Thirsty, I’ve filled myself with saké;
lying beneath the cherry blossoms–
Sugidama, as seen above, originated in the Edo Period (1604 to 1868), and have taken many shapes and sizes over the past centuries, sometimes appearing more like bales or bound stalks of thin branches. As the pictures here show, they are always spherical these days.
A sugidama, sometimes referred to as a sakebayashi. In the olden days, saké brewers would hang one of these outside their door to signal that fresh production was on its way. “Sugidama” means “cedar ball,” and that’s exactly what it is: boughs of fresh cedar branches tied together and clipped into a perfect sphere. Saké makers would hang up a fresh green sugidama in November or December, right after they pressed sake made from the new rice harvest. Customers knew that a few months later, when the sugidama turned completely brown, the saké was ready to drink. These days, you’re most likely to spot a sugidama outside your better class of saké seller and restaurants that pride themselves on a great selection of nihonshu (saké).
What are they, these sugidama? Also known as sakabayashi, they are – as they appear to be – balls constructed of the needle-like leaves of the sugi, or Japanese cedar tree.
The sugi holds religious significance in the Shinto religion, particularly in connection with a shrine named Miwa Jinja in Nara Prefecture, wherein resides a deity related to sake. Although today not all sugidama are made from sugi boughs from this shrine, it certainly is one traditional source.
Possibly related to that religious influence, it was in the past said that if the needle-like leaves of sugi are soaked in sake, that sake will not go bad. But there is more to the story than that.
Until about 60 years ago, tanks for saké brewing were made of this wood, (now they are ceramic-lined steel) as are the casks called taru in which saké was formerly shipped (before bottling came along), and the small boxes called masu traditionally used for drinking saké(and measuring rice). And beyond these uses, the walls of most traditional koji-making rooms as well as the trays used to make koji were all almost always made from sugi.
Why sugi over other woods? There are of course a handful of reasons, but the most often presented is that sugi tends to not impart its woodiness to the saké or the koji-in-waiting.
As a rule long ago, but still commonly today as well, sugidama are hung just outside the front entrance to a sake brewery immediately after the first sake of the year has been pressed. At this point, the leaves are still green, having been recently cut and used. Over the next several months, however, the green needles slowly faded to brown. It has long been said that when at long last the color had changed to brown, the saké had aged enough to be ready for drinking.
I recommend a saké tasting tour conducted in English through the streets of the charming Fushimi area of Kyoto.
As Jason writes:
It is not a brewery tour, but rather a tasting and educational tour. You will taste sake (up to 9 different kinds), talk about the ABC’s of Japanese sake and take a look at how it is made.
When? Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays 1:30 – 4:00 or so
Where? We will meet you at the North Exit of Chushojima Station located on the Keihan train line at 1:30. Easy access from central Kyoto or Osaka. Others are joining the tour as well, so please try to be on time.
Who? The tour will be led by Jason Davidson. Born and raised in Minnesota, a state in the Midwest region of the United States, he has spent the past 10 + years living in the Fushimi area of Kyoto.
How Much? 5,000 Japanese Yen per person to be paid in cash on the day of the tour. Please try to have the exact amount. That would help us out. 3,000 Japanese Yen for children 10 and older. Children under 10 can join for free.
Do you know what Junmaishu is? How about Kôji? Sakamai? We’ll learn about these important saké words and more on this 3 hour walking / tasting tour through the charming Fushimi area, the heart of the saké brewing district in Kyoto.
Children are welcome to join the tour with parents. However, we can’t guarantee that we can arrange for non-alchoholic beverages.
Whether you are a seasoned saké enthusiast, or just want to have fun learning about Kyoto culture through saké, this just might be the tour for you!
Saké Tasting Tour (approx. 3 hours) includes walking, talking and tasting through Fushimi, the heart of the saké brewery district in Kyoto. You will visit a museum/brewery, a liquor shop specializing in sake from Fushimi, and a small family owned and operated brewery that produces only Junmaishu (pure rice sake). 5,000 Japanese Yen / Person