An Offering of Sake

The Japanese word for alcohol is known throughout the world.  Sake is not only the name of a specific type of drink, but is as ubiquitous as xerox was for paper copies.  Unlike in the West, where beer began as a food source with longer shelf-life than bread, sake had a higher purpose in Japan.  Like many aspects of Japanese Culture, alcohol was initially part of religious ceremonies.  As hand and mouth washing is still common at temples in Japan, alcohol was used to purify oneself before Shinto or Buddhist rituals.

Today sake and other forms of Japanese alcohol are consumed regularly throughout the country, but it is still an important part of many religious ceremonies as well.  At nearly every festival, funeral, and wedding, offerings of sake are given as a symbol of something produced from hard work, that can be offered to the dead or spirits.  The evaporation of alcohol can be seen as a method of transference, while everyone living can enjoy the rest.

An Ancient Ceremony

Recently, I was surprised by a ceremony that took place in between local sumo competitions.  With no announcements that I was aware of, four students holding long handled fans appeared leading an old lady in a kimono and crown made of plants to an open space near the sumo ring.  The ceremony turned out to be one of the last remaining practices of very old series of offerings marking the rice harvest.  While the island I live on no longer produces rice, the ceremony called umachii (ウマチー)is still observed along with the Gima neighborhood Okinawan Sumo Competition.    In Okinawa, such holidays follow the lunar kyureki calendar, so although the competition took place in August, it is named rokugatsu umachii (June Festival).

Although sugar cane has replaced rice cultivation here, the place of the sumo and ceremony was once a storage area for the rice harvest.  Every year, a priestess would arrive and travel from neighborhood to neighborhood and complete a ceremony before each rice storage area, known as gyucha (ぎゅちゃ)in the Okinawan dialect.  With the loss of rice harvesting and the modernization of the island, the number of ceremonies has dwindled to only three.

One for me, Three for you

The purpose of the ceremony is to make offerings to kami (Japanese Gods) in thankfulness for the harvest and in preparation for the new year.  The priestess is the medium between the kami and locals wishing to make an offering.  The ceremony starts with little formality, but great respect.  The priestess is served a rice based food, then the essence of the ceremony starts.  In the past, the priestess would be accompanied by several attendants who would chant.  While today, the priestess does have some local help, a cassette player stands in for the chanting.

The priestess is poured a small glass of sake (in this case it is a local version of rice wine called awamori, rather than the heavier liquor found in the mainland of Japan).  She accepts it, but does not consume it.  Instead her helper pours it into a container to be offered at a shrine.  The pattern continues a minimum of three times, but often many more.  The locals continue to offer, hoping to give as much as possible, until the priestess returns a full cup.

Though the tradition is fading, it was great to experience a simple, but very old ceremony with a strong tie into local culture.  Why sake?  In addition to the traditional use as a purifier, awamori is one of my islands biggest exports.  It is something they still make today, and like sumo, offering mean a lot more if you give something from your own effort.