What are Japanese Sake Sets? 9 Things You Should Know
by David McElhinney
Sake, rice wine that natives more commonly refer to as nihonshu (literally “Japan liquor”), is Japan’s national alcoholic beverage. Like many elements of Japanese culture, sake is deeply rooted in the nation’s underpinning spirituality: drinking sake was once viewed as a purification rite, and it’s still served at traditional Shinto wedding ceremonies and offered to the Gods at shrines across the country.
The kind of receptacle from which one serves and drinks sake is also important. Usually comprised of a flask, or tokkuri, and two cups, also known as ochoko, sake sets are utilitarian pieces of art, typically made from ceramic – though glass, lacquer, bamboo and even tin versions are available. If you want to drink sake in style, then a traditional sake set is the only way to go.
Want to know more about Japanese sake sets? Read on...
1. What are Japanese Sake Sets?
Japanese sake sets are handcrafted receptacles for pouring and drinking nihonshu. The size and shape of the tokkuri and ochoko are important factors to consider. Larger flasks allow the sake to warm, and if the temperature change is too rapid it can affect the taste. While cups tend to be short and wide: if the diameter is too small, it’s hard to detect the aroma which is vital to the overall drinking experience.
2. History of the Japanese Sake Set
Fond of Drinking by Utagawa Kunisada, 1863
In its most primitive form, Japanese sake has been around since China introduced rice cultivation to Japan around 2,500 years ago. But specialized sets from which to drink it didn’t evolve and spread en masse until the artistic and cultural revolutions of the Edo period (1603-1868). After more than two millennia of refinement, sake production became an industry, with 27,251 registered brewers by 1698, causing the sake vessel industry to surge in lockstep.
Ochoko haven’t always been used to drink sake, however. They were traditionally used as ramekins for serving sauces or vinegars, until the booming Edo-period sake trade fostered more potent versions of the liquor. These small, wide cups were then appropriated by imbibers, serving as perfecting vessels for sipping sake slowly, rather than guzzling it down. Their small size also encouraged social interactions, whereby people would fill their companions’ rapidly depleting cups.
Much like ochoko, tokkuri were once used for holding soy sauce, vinegars and oils. Then people realized that ceramic tokkuri could hold sake without spoiling the flavor. The word’s origin is also of importance: “tokkuri-tokkuri” is onomatopoeic for the glug-glug sound of sake being poured from the flask. For sake purists, this is an essential part of the drinking experience.
If you want to know more about sake vessels, check out our Guide to Ochoko or our collection of ochoko at the online store.
3. What are the Types of Sake Set and What Materials are they Made From?
SHOP THE LOOK | Bamboo Sake Set
Japanese sake sets come in various (aforementioned) styles: ceramic, glass, lacquer, bamboo and tin.
Ceramic: Ceramic sake sets are the most popular style and you’ll likely encounter these if you order nihonshu in a restaurant – and if you prefer sake warm, they are also the easiest to heat. Ceramic tokkuri, with chunky bodies and slim necks, and their accompanying ochoko often exemplify the artistic concept of wabi-sabi, the beauty of imperfection. Their non-uniform shapes may be painted with traditional motifs, like flowers, cranes, snow or kanji script. Kikichoko, white ceramic cups with blue rings on the inside base, are also common. Designed for sake tasting, connoisseurs will use the visibility of the blue rings to determine a sake’s clarity and the degree to which the rice has been polished.
Glass: Glass sake sets often appear in restaurants and izakaya (gastro pubs). Their transparency allows for seeing the clarity of a given sake. Sometimes sake glasses are placed inside a wooden box, called a masu, made from Japanese cypress. Serving sake in this style shows generosity, as the liquor is poured until it overflows and fills up the masu. More recently, some sake fans have taken to drinking nihonshu from wine glasses, too, though purists may scoff at this.
Lacquer: Lacquerware sake sets, which can be crafted from ceramic, glass or wood, are rarer. Wooden lacquerware sets are often used during wedding ceremonies, however, with flasks that look more like teapots and cups that are more similar to saucers.
Bamboo: Bamboo sake sets, sometimes carved into stalks of the iconic plant, are more avant-garde, and are best suited to serving cold sake
Tin: In its purest form, tin is highly malleable, so it can be shaped into many different forms. Tin sake sets are not the most common, but boutique versions make for elegant additions to your drinking-glass collection.
4. Where are Sake Sets Made?
© Hozangama Kiln, Toshiyaki Mori
Many craftspeople in Japan will make sake sets in their specialized material. Some of the finest sake sets are made from ceramics, and you can check these out at the Japan Objects Store.
Kyoto-ware, including Kiyomizu-yaki and Kyo-yaki (yaki means “cooked”), has existed for centuries. Designated as a traditional Japanese craft, Kyoto-ware is highly valued, especially as it’s handcrafted and made in small quantities. The two ceramic Kyoto-ware sake sets available at the Japan Objects Store feature painted cranes and overlapping bamboo stalks, respectively, both of which come packaged in custom-made paulownia wood boxes.
We also have an authentic Bizen-yaki sake set, featuring two handcrafted ochoko and a tokkuri.
Bizen-yaki, from Okayama Prefecture, is one of the most celebrated styles of Japanese pottery. Heated in an ancient cave kiln, it’s unglazed and rustic, giving it a centuries-old feel. The glossy and granulated ocher accent of this sake set is named goma (sesame seeds), and is a distinctive feature of Bizen-yaki.
The Tokoname-ware sake set, crafted in Aichi prefecture, is also singular: every glaze reacts in a different way, due to its position in the kiln and the intensity of the fire. Locals say there’s more to Tokoname sake sets than meets the eye: iron contained within the clay is believed to soften the astringency and add roundness to the sake.
5. How to Pair Sake with Sake Sets
SHOP THE LOOK | Dragon Ochoko
There’s a raft of literature on how to best drink sake, from the ideal material of the vessels to the heat at which it’s served or the food it’s paired with. But if you’re relatively new to Japan’s favorite alcoholic beverage, feel free to mix and match different sets to different sake and see which aligns best with your taste preferences.
It is, however, good to have an idea of how each style of sake set can alter the flavor of nihonshu. Glass ochoko pair well with cold sake in summer, though the expression of flavor is all in the shape: a glass with a tapered rim can enhance the aroma, while a wide rim helps soften acidity. Chunky cups made from clay pottery may be preferable for heated sake in winter, keeping the drink warm and softening more aggressive flavors. Whereas wooden masu have natural antibacterial properties and imbue sake with earthier notes.
6. Important Sake Etiquette
Purists assert that temperature is of paramount importance. Honjozo-shu (70 percent polished rice) and junmai-shu (the purest form of sake) are usually served at room temperature, and daiginjo-shu (35-50 percent polished rice) and namazake (unpasteurized sake) are best served chilled.
Traditionally women and younger people would pour sake for their male elders, though this practice is falling out of fashion. Filling your drinking partner’s cup, however, is still common. For this, the tokkuri should be held with two hands – which feeds the body with warmth when the sake is heated – and you should make sure every guest’s cup is filled.
When receiving sake, the ochoko should be held with the right hand while it lays on the palm of your left hand. Once everybody has a full cup you can make a toast by saying kanpai, meaning “cheers,” and clinking your ochoko together. If you’re toasting with Japanese elders, you should try to keep the height of your cup at a lower level than theirs.
7. Where Can I Buy Japanese Sake Sets?
As mentioned, there are several elegant sake sets for sale in the Japan Objects Store.
You can also buy ceramic sake sets in many of Japan’s most famous pottery regions, from Kyoto, Bizen and Tokoname to Echizen, Saga and Kanazawa. For wooden and lacquerware sets, you’ll want to head to Inami in Toyama Prefecture, one of Japan’s preeminent woodcarving towns with more than 200 artisans in the population of only 8,000. Towns such as Otaru in Hokkaido or Karuizawa in Nagano specialize in glassware, while the Nousaku tin factory in Toyama is one of Japan’s chief producers of ornate tin drinking vessels.
8. How to Care for Your Sake Set
SHOP THE LOOK | Tokoname Sake Set
For Japanese tea lovers, yunomi bizenware teacups have a similar effect on the taste of tea. In Japan, yunomi teacups are often seen as a present for a married couple, but we find that they are a charming and always appreciated present for anyone enjoying tea.
9. Other Things You Might Need
SHOP THE LOOK | Sushi Plate
For a start, you’ll need some sake, otherwise those sets will just gather dust on the shelves. There are plenty of places to buy sake in Japan: convenience stores, liquor shops, souvenir shops and in some cases vending machines. For exporting breweries, check out the Sake Portal.
Japanese drinking culture is usually combined with dining. So why not invest in some traditional Japanese serving utensils? At the Japan Objects Store we’ve got elegant bowls for serving sashimi-don (sashimi on rice) and other traditional dishes, or Bizen-yaki sushi plates which are perfect for presenting raw fish.
Laissez un commentaire