Greetings Sake Lovers
Welcome to another KURAND article that delves into the sake history, religion and myths.
In this article we will answering the question of whether sake has its own god.
In Japanese a god of alcohol is called a shushin. You probably already know various shushin. The first thing that probably comes to mind is Bacchus, a god in Greek mythology which is also a famous brand of white wine. Bacchus was the god of not only wine, but also fertility and prophecies (nothing like a glass of wine to get you prophesizing).
To answer the question, sake does have its own god, whose existence has been passed down from ancient times.
The Unlikely Relationship Between Sake & Religion
There is something rather inevitable about the link between religion and alcohol. They shouldn’t mix. Most religions frown against their priests or monks drinking. And yet, the majority of alcoholic beverages start off with a deeper religious meaning. Take wine being compared to the blood of christ and being offered by churches during holy communion. Beer originated in the monasteries and many spirits also have roots than trace back to one religion or another.
Sake is no exception, and in fact it too began life with a deeper religious meaning. In fact, the first sake was brewed not for consumption purposes, but as an offering to the gods. Even today, sake has a close link with religion and plays a big role in traditional Japanese weddings.
See this article for more information.
Sake has the power to heighten emotions and put people in a jovial mood. Seeing this effect, people long ago viewed sake as a mystical drink. Sake was viewed as “a sacred thing” and “a thing to get closer to god’s territory.” Prior to the arrival of Buddhism to Japan, during the Yamato period (538AD), praying to the gods during “religious services” was a way of life. These services always included a sake offering to the gods, which in Japanese is called omiki.
Even sake brewing itself is not without its religious rituals. At the start of every brewing season, a special shrine called a hokora is prepared. Shinto prayer rituals are also performed during the brewing process. Sake brewing itself has strong ritualistic meanings. These rituals are the last vestige of brewing in its original form, which, was carried out by, yes you’ve guessed it, monks. Monks are not actually allowed to produce sake, but they rather sneakily found a way around this technicality by producing it under the guise of another type of (low alcohol) beverage called hanya —they were allowed to make this because it was thought to bring them closer to buddha. The reason the brewers pray today is to show respect to the gods who give birth to nature. If you want evidence of brewing’s roots in religion look no further than the shrines themselves. Even today, most shrine entrances are adorned with piles of sake barrels as a nod to their sake heritage.
Representative Japanese Shrines that worship shushin
It is said that there are over 8 millions gods. It’s perhaps no surprise them that there is one for sake too. There are many shrines that worship the god of sake, below we introduce a few of the more famous.
Oomiwa-jinja (Oomiwa shrine)
Oomiwa-jinja is said to be one of the oldest shrines in Japan and is located in Miwa Sakurai city, Nara prefecture. Here two major gods, Oomononushinoookami and Sukunahikonanokami are worshiped.
Every year on November 14th, there is a famous festival for praying to safely brew shinshu (new sake). Sake brewers and toji (chief brewer at a sake brewery) gather from all over Japan at the festival to pray for a safe brewing year.
This is also the place where the sugidama, balls made from sprigs of Japanese cedar that are hung outside sake shops and breweries, originate. Sugidama were originally made from leaves from kamisugi (scared cedar) that grew on Mount Miwa. Brewers would gather these leaves and make them into small sugidama to take them home. When the shinshu was done, they would take the sugidama and hang it up outside of their store. Perhaps the most vivid piece of evidence of the historical importance of Oomiwa-jinja for sake brewing.
Matsuo-taisha is the oldest shrine in Kyoto. It was built in AD 701 (first year of Daiei) by Hatauji (Hata clan) who ruled the western part of the Kyoto basin. Because the Hata clan had many skilled sake brewers, from around the end of the Muromachi period, they were worshiped as “Shuzo daiichi shoshin (sake brewing first deity).”
The deity of the first shrine is “Ooyamakuinokami.” This deity is the god of war and the god of bow and arrow. Ooyamakuinokami was worshiped at Shimogamo shrine and Kamigamo shrine as the protector of the imperial palace.
Every year, a festival is held to pray for a safe brewing season, called jou-usai (early November, day of the hare) followed by a festival at the end of the season to give thanks for completion of brewing called chuyusai (during April, day of the cock). Brewers and toji flock from all over Japan to the site which includes a museum of sake where sake brewing equipment and sake drinking vessels donated from sake makers from all over Japan are on display.
Umemiya-jinja is located on the eastern side of the Katsura River / northern side of Shijo street in Kyoto city Ukyo-ku area.
This shrine is truly dedicated to shushin. The main gods are saketokenokami and saketokenomiko. The Tachibanauji (Tachibana clan) originally lived in southern Kyoto in the Tsuzsukigun Ide-cho area, but moved when the shinto god was moved to its current location, the Heian capital. They hold the same festivals as Matsuo Taisha.
Next to the main shrine, there are two ancient round stones called “matage-seki.” It is said that the empress of Emperor Saga prayed to this stone before becoming pregnant with a child who would later become Emperor Ninomi. Women who straddle it are said to be blessed with children. This shrine is famous for granting safe birth and blessing women with many children.
That is about the shushin in Japan that has been passed along. What do you think? Sake brewing has a long history that has developed this skill. Knowing this background will expand the ways to enjoy Japanese sake. For those who drink sake, if you ever have the opportunity, perhaps go visit the gods of sake?
And that completes our little written pilgrimage of the various sake shrines. Why not make a short pilgrimage part of your next trip to Japan.
And be sure to stop along the way in Tokyo to KURAND for one of the best ways to experience sake in the form of an unlimited tasting of over 100 different styles of sake from all over Japan.