Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Sake barrels in Japan

 Kazari-daru; decorative sake barrels at shrines

Kazari-daru 飾り樽
You can often see large stacks of barrels at Shinto shrines, especially around New Year's. These are empty barrels that are used for decoration. The term is a combination of two word; kazari 飾り (decoration) and taru 樽 (wooden barrel). 
[note that the "taru" becomes "daru" when used in a compound word].

Shrines receive donations from their patrons; regular visitor may drop a few coins, a community of sponsors will donate large sums and breweries will supply the alcohol (beer as well as sake) that flows during festivals and ceremonies. Usually, the actual alcohol is given in the form of smaller, off-the-shelf containers. The vast majority of the kazari-daru were delivered empty.

Often the kazari-daru are stacked into impressive walls of barrels. If these were filled with sake, you could easily imagine the danger of these falling on people. Since they are empty they do not require the construction of heavy duty supports.

Kazaridaru at Osaka Tenmangu Shrine for New Year's.

Kazaridaru at Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka.
Sumiyoshi Shrine has its own sacred rice field.

The Otaue Shinji, a rice planting ritual at Sumiyoshi Shrine held in early June.
This is the rice used to make sake for the shrine.

Komo-daru 菰樽
Komo-daru is the general name used for these barrels when they are put into use carrying various liquids. The word komo refers to the straw mat that is wrapped around the barrel and used as a decorative label. The barrels are made of cedar slates that are bound together with bamboo braids.

Traditionally these barrels were used for commercial transport of bulk liquids including oil, soy sauce and lacquer. 

In modern manufacturing, the wooden barrels are not used for brewing or storing sake because the wood affects the taste of the sake, which is undesirable (unlike the famous famous charred oak flavoring of Kentucky's bourbon). For this reason sake is brewed and stored in steel tanks. The wooden sake barrels, sake-daru 酒樽, that are seen in modern events (such as weddings and large ceremonies) should only hold the sake for a few days before being served.

Here is a komo-daru stacked on top of a simple taru.
Kagami Biraki  鏡開き
Since the samurai era there has been a tradition of smashing the top of the barrel and laddling out the sake in a ceremony known as kagami biraki. Kagami Biraki literally means "mirror opening" - 鏡開き, referring to the smashing of the brittle, circular lid. In this ceremony, the binding ropes are cut to expose the wooden lid which is then smashed with a wooden mallet (kizuchi, 木槌) allowing the sake to be served with a bamboo laddle (take-shaku, 竹勺), often into wooden drinking boxes which are meant to add a pleasant smell to the sake. 
Sometimes at the ceremony, people opt out of the smashing part because it may spill some of the contents and risk getting the VIP covered in sake when they take the honor of opening the barrel.
You can check the link here for instructions on how to open a barrel; the text is in Japanese but the illustrations are good. Note that part of opening process is using a small net/filter to skim the splinters of the broken lid off the sake.

The barrels can hold about 72 liters. You can compare this to a bourbon barrel which holds 195 liters or the "pony keg" used for beer which holds 29.33 liters.
Purchasing a komo-daru for a special event can be financially burdensome. So at events where the hosts are expected to present a komo-daru there is the option of saving money by purchasing a barrel with a false bottom (agezoku). The false bottom can drastically reduce the volume of sake inside (thereby reducing the weight and cost). 

A full komo-daru is 60cm deep, holding 72 liters and cost about 127,800 yen.*
An agezoku barrel can reduce the volume to 18 liters and 40,750 yen.*
*These numbers are from the Shochikubai brewery/Takara Holdings web page. This seems to be the most popular brand that I see at shrines. Please leave a comment if you know a cheaper source.

The town of Fushimi has a number of historic breweries.
The miniature kazari-daru have the brand labels of several such breweries.
Sometimes you can buy these miniature decorative barrels at breweries (about 4000 yen).
This display is featured outside of [Keihan] Chushojima station.

酒樽 gacchopon in Osaka for 300 yen.
"Kaiun (better fortune)! Sake barrels & wooden boxes."
You can also see the miniature mallets and a miniature recreation of a kagami biraki.

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