Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (121): Hanging the sake balls

Posted by ampontan on Monday, November 14, 2011

EVERYONE who’s seen a movie whose action takes place aboard a naval vessel knows the phrase, “The smoking lamp is lit”. It originated in the era of wooden sailing ships, when preventing fires was the first order of business and permission to smoke was signaled by lighting a lamp hanging at the forecastle.

Years ago, the sake establishments in Kyoto had a similar signal that must have been more eagerly awaited by landlubbers and swabbies alike. The proprietors of those establishments hung a ball made of leaves from the Japanese cedar to announce that a new batch of sake was finished and ready to be poured down the hatch.

Nowadays all that’s required is to look for a tavern where the exterior lights are still on and the noren (shop curtain) is suspended over the door, but the custom of leaf ball hanging still lives at the Matsuo Taisha, a Shinto shrine in Kyoto. In fact, a male parishioner put up three last week — one at the main building, one at the administrative office, and one at the storehouse where the mikoshi, or portable shrine for the deity, is kept.

This is a Shinto event, after all, so of course they’ve maintained the liquor connection. The balls are hung from the eaves with care as part of the Jo’u Festival held at the shrine every autumn in supplication for the safety of the sake brewers. As every devout worshipper knows, the first commandment for getting righteously ripped is divine protection for the brewers.

The sake/Matsuo Taisha link is a very long one. A shrine was first established on the current site in 701 — note the triple digits — though they didn’t settle on the Matsuo name until 1950. It’s associated with the Hata clan, a prominent immigrant clan whose origins are in China and who are thought to have come to Japan from Korea in the 3rd Century. According to the barroom scuttlebutt, one of the jewels of continental culture the Hatas brought with them was sake brewing techniques. The shrine’s association with grog in the popular imagination is at least several centuries old: It’s mentioned in that connection in a kyogen comedy from the 16th century.

In an interesting turnabout, the ball of leaves was originally hung as part of the festival to denote the start of a new sake batch, rather than its completion. The heavenly spheres are about 60-70 centimeters in diameter, and they’re made from the trees in a grove at nearby Nantan. The festival itself has been expanded to include the manufacturers and wholesalers of other fermented food items, such as soy sauce and miso paste. This year, representatives of about 50 companies showed up to receive their blessings.

What do they give in return? Take a look at that wall of sake barrels in this brief video to see.

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One Response to “Matsuri da! (121): Hanging the sake balls”

  1. toadold said

    I’ve been an advocate of backing currencies with a “basket” of commodities so the value of the currency could be more easily adjusted. For the US I postulated: gold, silver, copper, corn, wheat, bourbon, carbonated soft drinks, and computer video games.
    For Japan much the same except sake, beer, ice cream, and anime.

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