an important role in such rituals, such as the ritual of serving sake offered to the gods at shrines during the New Year.
Sake is also indispensable in ceremonies such as “kagamibiraki,” the traditional breaking of a sake cask lid during New Year and other celebrations, and in “sansankudo,” the exchange of sake cups by the bride and groom at Shinto weddings.
Aside from Shinto ceremonies, people also enjoy drinking sake during cherry blossom-viewing and moon-viewing parties to celebrate the four seasons, and when deepening personal relationships during welcome and year-end parties.