Probably the biggest obstacle for people trying to get into sake is the language barrier. Depending on how far you wish to delve into the sake world it can feel as though you are learning a whole new language. And I guess in essence you are. So much of the shop-talk doesn’t translate well into English leaving folks to try and decipher the Romanized text of sake labels and menus resulting in plenty of confusion. On top of that it is the names of the brands/breweries. You’d almost be forgiven for giving up and sticking with beer. Almost.
Interestingly though, many of the characters (kanji) that make up the names of the sake brands are widely used every day words. When talking about all things Japanese you may notice some of these words crop up quite a bit, not only as names of sake but also places and surnames. If you can get a grasp on some of these regular occurring words it may make it easier to remember the names of your favourite sake (and people and places for that matter). Here are five of the more common ones and the reasons behind their use.
1. The most widely used kanji among sake names is 山 YAMA. Meaning “mountain”, yama signifies strength, majesty and longevity (a recurring them you’ll find with sake names). Popular examples include: Otokoyama (man-mountain), Ooyama (big mountain), Tateyama (from Toyama, two Yamas for the price of one!). You may also spot this kanji on a bottle of Yamahai 山廃 style sake. Yep, same YAMA.
2. Next most popular kanji is 鶴 TSURU, crane (as in the bird of course not the crane for building construction!). In Japan the crane is a symbol of good fortune. It doesn’t take more than a glance into Japanese art and mythology to see the importance of cranes to Japanese culture. Also, in Japanese mythology cranes are said to live up to 1000 years which again appeals to the symbology for breweries with long history hoping to be around for many more years to come. Japan’s largest sake brewery, Hakutsuru (white crane) and Sawanotsuru (crane of the swamp) from Hyogo are two of the better known examples also Taketsuru (bamboo crane) from Hiroshima among many others.
3. The next most popular kanji is actually two kanji put together to make 正宗 MASAMUNE. The interesting history (legend) behind this one actually goes back to a specific brewery in Hyogo. Up until around the 3rd Century all sake was cloudy and unfiltered. It was around this time that the first processes towards making clear sake through filtering and pressing were discovered. This new type of “clear sake” was called SEISHU 清酒 which is a literal translation. Many years later this term was picked up by the government to define sake for tax purposes (if you look on any sake bottle you’ll find this kanji somewhere). Fast forward to 1840 and the then President Tazaemon of the Yamamura family’s brewery was looking to come up with a new catchy name for their sake to break away from the popular theme of naming after Kabuki theatre characters. On a visit to an acquaintance at a temple in Kyoto he happened to notice a book lying around with the name Masamune in the title.
Now for a bit of a Japanese lesson; most kanji characters actually have two or more ways of reading depending on context and which other kanji they are combined with. This is probably the biggest headache for anyone wanting to learn to read and write Japanese. In the case of MASAMUNE, the first kanji 正 means “righteous, justice, correct”. There are actually four ways to read this kanji but SEI and MASA are all we need to know for now. The second kanji MUNE 宗 can mean “a religious sect, essence, main point” and has three readings but again we’ll stick with just MUNE and SHU. So upon seeing the name MASAMUNE Mr Tazaemon realised that with a bit of wordplay 正宗 MASAMUNE could be read as 清酒 SEISHU thus coming up with a cool new label. The Japanese love a bit of wordplay so it didn’t take long before word got around and other breweries started using MASAMUNE on their labels too. However by 1884 when the brewery went to the government to trademark the name MASAMUNE they found they couldn’t due to the perception of MASAMUNE as having become generic. So they plonked SAKURA (cherry blossom) in front of it and gave us Sakura-Masamune.
The part two to the MASAMUNE story is the reputation of the legendary Goro Masamune, swordsmith from the 1200s. Some breweries go for the metaphor that their sake has a crisp, clean, “kire” cut or more accurately, “finish” to it just like a perfect sword from Goro Masamune. These days there are still plenty of breweries bearing the MASAMUNE moniker; Yamagata Masamune, Kiku Masamune and Hakuin Masamune to name a few.
4. KIKU 菊, chrysanthemum is another hugely popular name. Most people would tell you the cherry blossom is the Japan’s national flower and the rest would say it’s the chrysanthemum. It’s actually neither as the government has never officially chosen one. However there is no doubt the chrysanthemum has a deep significance in Japanese culture. depending on the season and the colour of the flower they can symbolise grief and sympathy or even affection and romance. It also has a very imperial image due to its use as an emblem by Japan’s royal family. Some examples include Kiku-Masamune, Kikusui and Kikuhime
5. Rounding out the top five is 大 DAI, TAI or OO. Basically meaning big or great, you’ll see this kanji everywhere from sake labels Daishichi, Taiheizan, Daiginjo (great ginjo!) to place names (Osaka 大阪) and even on menus in restaurants to signify a larger serving of a dish where available.
This is merely scratching the surface of the topic of kanji use in sake labelling but I believe just a little bit can go a long way towards understanding the complexity of labelling and the Japanese language for that matter. Don’t let a little thing like “linguistics” put you off trying something off the sake menu!
To be continued……