Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (58): One for the gods and one for the road

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 5, 2007

THE WEATHER’S TURNED NIPPY IN JAPAN, and for a nip to ward off fall’s chill, many Japanese turn to a type of sake called doburoku (or nigorizake, explained here). And this time of year, where do people go for a taste of some divinely inspired doburoku?

To a Shinto shrine, of course! This isn’t like the Catholic church, where only the priests get to surreptitiously sip the sacramental wine behind the sanctuary—in Japan they ladle it out for all the parishioners who show up for the services.

One of the most well-known of the doburoku festivals was held at the Shirakawa Hachiman shrine in Shirakawa-mura, Gifu Prefecture, on 14 and 15 October (first photo). The ceremony is held every fall to give thanks for a bountiful harvest, and it’s so well known that 15,000 people showed up on the first day.

The shrine’s doburoku has been made from a combination of locally produced grains for about 1,300 years, making this one very well-established tradition in a country known for them. The shrine authorities are considerate enough to provide entertainment for their visitors, too; a traditional lion dance (shishimai) is held in the village in the morning of the 14th, before they tap the kegs. Local women dispense the cloudy sake to the shrinegoers, who sit on straw mats on the shrine grounds, watch traditional Japanese folk music performed on a temporary stage set up on the grounds, and enjoy the fall weather.

In fact, the people of Shirakawa enjoy doburoku so much, two other shrines in the village have their own festivals in quick succession—one is held right after the Hachiman shrine’s event on the 16th and 17th, and the other immediately after that on the 18th and 19th.

There’s no off-premises drinking, but the people who buy a red lacquer sake cup get unlimited refills.

By this point, you might well be wondering if all this holy rolling in the gutter doesn’t create some dicey conditions for those driving home. Well, that occurred to the shrines too, especially considering that drunk driving has been an issue of growing concern in Japan over the past couple of years.

That’s why the organizers of the doburoku festival held at the Shirahige Tahara shrine further down the archipelago in Kitsuki, Oita Prefecture, on 17 and 18 October (second photo) took the initiative to discuss the matter with local police. The talks resulted in two policy changes. First, shrine visitors are now able to take home the divine brew without drinking it on the premises. Second, police set up inspection stations near the shrine to catch anyone in their cups while in the car.

(The Japanese sometimes set up checkpoints on city streets late on weekend nights through which every vehicle has to pass. All the drivers are checked for their sobriety. These checkpoints can be avoided by taking the long way around, but their presence does send a message. Also, every town has at least one taxi company with two drivers assigned to each cab–one to drive the passenger home, and one to drive the passenger’s car home.)

Shrine officials were concerned these stringent measures might depress attendance at their festival, which will celebrate its 1,300th anniversary in 2010. To their delight, those concerns proved to be unfounded, as the number of visitors exceeded last year’s total of 18,000. (Yes, that’s a lot of people, but consider how many folks would show up at St. Elmo’s if they gave out goblets of wine.) The shrine also had to deal with about 2,100 vehicles, an increase from 1,600 the year before.

To meet the demand, the priests used 1,200 kilograms of newly harvested rice to brew about 2,200 liters of doburoku. (This kind of sake doesn’t require as much time to ferment.)

But one 46-year-old man interviewed by the local newspaper had his own solution—he brought along his wife so she could drive him home!

There are about 10 Shinto shrines in Japan with the legal authorization to brew doburoku, and only one of them is on Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands. That distinction belongs to the Uga shrine in Mitoyo, Kagawa Prefecture. There’s a good reason they were selected–the shrine has two guardian deities: one for food, and one for sake brewing.

And the two deities are all the more reason for doubling their fun, so they have two doburoku festivals—one in the spring to pray for a bountiful harvest, and one in the fall to give thanks for the harvest. The fall festival is held on 20 and 21 October.

Just before that, however, on the 18th, they held the Kuchiakeshiki, which literally means “mouth open ceremony”. That’s an expression used to denote the beginning of an event, such as a special sale, but you’ll have to admit it’s also particularly apt for a party to down doburoku.

The Kuchiakeshiki is held to test palatability and sweetness. (Doburoku tends to be very sweet.) The third photo was taken during that ceremony.

Brewing started at the end of September with newly harvested local rice and well water taken from the shrine grounds. The parishioners donned eboshi hats and white robes to grind the rice grains with a stone pestle, and produced roughly 280 liters.

Fifty people attended the Kuchiakeshiki. No fools they–after offering the new sake to the divinities, they tried it out themselves. Reports indicate they were pleased with both the palatability and the sweetness, and one of the brewmeisters said it had been a good idea to start brewing just when the weather turned cold.

The doburoku was passed out from 3:00 to 9:00 p.m. on the 20th, and on the morning of the 21st. We hope none of the recipients passed out later. They would have missed out on the entertainment—in addition to a lion dance and a taiko drum performance offered on the night of the 20th, visitors were also served local cuisine.

Doesn’t this sound like a great way to spend some time at a religious institution? And here’s the best part—you don’t have to convert to Shinto. You just show up at the shrine!

8 Responses to “Matsuri da! (58): One for the gods and one for the road”

  1. bender said

    Keep in mind that the Japanese don’t mess around with percentages of alcohol content in the blood to determine inebriation—drivers caught with any alcohol in their system are sent directly to the butabako, or pig box, an old slang term for the lockup.

    Actually, it’s the same with US or Germany: it depends on how much alcohol is in your bloodstream. That’s why the police take your breath into “fusen”(balloon) at checkpoints. But recently the law was amended to be stricter, and maybe a cup of doburoku is enough to be illegal. Still, in rural areas, there’re izakayas in the middle of nowhere, and the only way to get there is by driving. Obviously a shakai-mondai.

  2. ampontan said

    Bender: Here’s what I meant to say. You can’t have any alcohol in the bloodstream at all in Japan (as far as I know). There was, at one time, an allowable percentage in the US, though I forget now (0.1%?) Am I mistaken?

  3. Overthinker said

    Japan has two levels of intoxication for drunk driving. The official “drunk driving(酒酔い運転)” blood-alcohol limit is 0.25mg, but there is a separate “driving under the influence(酒気帯び運転)” which has no set minimum. Fines are up to a cool million (or five years, plus instant loss of licence) for Drunk Driving and up to a very painful half-mil (or three years) for Driving Under the Influence. These were raised in September this year. They really, seriously, do not kid around. On the plus side, if you’re not a big drinker (like me) you can just say “no, I drove” and no one will pressure you. In the inaka, they can get around this by going with their wife, so the hubby can do the drinking and the wife the driving, and I’d bet it happens at this sort of thing a lot too. Plus there are always taxis….

  4. bender said

    It’s rather the opposite. There’s no set blood alcohol content standard for “drunk driving”: if you’re drunk, you are. It’s determined by various tests. Blood alcohol content may be one of them, but it’s not determinative. As for “driving under the influence”, it is true that there is no limit set in the statute, but then you have this administrative “point” system where you won’t receive any penalty unless you have a certain amount of blood alcohol content. This minimum is 0.15 mg or more. So, if you only have an amount below that, it’s likely you won’t get anything unless you commit more serious crimes like hit and run while under influence.

    I’m sure this is quite similar in the US, but it must depend on which state you’re in. I’ll take a look at it.

  5. bender said

    Click to access H15.2keisicho-happyou.pdf

    Here’s material about statistics in Tokyo. Note that there’s no case reported where one was apprehended for “shuki-obi” that is below the administrative standard of 0.15 mg/l.

  6. bender said

    I just remembered there was statute for all this. It’s in the Doro-Kotsu-ho (Road Traffic Act). According to this statute, certain violations will not be prosecuted as crime if the violator pays fines according to the points he/she receives. Certain violations are not exempt, such as drunk driving and driving under the influence over the statutory blood alcohol content limit.

    If anyone’s interested, see Section 125 and 128 of the Japanese Road Traffic Act available at

    Sorry for all this trivial issue that’s not even the focus on Ampontan’s post..

  7. ampontan said

    That’s OK, it’ll teach me to be more careful of hearsay evidence in the future, even if all the hearsay came from Japanese themselves! I edited the post slightly.

    BTW, I used to hang out with these two brothers that ran a yakitori. Every once in a while, we would stay for a couple of drinks after they took down the noren, and they would give me a ride home. We did have to take the long way around late one Saturday night (actually Sunday morning) to avoid a police checkpoint.

  8. bender said

    If you live in rural towns, the police may be lax…that’s the way it is, people driving to izakaya to booze off. It’ll get serious when you drink, drive and hit someone, though. And now, people who allowed the driver to drink is also punished.

    I’ve participated in an experiment (run by the police dep) on how much one needs to drink to exceed the legal limit: with 0.25mg/l, it took couple glasses of beer. Now it’s 0.15mg/l, so maybe one glass might be enough. Not sure.

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