TOKYO — Anyone who has been to Japan in the middle of winter knows how appropriate it is that warm sake is their national drink. The first time I arrived in Tokyo was during a December blizzard.
Ducking into a pint-sized neighborhood bar, I shook off the snow, squeezed onto a seat at the counter and ordered sake. Within minutes the clear, warm liquid had magically warmed me. Suddenly, the Japanese gentleman beside me reached over for my small bottle and refilled my cup. "It's tradition that you never fill your own cup," he explained, introducing himself.
During the next couple of lively hours, conversing via my Berlitz phrasebook and imbibing countless rounds of sake that I justified as cultural research, Osamu Nichi enlightened me about the intricate details of sake drinking, born--like everything else in Japan--from thousands of years of finely honed tradition.
Now when I dine at a sushi bar I can casually mention how amusing it is that most people think a sakazuki is a Japanese motorcycle. Odds are no one else will know it's the thimble-size cup from which to sip a potion still so important that few Japanese feel married without the ceremonial nine sips of sake--three for the bride and six for the groom. It is the proper accompaniment for an evening in the company of geisha. And though it's often called rice wine, it is actually brewed in a process akin to beer making.
Sake (pronounced sah-kay) has a clean, nut-like flavor and is part of everyday life in the "land of the rising yen." There are few places where you can't get it. I've tucked into a tokkuri or two zipping along at 170 miles an hour on the bullet train, had it served to me by a kimono clad mama-san in the steamy enclave of a public bath, and have crept out at night from my ryokan inn with a handful of coins to buy pre-warmed, one-shot Ozeki bottles from a suburban sidewalk vending machine.
The classic style of serving is to decant from the bottle (a whopping 1.8-liter bottle is standard in Japan) into individual porcelain flasks called tokkuri that are then placed in a saucepan of warm water until the sake reaches 104 degrees. But sake need not be served warm. In Japan it long has been enjoyed cold. In fact, some sakes are brewed especially to be drunk straight out of the refrigerator. On the rocks it makes a refreshing summer drink. Mix sake with orange juice for an Oriental screwdriver, or with three parts dry gin and an olive for a sake martini.
Good manners dictate that you pour for your companions who, in turn, fill your sakazuki. Raise the cup (this is for purists only) with the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand, placing the first two fingers of the left hand under the bottom. Your sakazuki should not be filled to the brim, and when you've had enough, place your hand over your cup when offered more or turn it upside down on the table.
Catering to true sake aficionados are a handful of gourmet sake bars that stock 300 or more rare and special brews, most of them created by small family brewers. Each is stored at precisely the correct temperature specified by the marker and served in exactly the right shaped tokkuri and sakazuki. Several are in the Ikebukuro area, a short subway ride from downtown Tokyo where many out-of-town Japanese stay when they visit the city. Though they don't necessarily have traditional Japanese decor, they are mecca for sake lovers.
During my last trip, I visited Akaoni in Tokyo, a special sake bar that features live jazz, where we ordered a selection of four unusual sake to sample and compare. These are not drinking party establishments to spend the evening becoming bleary eyed; the bill for four small tokkuri came to more than $100.
Sake dates back thousands of years, to the earliest days of rice cultivation in Asia, but the original brew was likely a rough-tasting alcoholic rice soup--nothing like the clear, refined sake of today.
Revered as a divine beverage and offered to the gods on auspicious occasions, it was made in earliest times by a curious method known as diastases. Young women chewed steamed or soaked rice along with water, the amylases in the saliva converting the rice starches into sugars that, added to the main mash, allowed fermentation to follow. In some districts this ancient method is still ritually practiced at shrines and festivals, and even today the noble brew carries the honorific prefix o as in o sake in deference to its importance in both religious and social ceremonies.