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The Sake Story

January 31, 2020

As this Story moved from Thailand to Tokyo in the spring of 1970, it represented a bit of a culture shock from the free-wheeling days of Thailand and Laos to a more constrained and very structured life in a crowded city within a crowded country. Early on, the message was clear to have a go at the national drink of the realm for relief of the tedium which was and largely remains “sake.” Sake is a complex Japanese drink made by fermenting rice. As rice provides so many comforts in Japanese life-tatami mat floors, rice straw roofs and the food mainstay of life, there is no reason sake should not be the relaxation beverage of choice.

Casks of sake are donated to Japanese shrines in accordance with holiday celebration traditions. In actual fact, most old-school Japanese sake bars distribute the house sake to patrons from such casks.

The author’s Tokyo office was in the TBS Kaikan building which, like most every other sizable office building in Tokyo, had a sake bar located in the basement. It was customary to gather there after work with Japanese colleagues and drink substantial quantities of sake in wooden cups like that one shown below. Over the years, a small but multi-purpose sake cup inventory was accumulated including a cup and bottle set personally commissioned with a local Texas potter added to the diversity of sources. Included in the initial set was a cup given by a friend that illustrated the history of sake cups used by the Japanese military during World War II.  

During a long winter’s night many years later in London, Japanese army sake cups became an obsession on E-Bay. To make a long story short, therein became an acquisition challenge to corner the market that led to a small portion of the collection shown in this commentary. You will note below that each division of the Japanese army of up to eighty years ago had the identity of the force represented on the base of the cup including infantry, armored, air force and artillery.

Inside each of the cups would be a reference to the specific identity of that division. In fact, you will note in the second infantry cup, the soldier has on the fleece-lined tunic of the Manchukuo Japanese forces who occupied Manchuria and then went on to invade Mongolia which led to their failed Northern Expansion Doctrine.

As the Japanese forces shown below were dramatically defeated by a Russian/Mongolian expedition led by Georgy Zhukov in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol in Dornad Aimag, one can only imagine how this cup made its way back to Japan and now resides in Center Point, Texas. General Zhukov went on to successfully defend Moscow against the Germans and ultimately relieved the German siege of Stalingrad. His defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad was perfected by his successful pincer tactics against the Japanese at Khalkhin Gol. Interestingly, the author was active in Dornad Aimag for many years where relics of the battle are still prevalent making the cup all the more significant. Moreover, there are probably not many westerners who ever spent the night in the Zhukov Museum in Dornad to escape a miserably cold evening.

Whereas the enlisted men in the Japanese army were served sake from large containers into their private cups they carried with them, the officers had metal cups that were often lined in gold. Moreover, they were served from porcelain containers that are quite rare as few survived the rigors of combat.  

To fast forward to today’s world, sake has become dramatically refined and is now, more often than not, consumed in a chilled form to appreciate the more subtle flavors of a quality beverage. The Nikkei Asia Review recently published an article entitled Japanese Sake Goes Global, Intoxicating Many. Moreover, it has attracted the attention of sommeliers and chefs worldwide to pair with food far beyond the traditional sushi/sashimi servings.

Accordingly, we have come a long way since the 1970’s days of sake in the TBS Kaikan basement served in wooden boxes. Despite the nostalgia of those times, there is no question a nicely chilled Dasai 23 sake in the London Ginza Onodera restaurant personally served by Yamaguchi-san, the General Manager, bears no resemblance to the sake of the black and white days of the past.

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