World’s Oldest Sake Brewery Unearthed at Temple in Japan
The world’s oldest sake brewery has been discovered by archaeologists excavating in Japan.
All over the ancient world people fermented plants and flavored them with fruits and herbs creating ‘stiff’ alcoholic drinks to ease the pains of war, illness, farming, famine and the general day-to-day struggles of being and staying alive. Mexicans created tequila, while further south in Bolivia, Singani was brewed, while bourbon came out of Kentucky and malt whisky remains an icon of Scotland. But on the other side of the world, sake is the traditional drink of the indigenous religion of Japan.
Made from rice, water, and mold; sake was generally drunk at festivals where it was and still is offered to the kami (gods) of Shintō. For example, at Shintō weddings new couples perform ceremonies drinking sake from lacquer cups. Now, the oldest sake brewery in Japan has been unearthed, which is as significant to the Japanese as what finding the oldest whisky distillery in Scotland would be to the Scots - a monumental cultural discovery.
Remains of a sake brewery dating from the Muromachi period in Kyoto Source: Kokusai Bunkazai Co.
Ritualized Drinking and Dancing
In ancient Japan sake was primarily produced by the imperial court and in temples, and the 15th century Saga archaeological site, where the ancient brewery was found, is on the grounds of the former Tenryuji Temple in Kyoto's Ukyo Ward district, which was the head temple of the Tenryuji branch of Zen Buddhism. The company Kokusai Bunkazai Co who unearthed the sake brewery, date it to the time of the Onin War (1467-1477). Prior to this discovery the former “oldest-known sake brewery in Japan” was in Itami, Hyogo Prefecture, built in the Edo period (1603-1867).
The ancient Tenryuji Temple where sake brewery was found in Kyoto, Japan. coward_lion / Adobe stock
In Japan the word sake actually refers to all alcoholic drinks and what we know as ‘sake’ is labelled seishu, meaning ‘clear liquor’. This national beverage was most often served ritually after being gently warmed in small porcelain bottles called tokkuri and sipped from porcelain cups called sakazukis. While archaeologists are still unclear as to the drink’s origin, according to Britannica.com, the 3rd-century Book of Wei in the Records of the Three Kingdoms mentions “drinking and dancing.”
A Sake Brewery And Warehouse
The Tokyo-based company excavated a 700-square-meter area near the Tenryuji Temple, ahead of apartment construction that was planned for between May and August 2018. According to an article in Asahi Shimbun, Masaharu Obase, a director of an Itami city-run museum, said the discovery in Kyoto is “a smaller facility than the one dating to the Edo period.” However, it has the same structure and therefore, must have used “a similar method for squeezing sake as was used in the medieval period.”
Sake is made from rice, water, and kōji (mold), and all production was run by the government until the 10th century when temples and shrines began to brew the drink. Between 1478 and 1618, Tamon-in Diary, was written by the abbots of Tamon-in (temple), and it showed that pasteurization and the process of adding ingredients to the main fermentation mash was conducted in three stages. Regarding the newly discovered sake brewery, Obase told Asahi Shimbun that among the finds in the facility for squeezing the unrefined sake out, were “about 180 holes for holding storage jars.”
Holes for holding storage jars unearthed at the sake brewery in Kyoto, Japan. (Kokusai Bunkazai Co.)
- The Honorable Death: Samurai and Suicide in Feudal Japan
- The Allure of Blackened Teeth: A Traditional Japanese Sign of Beauty
- Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s Throbbing Heart of Japanese Buddhism
Tangible Evidence Corroborates Old Suspicions
The 180 holes for keeping sake holding jars in, measured approximately 60 cm (24 inches) across and 20 cm (8 inches) deep, and fragments from 14th-century Bizen ware jars were found within. Researchers deduce that unrefined sake was placed in cloth bags in a tank and squeezed out using a wooden bar with stones as leverage. Supporting this theory, a 1 meter (3 feet) long wooden pillar was discovered with two crosspieces and about 20 stones that would have been placed on the crosspieces. What’s more, a large hollow pot was also found measuring 1 meter (3 feet) deep and 1.8 meters (6 feet) wide, which was used for catching drops of pressed sake.
A depiction of the 15th-century sake brewery. The shaded area is a representation of the area unearthed. (Kokusai Bunkazai Co.)
While it was already known that sake was produced at Tenryuji Temple during the Muromachi period (1336-1573), allowing it to earn major profits and to lend money at high interest rates, this new discovery is “the first time that an archaeological finding has corroborated the fact,” said a spokesperson from Kokusai Bunkazai.
By Ashley Cowie