Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (39): Rolling out the barrel since the 15th century

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 2, 2007

WHEN THE WEATHER GETS HOT AND SULTRY, the Japanese cool off like people everywhere else by quenching their thirst with a glass or two of beer. While sake is considered the traditional Japanese alcoholic beverage, it is most frequently drunk warm during colder weather. It’s not really consumed for refreshment. But it might surprise even some Japanese to discover that the custom of drinking beer on these islands is a lot older than they suspect.

How old? At least as far back as 1441, when the Bakushu Matsuri was first held at the Soja Shinto Shrine in Koka, Shiga Prefecture. The two kanji used to write the word bakushu are the ones for barley and for liquor. Though the drink may not resemble the beer of today, the ingredients of both beverages give them a similar pedigree.

The story goes that the Soja Shrine parishioners finished the work of rebuilding the main hall in 1441. To celebrate, they created an alcoholic drink out of new barley to offer to the divinities in supplication for an abundant harvest and to prevent serious illness caused by the hot weather.

The festival is still held annually, and this year’s event took place on the 18th last month. Male parishioners serve as the brewers. Their religious duties are to mix the water taken from a clear stream near the shrine with barley and malted rice, pour the ingredients into three large barrels, and let it ferment. The brewing method is known only to the shrine’s brewmeisters and passed on from one generation to the next.

On the festival day, the bakushu is taken in the barrels to be offered to the shrine’s divinities. After a prayer, 30 fortunate parishioners are the first to sample it, after which it is then ladled out to the rest of the crowd. Those who’ve tasted the beverage say it is sweet, and the people attending the festival this year report that the latest batch was much tastier than last year’s brew.

If you’re surprised that the Japanese would conduct a religious ceremony in which the central act is the production and consumption of an alcoholic beverage, you’re either a new reader or you just haven’t been paying attention!

Incidentally, in the earlier part of the last century, the Japanese used the word mugishu for beer, rather than bakushu (though the kanji are identical). They also introduced Western-style beer to Korea and built the first breweries there during the colonial period. The Korean beer OB (which stood for Oriental Brewery) was produced by a company that branched off from Asahi, and the former Korean beer Crown was Kirin beer renamed.

The Japanese later discarded the term mugishu in favor of biiru, but the Koreans kept the former word and still use it today. They pronounce it with the Korean readings of the same Chinese characters, however–mekju.

Postscript: The link to the city of Koka above connects to a four-minute YouTube video that’s worth a look.

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