Wednesday, November 23, 2011


November 23rd is Labor Thanksgiving Day and Niinamesai(新嘗祭).
Niinamesai is a harvest festival dating back at least to 677. At the festival, the emperor dedicates newly harvested rice and sake to Amaterasu-Ohmikami(the Goddess of the Sun) and eats these offerings.

The planting and harvesting of the rice for Niinamesai are done by the emperor's own hands every year. He went into the rice paddies in the Imperial Palace, planted rice 100 seedlings including sticky rice and ordinary rice on May 24th and harvested them on September 28th this year.

Emperor Akihito will be absent from the festival for the first time due to mild bronchopneumonia this year. The Crown Prince will attend it instead of the emperor.

天地と 久しきまでに 万代に
仕へまつらむ 黒酒白酒を
A-me-tsu-chi-to Hi-sa-shi-ki-ma-de-ni Yo-ro-zu-yo-ni
Tsu-ka-e-ma-tsu-ra-n Ku-ro-ki-shi-ro-ki-wo

"I will offer kuroki(black sake) and shiroki(white sake) to you as long as the world endures," written by Fumuya no Chinu(文室智努, 693-770) in "Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves" (the oldest existing anthology of poetry)

Fumuya no Chinu was a member of the imperial family. The emperor offers alcoholic beverages called kuroki(黒酒, black sake) and shiroki(白酒, white sake) to the goddess at Niinaemsai every year. Shiroki is unrefined sake made from the newly harvested rice. Kuroki is a mixture of shiroki and a plant ash made by steaming and charring a plant root called Kusagi.
Some people say kuroki came to be colored with the plant ash due to the fading of the cultivation of the black rice in Japan although the sake was originally made from the black rice.

According to an old document submitted to the supreme organ of the state in 804, girls who conducted ceremonies to worship gods made sake.

The book of laws and regulations that were compiled by Emperor Daigo's order describes the detail process for making black and white sake. According to the book, one-time sake brewery was constructed after rice fields for the sake were decided by fortune-telling on the 2nd day of the 9th month, the sake was made in 10 days in the 10th month. Niinamesai is held one month after making it.

White and black sake are also offered to another important festivals held at Ise Shrine. Reisyu(Amazake) and refined sake were added to offerings after the Meiji Period.  Amazake(甘酒) is a sweet drink made from fermented rice.

Niinaemsai is also held at many Shinto shrines on this day. White sake exclusively for Niinaemsai is available only to the Shinto shrines and the imperial family.  Now black sake is available only to the imperial family, so the shrines offer only white sake to the gods. 

Fujii Honke(藤居本家) in Shiga Prefecture, which was founded in 1831, presents black and white sake for Niinamesai to the imperial household every year. Many breweries will market freshly-squeezed sake around the end of November.

Many farmers worked at sake breweries to earn hard cash during the agricultural off-season. Chief sake brewers called toji(杜氏) made a plan for the year's brewing in consultation with sake brewery's owners called kuramoto(蔵元) in summer. Toji brewers chose members of their brewing teams. Brewery's owners had no right to choose brewers. Toji brewers worked with the members at sake breweries during the fall and winter months.

Toji are contractors and take on full responsibility for the year's brewing. Brewery's owners used a merit system, so excellent toji had plenty of income. if they failed, contracts with the owners would expire at the end of winter.  Toji are similar to the head chefs at Japanese cuisine restaurants or traditional hotels.

Now the number of toji decreased. Some owners double as toji. Some young people choose a career in sake-making.

Awamori(泡盛) is a kind of distilled spirit(焼酎, shochu) made in Okinawa. Awamori called Usaki(御酒) is sold at the University of Tokyo.
A professor of zymology at the University of Tokyo visited Okinawa and collected about 620 types of koji mold(Aspergillus oryzae) from breweries in 1935.  Koji mold for awamori at  Okinawa's breweries disappoeard in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.  In 1999, usaki was revived using koji moid  owned by  the university at a brewery in Okinawa.

1 comment:

  1. This is wonderful! I did not know anything about Niinaemsai at all! I am going to read you blogs to learn more about Japan.