Sunday, 4 July 2010

Sake Cups

As western culture often speaks of "Daily Bread", here in Japan the staple diet of rice is so ubiquitous that the word for rice and meal are the same..."Gohan" (御飯), or more informally "Meshi" (飯). Rice is used for making a huge variety of other foods, one of the best known of which is, of course, "Sake" (酒), or "Nihonshu" (日本酒) the Japanese rice wine. Our local Sake is Souhomare (惣誉), one of the best in the prefecture. There are makers of Sake, called "Sake Gura" (酒蔵), in just about every town in Japan, and there are a huge variety of types and styles. Some are clear, some cloudy, some should be drunk warm, others chilled. Thus, because there are so many styles of Sake, there have developed a wide variety of cups from which to drink it. Probably as many as there are potters in Japan, so here are just a few!

Probably the best known style of drinking sake is the warm Sake called "Atsukan" (熱燗) . Strictly speaking, Atsukan should be 50 degrees centigrade, and often it is heated to disguise poor quality sake, but there are types of sake that are designed for this temperature. Any warmed Sake is called "Kan" (燗), but each temperature has a different name. 33C is called "HinataKan" (日向燗, Sun Warmed) , 37C is "HitohadaKan" (人肌燗, Skin Warmth), 40C would be "Nurukan" (ぬる燗, Luke Warm), 45C is "JoKan" (上燗 High Warmth) and, for those who like it really hot, "TobikiriKan" (飛び切り燗, Over the top!) at 55C. Atsukan is usually a winter drink, so to make sure that it doesn't cool too quickly it is poured in small quantities into Sake cups called "Choko" (猪口, Boars Snout), which has a high foot shaped like a boars snout and a small, deep bowl. They can be lacquer ware or ceramic.

There is, however, another style of "Choko" for cold Sake. It is basically cylindrical in shape, so that the whole cup is shaped like a boars snout. These two cups were made by Masumi Narita, another Mashiko potter and Sake lover, and one of the important points about these cups is the fineness of the lip. Sake cups do not need to be identical to be a set, they merely need to share a common theme. There are some people who believe that the "Choko" name refers to the small quantity consumed with each cupful ("Chokotto", means "in small increments"), and I wouldn't be surprised if the Japanese traditional love of puns hadn't influenced the original naming.

It is usual for sake cups to be sold as pairs or sets of five. Four is an unlucky number, as it is a homonym for "Death". These two "Choko" of mine came out of last weeks firing. (They are available from my Gallery here.) "Cold" Sake is called "Hiya" (冷や), and is drunk at room temperature like wine. Colder Sake would be "Suzubie" (涼冷え) at 15C, "Hanabie" (花冷え, Blossom chilled) at 10C and "Yukibie" (雪冷え, Snow chilled) at 5C.

Everyday general purpose Sake cups are called "Guinomi" (ぐい呑, Gulping Cups), which are named for the sound one makes when one swallows. The small Guinomi would generally be sold as a set of five, to be enjoyed at a gathering or with a meal. The two front Guinomi are by my Sensei, Tatsuzo Shimaoka, National Treasure, and were shapes which I was trained to make during my studies with him. The one at the back is one of a limited edition which I made to commemorate my exhibition at Ebiya in 2000.

The larger Guinomi would be sold individually, and a serious Sake lover would have a wide variety of them to select from depending on the style of Sake, the season or their mood. A sake cup like these, again by Shimaoka sensei and myself, might be used for "Nigorizake" (濁り酒, cloudy sake), which us unfiltered and milky white.

For more formal situations it is traditional to use a shallow bowl shaped cup called a "Sakazuki" (盃). This would only be used with the best Sake, crystal clear and usually cool. This is a silver sakazuki from the Imperial household, as can been seen by the imperial crest in the centre of the cup. A pattern is often made in the centre of the cup so as to emphasize the clarity of the Sake. It is very nice with a "Yukibie" on a hot, steamy summers day, just like today.