Visit any Shinto shrine in Japan and you’ll notice barrels of rice wine on display. These wooden sake barrels known as sakedaru (酒樽) wrapped in straw blankets are stacked and bounded together by rope on a wooden frame.
The decoration of barrels known as kazaridaru signifies a spiritual connection and relationship between brewers and shrines for prosperity. Most brewers donate these sake barrels to shrines for Shinto ceremonies, rituals and festivals. Japanese believe that sake acts as a symbolic unification of Gods and people.
The origin of sake in Japan dates back to around 300 BC as the drink of the Gods. Polished rice is washed and cleaned before steamed. Yeast is later added onto the rice and allowed to ferment. The fermentation process is continued with series of incubation, heating and cooling before alcohol is produced. Traditional sake brewing is no longer in practice as production process has improved to increase yield and reduce brewing time. Today, there are over 1,500 sake manufactures in Japan.
In some of Japans oldest texts the word used for sake is miki (神酒),written with the characters for ‘god’ and ‘wine.’ People would go to a shrine festival and be given rice wine to drink, and they would feel happy and closer to the gods.”
These days, the word o-miki (お神酒) is reserved for rice wine used in Shinto rites and festivals. Sipping a cup is still a prayerful act of symbolic unification with the gods. Shinto shrines and sake manufacturers maintain a symbiotic relationship, in which the shrines conduct rites to ask the gods for the prosperity of the brewers, and — this is where the barrels come in — the brewers donate the sake that shrines need for ceremonies and festivals.
Smaller shrines usually get their o-miki from local sake companies, but two shrines, Meiji Jingu in Tokyo and Ise Jingu in Mie Prefecture, look after the entire national product by accepting donations from every rice-wine brewer in the country. There are about 1,800 sake manufacturers in Japan.
Rice wine is not normally stored in barrels because it picks up too much of the taste and smell of the wood. But a short stay gives the sake a pleasant woody aroma, so upon request brewers fill barrels (from a steel tank) a few days in advance of festivals and other special occasions.
One of those sake barrels, which are called komodaru (薦樽). (Komo is the woven straw wrapped around the staves.) holds four to (斗) (an old measure), or 72 liters (a standard komodaru).
Generally, a brewer provides just one bottle, or an empty barrel for display. The kimochi (気持ち) (gesture) is important, because asking for or giving more sake than is actually needed would be mottainai (勿体無い) (wasteful).
This strikes me as an example of traditional Japanese values: Shinto gods don’t make unreasonable demands of people, and people show respect for the natural world inhabited by Shinto gods by avoiding waste.