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Sake Cups

Sake Cups come in many different shapes, sizes, and materials. They are typically ceramic or glass, and in some cases are made of wood or bamboo. The four main types of sake cups are ochoko, guinomi, masu, and sakazuki. The most common (and iconic) type of sake cup is the (tiny) ochoko. Ochoko are the smallest type of sake cup (typically 1-2 ounces). Their small size is meant to encourage the friendly gesture of pouring small amounts of sake for friends or companions (often) throughout a meal. Guinomi look very similar to ochoko, but are typically twice the size (3-4 ounces). Masu are unique among sake cups, because they are square boxes, rather than the typical round cylindrical shape. Masu were once traditionally used to measure rice, and come in standardized sizes. The most common size is 180 ml (6 ounces). Masu are typically reserved for ceremonies and traditional celebrations, but are also common in restaurants. They are traditionally made of hinoki wood or lacquerware. Sakazuki are the least common type of sake cup. They are flat, shallow, saucer-like cups, which are also typically reserved for ceremonies and traditional celebrations. A modern variation of the sake cup is the sake glass (typically 3-4 ounces). Sake glasses typically have thin cylindrical shapes or have short stems (resembling miniature goblets).



Cup Sake

Cup Sake are small, portable cup-shaped containers of sake (100-270 ml). Their cup-like design allows you to drink straight from the cup sake itself, eliminating the need for a sake cup or glass. Essentially "sake-on-the-go", cup sake are typically consumed outside or in casual settings, and are ideally suited for events, picnics, and daytrips. Cup sake uniquely combine practicality and novelty, making them both easy to drink and collectible. Ozeki One Cup was the first cup sake, introduced in 1964, to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics. It was a huge success, and now lots of sake breweries produce cup sake. Fifty years later, One Cup is still the best-selling cup sake in Japan, and there are now a dozen varieties, including daiginjo, nigori, and namachozo. A variation of cup sake is "can sake", a cup-sake-sized aluminum can of sake. Can sake are typically reserved for nama sake, since they provide better protection from light. Kikusui Funaguchi was the first can sake (and the first commercially-produced namazake).



Nama

Nama sake is unpasteurized or partially pasteurized sake. Most sake is pasteurized twice, once before bottling, and once after bottling. Pasteurization involves heating the sake, which kills the active yeast and bacteria that are present, giving the sake a longer shelf life (at room temperature). Nama sake are unpasteurized, or in some cases pasteurized only once, which allows the yeast to remain alive in the sake, giving it a unique "fresh" flavor. There are three types of nama sake (namazake, namazume, and namachozo). The most common nama is namazake, which is unpasteurized sake. Since it contains living yeast and bacteria, it must be refrigerated in order to keep the yeast and bacteria in a dormant state, giving the sake a shelf life. Namazume is pasteurized only once, before bottling, whereas namachozo is pasteurized only once, after bottling. Namazume and namachozo are essentially a compromise between "normal" sake and namazake, retaining some of the "fresh" flavor of nama, while having a longer shelf life. Typically nama sake are limited edition seasonally-released sake, with most being released in Spring. A type of namazume called hiyaoroshi is released in Fall, traditionally on Hiyaoroshi Day (Sept 9th). Hiyaoroshi has been aged throughout the Spring and Summer, giving it a richer flavor than most nama sake.



Nigori

Nigori or "nigorizake" (as it is known in Japan) is unfiltered or coarsely filtered sake, which contains rice particles, giving it a milky appearance and a creamy texture. Nigorizake means "cloudy sake". Nigori is one of the oldest types of sake. A style of (unfiltered) nigori known as "doburoku" has been brewed and offered at Shinto shrines for more than a thousand years, and is used in ceremonies. Since it is unfiltered, doburoku is very thick, and is traditionally very sweet. One of the first commercially-produced nigorizake was Shirakawago, which is made by Miwa Shuzo, a Gifu-based sake brewery. Shirakawago was originally commissioned by Shirakawa village, the site of the famous Doburoku Festival. Although traditionally reserved for ceremonies and festivals, the village wanted to create a doburoku that would be available year-round (as an everyday sake). Interestingly, although originally inspired by the sweet and thick doburoku, Shirakawago Sasanigori Junmai Ginjo (the only Shirakawago available in the U.S.) is a dry and refined style of nigori. Nigorizake are typically sweet, but high-end nigorizake tend to be dry.



Kimoto

Kimoto is the old (labor-intensive) method of making sake that was developed during the Edo period. The kimoto method is defined by the use of kai (poles) to perform "yamaoroshi" when making the shubo (yeast starter), which produces naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria. This differs from the modern method of making sake, which involves the addition of artificially created lactic acid. During yamaoroshi, the steamed rice, koji, and water are mashed into a paste with the kai. The yeast is added to the mixture (or it may be naturally occurring), and it is painstakingly nurtured for a month (twice as long as usual), which allows the naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria (and the yeast) to grow. The lactic acid is important because it protects the yeast starter (and the sake) from harmful bacteria. The extra time needed to create a yeast starter in the kimoto method allows the lactic acid bacteria to produce other substances (in addition to lactic acid), which produces the rich, earthy flavor that kimoto sake are known for. A newer variation of kimoto, known as yamahai, was developed in 1909. Yamahai sake are made without the labor-intensive yamaoroshi stage. However, they still use naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria, which gives them a similarly rich, earthy flavor.



Daiginjo

Daiginjo is the highest-level grade of premium sake, above ginjo sake. Daiginjo grade sake is made from rice that is polished down to at least 50% of its original size, and the highest-end daiginjo sake are typically made from rice that is polished down to at least 40% of its original size. Daiginjo sake are considered by most people to be the ultimate sake (and are therefore more expensive than other grades). Daiginjo sake are typically lighter in flavor and smoother than ginjo sake. As the rice is polished down to at least 50% of its original size, it loses its outer layers (leaving just the inner core), thus creating lighter and smoother sake. Daiginjo sake tend to be "fruity" and very often contain hints of "melon" flavor. But, there are a large range of possible flavors, depending on the rice variety, yeast, and the brewery's sake making style. Junmai Daiginjo is daiginjo grade sake made in a junmai style, while "Daiginjo" is daiginjo grade sake made in a honjozo style.



Ginjo

Ginjo is the mid-level grade of premium sake, above honjozo and junmai sake. Ginjo grade sake is made from rice that is polished down to at least 60% of its original size (and as much as 51% of its original size). Ginjo sake are considered to be the perfect "compromise" between junmai/honjozo grade sake and daiginjo grade sake (in terms of both quality and price). Ginjo sake are typically lighter in flavor than junmai/honjozo sake, yet not as light as daiginjo sake. Likewise, ginjo sake tend to be smoother than junmai/honjozo sake, yet not as smooth as daiginjo sake. As the rice is polished down to at least 60% of its original size, it loses its outer layers (and potential impurities), thus creating lighter and smoother sake. Ginjo sake tend to be "fruity" and very often contain hints of "melon" flavor. But, there are a large range of possible flavors, depending on the rice variety, yeast, and the brewery's sake making style. Junmai Ginjo is ginjo grade sake made in a junmai style, while "Ginjo" is ginjo grade sake made in a honjozo style.



Junmai

Junmai is the standard entry level premium sake grade. Junmai means "pure rice", in order to differentiate it from honjozo sake, which contains a small amount of distilled alcohol. Junmai sake is made of rice, water, koji (mold), and yeast (with no added alcohol or other additives). Therefore, as the name implies, it is typically considered to be the ideal sake. Until recently, junmai sake were made from rice that was polished down to at least 70% of its original size (which is still the unofficial standard), but the rule was changed to allow junmai sake to be made from rice that is less polished (above 70% of its original size). Generally speaking, junmai (grade) sake are more full-bodied than sake of higher grades (ginjo and daiginjo), since they are made from rice that is less polished (which contains more flavor-producing layers). Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo are junmai sake, which are made from rice that is polished to ginjo or daiginjo standards.



Sake

Sake or specifically "Nihonshu" (as it is commonly known in Japan) is the national drink of Japan. Sake has been an important part of Japanese culture for more than a thousand years. Many of the techniques for brewing sake were originally developed in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, where sake is used in ceremonies. Sake is an alcoholic drink made of rice, water, koji (mold), and yeast. In some cases, distilled alcohol is also added during the brewing process. Sake is brewed (rather than distilled). Sake's brewing process is unique among alcoholic drinks, because it involves the use of a mold called koji. Koji is used because rice doesn't contain sugar, which is necessary for fermentation. The koji turns the rice's starch into sugar, which is then converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide by the yeast. The natural alcohol content of sake is typically 17 to 20% (known as genshu sake), but most sake is diluted with water to bring the alcohol content down to the standard level of 15 to 16%. There are many different styles and grades of sake. Among premium sake, the standard entry level sake is called junmai, which means "pure rice", in order to differentiate it from honjozo sake, which contains a small amount of distilled alcohol. The higher grades of sake (ginjo and daiginjo) are determined by the percentage of rice polishing, known as seimai buai (a measurement of rice remaining after polishing). Generally speaking, the more rice polishing (indicated by a lower seimai buai percentage), the higher the quality of the sake. Ginjo grade sake is made from rice that is polished to at least 60% of its original size, while daiginjo grade sake is made from rice that is polished to at least 50% of its original size. October 1st is National Sake Day in Japan, commemorating the beginning of the sake brewing season, which traditionally occurs in Fall and Winter.



Samurai

The samurai class ruled Japan for almost 700 years (1192-1868). This period spanned three "bakufu" or "shogunates", beginning with the Kamakura Shogunate (1192-1333), followed by the Ashikaga Shogunate (1338-1573), and ending with the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868). Shogun was the hereditary title and position of ruler of Japan. Under the Shogun, Japan was ruled by daimyo (lords), who controlled large territories. The most famous samurai daimyo in Japan's history was Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), who became Shogun in 1603, thus beginning the Tokugawa Shogunate. He moved Japan's capital from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo), and his family ruled Japan until 1868. Ieyasu was a prominent leader during the notorious Sengoku period (1467-1603), which was the most significant samurai period, marked by a power struggle among Japan's daimyo that lasted almost 150 years. Interestingly, the samurai class numbered less than 10% of Japan's population. Samurai or "bushi" (as they were also known) were bound by a strict code of behavior and ethics known as bushido (the way of samurai). They were required to wear daisho, which were the paired long and short swords. Samurai were known for their severe sense of honor, loyalty, discipline, and self-sacrifice. The samurai forever shaped Japan, and had a profound and lasting impact on Japanese life and culture that is still felt today.



Oni

Oni are another of Japan's most iconic symbols. Oni are yokai (supernatural creatures) from Japanese folklore. Depending on the context, they are thought of as demons, ogres, or spirits. They typically have either red (akaoni) or blue (aooni) skin, but are sometimes also green or black, and have one or two horns, and sharp claws and teeth. They also usually carry an iron club called a kanabo. Traditionally, oni symbolize (and are blamed for) the bad things in life. For that reason, they are a central part of the Japanese holiday Setsubun, which occurs on February 3rd. Setsubun is similar to New Year's Eve in the traditional Japanese calendar, marking the end of the year. In order to prepare for the New Year (which traditionally begins in February), Japanese people perform "mamemaki" on Setsubun, in which roasted soybeans called "fuku mame" are thrown onto the floor (or at a designated family member) while shouting "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" which means "Oni out! Luck in!" and is intended to cleanse the house of bad spirits. Oni have been depicted in art, literature, and theatre for hundreds of years in Japan, and continue to be popular in modern culture.



Tsuru

Tsuru (cranes) or specifically tanchozuru (red-crowned cranes) are another of Japan's most iconic symbols. Tanchozuru are only native to Hokkaido in Japan, although they were once commonly found throughout Japan. They are an endangered species, with only 2,750 remaining in the wild, including about 1,000 in Japan. Tanchozuru are one of the largest crane species, standing about five feet tall, and have a wingspan of about eight feet. As the name implies, they have a bright red patch of skin on the head, and black or gray on the cheeks and neck. Their body is mostly white with black on the edge of the wings. They mate for life and are one of the longest-living birds in the world, typically living for 30-40 years (and as long as 70 years). For that reason, they symbolize long-life, loyalty, and luck in Japan. Tsuru are considered to be special animals in Japan, and have been the subject of art and literature for more than a thousand years (as early as the 8th century). The important samurai daimyo (leader) Hojo Ujiyasu (1515-1571) wore a kimono with images of tsuru in his official portrait. During the Edo period, tsuru were depicted in Hiroshige's series of woodblock prints "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo" (1857).



Fujisan

Fujisan (Mt. Fuji) is one of Japan's most iconic symbols. Fujisan is a volcano with an almost perfectly symmetrical conical shape, and is the tallest mountain in Japan (12,389 ft). It typically has snow on its crest, which is how it is usually depicted in artwork and illustrations. Fujisan is unique among mountains, because it stands alone, and isn't part of a mountain range. Fujisan is located about 60 miles southwest of Tokyo, on the border of Shizuoka and Yamanashi. It is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, and was designated a World Heritage Site in 2013. Fujisan is considered to be an active volcano, although it last erupted in 1707. As you might expect, Fujisan is one of Japan's biggest tourist destinations, and attracts tourists and mountain climbers from around the world. Known as one of Japan's Three Holy Mountains, Fujisan is seen as a sacred mountain. It has been the subject of artwork and literature (and endless fascination) for more than a thousand years, and was famously depicted in Hokusai's series of woodblock prints "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji" (1831).



Haiku

Haiku are (very short) traditional Japanese poetry. Typically, haiku must contain "kiru" (the juxtaposition of two subjects) and "kigo" (a seasonal reference), and must be written with only 17 "on" (syllables) in three lines or phrases of 5-7-5 syllables. Haiku are very often written about the natural world, but can be written about any topic. The most famous writer of haiku was Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). Basho (as he is usually known) was born in the samurai class during the Edo period, but lived most of his life as a poor (yet highly regarded) poet. He traveled frequently into the country looking for inspiration, and once famously traveled around Japan on foot for 156 days (covering about 1,500 miles), documenting his observations in the form of haiku, which were compiled into the classic book "Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior)". One of Basho's most famous haiku is "Old Pond" which reads: "Old Pond, A frog leaps in, Water's sound".



Kimono

Kimono are the iconic traditional clothing of Japan. Kimono have been worn by both women and men in Japan for more than a thousand years, and are still commonly worn today (although usually reserved for special occasions). Kimono are essentially robes, which are tightened with a sash called an obi. The left side always wraps over the right side, and the obi is tied in the back. Women's kimono are traditionally handmade of brightly colored silk, with hand-dyed patterns. Men's kimono are traditionally more subdued and made of dark or neutral colors. A more casual form of kimono called yukata is more commonly worn today, and is made of cotton. Yukata were originally designed as after-bathing-wear for onsen and ryokan, but are now worn as everyday clothing, especially in Summer. Traditional slippers called zori and geta are worn with kimono. Zori are worn with split-toe socks called tabi.



Koi

Koi or specifically "nishikigoi" (as they are known in Japan) are colorful Japanese carp, which are a staple of the Japanese water garden. They are a domesticated version of the "common carp" and were originally developed in Niigata in the early 19th century. Koi come in many different color patterns and variations, and the major colors are red, orange, white, black, yellow, and silver. One of the original (and most popular) varieties is the Kohaku, which has a white body and red markings on top. Generally speaking, koi are slow moving, and have a quiet, peaceful nature, which is why they are so appealing. Their slow, peaceful nature is most likely due to a slow metabolism, which allows them to grow quite large and live a long time. Koi can live for more than 50 years, and in some rare instances are believed to have lived for more than 100 years.



Bonsai

Bonsai is the Japanese art of cultivating miniature trees in ceramic pots. Bonsai have been an important part of Japanese culture for more than a thousand years, and the tradition is influenced by Zen Buddhism. Bonsai means "tray plantings," referring to the tradition of growing bonsai in small, shallow rectangular pots, usually from plantings rather than seeds. Bonsai can be grown from any tree variety, but are most commonly grown from juniper and other conifer (pine) varieties. There are specific design aesthetics that must be adhered to in order for a "miniature tree" to be considered bonsai. Typically bonsai are grown in an asymmetrical way, in order to give them both a natural and artistic look. Although an artform on its own, bonsai have also been the subject of paintings and literature throughout Japan's history. Bonsai were even the subject of a famous 14th century story (and later a Noh play) about a poor samurai who sacrificed his three cherished bonsai (pine, sakura, ume) to keep a traveler warm on a cold night. The traveler then rewarded the samurai with three lands (for each bonsai) for his kindness.



Momiji

Momiji (Japanese Maples) are probably Japan's most famous (non-flowering) tree. It is a small tree that is a key component of the traditional Japanese garden. It has a short trunk that splits into smaller trunks or branches, and has a shape that resembles a giant bonsai. The leaves are typically dark (burgundy) red year-round, and are much smaller and pointier than the maples that we have here in the U.S. The leaves turn bright red in the Fall, which is when the tree is most memorable. Because of their small size, and the naturally artistic way that the trunk and branches grow, momiji are commonly grown as bonsai.



Kiku

Kiku (chrysanthemums) are Japan's third most iconic flower, although residents of Kyoto may place it higher. Unlike most flowers which appear in Spring, kiku are unique because they bloom in September and October, signaling the beginning of Fall. The flowers come in many sizes and colors, including white, yellow, orange, pink, and red. In Japan, kiku are cultivated in painstaking fashion to create large and elaborate displays of kiku, unlike any of the "mums" you see here in the U.S. Kiku are particularly important in Japan because they symbolize the Emperor's family, and a single kiku flower is the Emperor's family crest.



Ume

Ume (plum blossoms) are probably Japan's second most iconic flower. Ume are sakura's bigger, tougher cousin, and typically start blossoming at the end of Winter in February. Whereas sakura are delicate and wait for perfect Spring weather to blossom, ume are the first flowers of the New Year, and can be seen blossoming while snow is still on the ground. They are medium-sized white, pink, or red flowers with a large, distinct center. Since ume are the first flowers to appear in Japan, they really get your attention, standing out and adding intense color and beauty to otherwise frozen landscapes. They are celebrated during Umemi, which precedes Hanami, and usually entails more of a brisk Winter/early Spring walk than a celebratory picnic. The ume fruit are traditionally used to make umeshu, which is plum flavored sake or shochu.



Sakura

Sakura (cherry blossoms) are one of Japan's most iconic symbols. They are small, delicate-looking pink and white flowers, which grow on a relatively small tree that is similar in size and appearance to an apple tree, and bloom sometime in March, April, or May, depending on the location and weather. They are very important in Japanese culture because they symbolize the beginning of Spring, which is traditionally the beginning of a New Year in Japan. Sakura are the centerpiece of Hanami or (more formally) Ohanami, which is a celebration of Spring and the flowers of Spring. The tradition is to celebrate Ohanami by picnicking under (or near) the sakura trees when they are in full bloom. They only bloom for a few weeks, before falling and covering the ground with a beautiful layer of pink petals, which can often be seen blowing in the wind like Spring-time snow flurries. Spending time near sakura trees in Spring is one of the most beautiful, peaceful, and relaxing things you will ever experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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