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Glassware for Enjoying Sake (Part II)
Sake Museums in Nada and Fushimi

# 77

Apr. 2006

Sake World Sake e-Newsletter
Issue #77
April 1, 2006

-- Glassware for Enjoying Sake (Part II)
-- Visiting Japan? Get to Nada and Fushimi
-- Sake Events & Announcements

Glassware for Enjoying Sake (Part II)
Last month, we began to look at vessels for enjoying sake, especially wine glasses, and those small, ubiquitous cups called o-chokko. Also, we pondered the technical reasoning behind the choice of shape, dimensions, and other physical attributes. Let us continue this month with a description of some of the other implements and accoutrements used in the enjoyment of sake in Japan and elsewhere.

But before launching into a rundown of the various vessels and their many manifestations, let me first say a tad more about the "official tasting cups" called kiki-choko briefly mentioned last month. These kiki-choko are made of white porcelain, fairly thin-lipped, hold 180cc (about six ounces), and have a bright blue pattern of concentric circles emblazoned on the bottom.

These are used in many if not most formal tastings, and have for about the past 100 years or so. The bright white porcelain allows the clear-to-amber color of the sake to be easily seen, the size allows ample room for aromatics to waft up, and the thin lip and big mouth allow sake to be well distributed about the palate, maximizing sensory input.

What of the bright blue bullseye pattern on the bottom? What function follows this form? While it is not a problem any more, long ago some sake ended up going south during storage, and becoming murky to some degree in both flavor and appearance. By looking at where the blue met the white, judges and assessors could tell if the sake was being stored properly by seeing how clear or diffused that border appeared.

A longer description of these glasses - replete with historical and cultural references and tidbits - can be found at Also, a photo of these official tasting glasses (along with one miniature version) can be found at for those that are interested.

Interestingly enough, today in the highest level government tastings, like the National New Sake Appraisal held each spring, judges do not use these traditional glasses, but instead use rather mundane tumblers made of amber colored glass. Amber, mind you, not clear. What gives? Well, believe it or not, at this level they are actually trying to *hide* the color from the judges.

Huh? Why would they want to do hide additional sensory input? The answer lies in the fact that judges are human, and people here often equate transparency with refinement, and refinement with quality. And while this may all be very pleasing aesthetically, the truth is that whether or not sake has a slight amber color or is closer to transparent has no bearing on quality; it is all a matter of precise charcoal filtering that the brewer may or may not have chosen to use. So, in an effort to limit the human tendency of judges to ding a sake with an amber tinge, the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater, and they are not permitted to see the color at all.

Another traditional imbibing implement is the small wooden box that holds the same amount as the official cups mentioned above, 180 cc (about six ounces). It is true that until half a century or so ago, these were very, very common vessels for enjoying sake. But back then, sake was brewed in wooden tanks, and until as late as the 40s, stored in wooden casks during shipment to your local retailer. So serving sake like that in wood would do it no harm. But today's ginjo sake, with its generally more refined, more complex, lighter flavors and prominent aromatics, is best enjoyed out of other, less interfering materials. In other words, if you drink ginjo from wooden boxes, the wood wins, the sake loses.

Interestingly, those wooden masu were originally a standard measure for rice, and were found at every rice shop in the country to be used as standard sized scoops. And, the size of these puppies (180 ml) led to the curious bottle sizes of the sake world, 1.8 liters (i.e. ten of those boxes) and 720ml (i.e. four of 'em).

Note, too, that sometimes we can find lacquered (or plastic) version of these boxes, created to allow people to enjoy the dose of tradition while not detracting from the quality of the sake with externally introduced woodiness. Sometimes, too, some sake pubs will place a glass inside of one of these masu for the same reasons - maintaining a touch of tradition while keeping the nature of the sake intact.

Many folks have surely experienced being served sake, and having the glass not only filled to the brim, but deliberately overflowed by the pourer, from a glass into the masu, or from a cup or masu onto the dish supporting it. What's with this?

It is a traditional way of showing the customer that not only is the shop not skimping, but they are giving you your money's worth and then some, dammit. Call it "the pour of munificence" if you will, and while it can be a bit messy and unwieldy, the feeling behind it all is warm and generous. 

Next month, we will wrap this up with a closer look at traditional Japanese pottery, a sake glass designed by Riedel, and some odd designs, like a daiginjo glass with a protuberance in the center that would have Freud spinning in his grave.

Until then, enjoy your sake in whatever vessel is most readily available.

Visiting Japan? Get to Nada and Fushimi
When work, vacation or other travel brings you to Japan, if you are reading this newsletter, chances are you will be interested in checking out something sake related. If you are here during the brewing season in the winter, many if not most sakagura (breweries) are open to tours, although in almost all cases you would need to call ahead and make reservations and arrangements. So if you or someone you are with speaks the language, this should be no problem.

If you do not have the linguistic wherewithal, though, all is not lost. In the Kobe and Kyoto areas are several museums attached to sake breweries that have plenty of information in English, and have normal business hours that provide flexibility in allowing guests to drop in almost any time with no reservations.

While museums might not seem like the most sake-intensive experience you can have, these are actually quite informative, interesting and fun.

MUSEUMS: Nada Region of Kobe
1. The Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum
This museum is constructed in one of the old brewery buildings. You need to check in at the main gate, as if it were some secrete science compound. But once that trauma is over, you wander into a beautifully preserved building with a gorgeous garden at the entrance, a stark juxtaposition to the steam-billowing, ultra-modern sake brewing plant all around you. Be sure to get an explanatory brochure upon entering (available both in English and Japanese). Then, explore the self-guided tour on the first and second floor. There are, at each of perhaps eight stations, television monitors with wonderful two-minute videos showing the major steps in the brewing process, complete with old film footage. Narration is available in either Japanese or English - just select the right button. There are also extremely detailed scenes with manikins and old brewing tools that convey quite a realistic feeling of the work load of old. When you are finished, there is a small sake sample of which to partake, along with a video of how to properly taste sake. All in all an excellently informative tour. If you have time for only one place, this would be it.

4-5-5 Sumiyoshi Minami-machi
Higashi Nada-ku, Kobe
TEL: 078-822-8907.
Open daily 9:30 - 4:30, closed Mondays.
Access: Five-minute walk from Hanshin Sumiyoshi Station.
Access: Fifteen-minute walk from JR Sumiyoshi Station.
Admission free.

2. The Kiku Masamune Sake Brewery Museum. Perhaps a ten-minute walk away, this museum was destroyed in the Great Hanshin Earthquake that devastated Kobe several years ago, and reopened in January of 1999. The gate and entrance way have been well restored to their original rustic beauty. Be sure to grab one of the lovely brochures (in English or Japanese) at the entrance when you sign in, and look for a detailed map of the breweries in Nada if you do not already have one. In the first large room is an excellent video from 1934 showing black and white brewing scenes, to vintage music. The narration is all in Japanese, but the scenery is easy enough to understand, and the accompanying music is classic. Excellent coverage of large-scale brewing back then, with dozens of men at one time mixing moto (yeast starters) or stirring vats. A small model of a Tarukaisen, the ships that went back and forth between Kobe and Edo, doing nothing but delivering casks of sake, sits near the entrance. Here there are less large brewing implements (although there are some), and more small storage vessels, like bottles and tokkuri and red, lacquered "tsuno-daru." When you are finished, there are several sake to be sampled in the tasting and retail purchase room.

1-9-1 Uozaki Nishimachi,
Higashi Nada-ku, Kobe
TEL: 078-854-1029.
Open daily 10:00 - 4:00, closed Tuesdays.
Access: Five-minute walk from Hanshin Uozaki Station.
Access: Two-minute walk from Rokko Liner Minami Uozaki Station.
Admission free.

3. Sawa no Tsuru Sake Museum. A short taxi ride away is Sawa no Tsuru's wonderfully charming museum. Originally constructed in 1978, it was totally destroyed in the Great Hanshin Earthquake. It was reconstructed as a replica of the original, and opened in March 1999. Here, you start with a short film as well, half modern reenactments and half cartoons. But it gets the point across visually. You then follow the flow of the original brewing steps in the old kura. Of particular interest are the reconstruction of the kama (rice steamer) area, and the sunken funaba (sake pressing box) area. Dozens of wooden brewing vats, lined up as they might have been long ago, convey a feeling of what it must have been like. A model of a Tarukaisen is on the second floor. Each of these ships could carry about 1000 koku, or 180 kiloliters, in small casks. That is equivalent to the yearly production of many kura today. When finished, there is a tasting room which offers only one sake for tasting, their genshu honjoz-o, but there are plenty of interesting things like pickles and snacks to purchase.

1-29-1 Oishi Minami-machi
Nada-ku, Kobe
TEL: 078-882-6777
Open daily, 10:00 - 4:00, closed Wednesdays.
Access: Fifteen-minute walk from Hanshin Oishi Station.
Admission free.

There are several other museums and points of interest in Nada, both museums and restaurants. A very useful map, entitled "Sake Breweries of Nada" is available from the Kobe Information Center at 078-322-0220. It shows the sights on one side, and lists the contact information on the other.

MUSEUMS: Fushimi Region of Kyoto
In Fushimi, there are almost 40 sakagura, many in one tight neighborhood worth a walk-through. But the best museum (albeit not as big as the Kobe places) would be Gekkeikan's Okura Memorial Hall sake museum. Arguably the most significant brewer across the history of the sake world, many of Gekkeikan's industry firsts are on display here. There is a partially viewable mini-kura attached, and a restaurant just around the corner. It is in the opposite direction from JR Kyoto station as most of the traditional Kyoto sights, but by no means out of the way. If you go to Kyoto, get here.

Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum (Okura Memorial Hall)
More information, a photo and a map can be found at the monster of a URL below:
A five minute walk from Chushojima station (Keihan line)
Phone No. 075-623-2056 Admission fee 300 yen
Open 9:00 - 16:30 Closed Mondays

Sake Events and Announcements
Sake and Pottery Seminar, May 20, at Takara. On the evening of Saturday, May 20, from 6pm until 9pm, Rob Yellin and I will hold a sake and pottery seminar at the sake pub Takara in Yurakucho. The sake topic will be sake rice. While many folks may think that rice is rice, and it all pretty much is the same, when it comes to sake, nothing could be further from the truth. The cost for the evening, with two lectures, six sake, dinner, lecture materials, and plenty of pottery for fondling, is 7000 yen. Those interested in attending can make a reservation by emailing me (visit to email me). Takara is located on the B1 level of the Tokyo Forum, the convention center just outside Yurakucho Station. More detailed instructions for getting there will follow with the confirmation email.


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