We’ve had the pleasure of introducing various facts about Japan with the last blog post presenting the various foods eaten in Japan and Japanese food culture. We would like to end the series by introducing Japanese drinks as part of everyday life for the people of Japan.
To start, let us introduce a Japanese proverb, 「湯水のようにお金を使う。」meaning “to spend money like water.” This does not mean “use it preciously” but pointing to the fact that “we waste a lot of money” in Japan. Do you remember the post about Japan’s climate and geography? Japan is strongly influenced by seasonal winds all year round, and more than 60% of its land is forest. Did you know that Japan has a large amount of annual precipitation compared to other countries (the world average is about 900 mm, Japan is about 1700 mm, and the United Kingdom is about 1200 mm *)? This means that the nature-rich country has an environment where their vast forests can thrive in the abundance of rainwater, suppress floods, store rainwater, and purify the water to great quality. In fact, Japan is one of the 15 countries in the world where potable water is available from the tap (although the final tap water quality depends on the water tanks and pipes of each facility.) Another fact is that many areas in Japan have soft water, and the water quality is quite different from the hard water you find in London. Of course, even if you don't drink tap water, you can easily purchase mineral water at convenience stores and roadside vending machines in Japan.
Speaking of convenience stores and vending machines, they are what make life in Japan extremely convenient. There are about 2 million vending machines and 50,000 convenience stores throughout Japan. To help put that into context, there are about 3400 Tesco, 1400 Sainsbury's, 350 Waitrose, and 300 Asda stores in the UK*. There are roughly 10 times as many convenience stores in Japan! You would be surprised at the great selection of items available at these stores, which include magazines, water, juice, beer, liquor, snacks, bento lunches, and daily necessities. In Japan, many convenience stores and almost all vending machines are open 24 hours a day. As you walk through the city late at night, you can easily spot the vibrant lights luminating out of the convenience stores – a sign that signals how safe Japanese cities are.
Now moving on to alcoholic beverages, the one that is most representative of Japan is sake (pronounced sah-kay). Recently, sake has become more prominently available in London. In fact, the amount of Japanese sake imported in the UK has increased in recent years. Sake is a fermented liquor made from white rice, water, koji (fungus used to ferment grains in Japan) and yeast. The average alcohol content is 15-17%, and you can drink it hot or cold. Its main ingredient is rice, the staple food of the Japanese, and you can evidently see that Japanese culture has been brought up on mainly rice cultivation. You will often find Japanese people at celebratory events, such as weddings or corporate parties, smash the lid of a sake barrel with a wooden mallet. In addition, Japanese sake has been used as an offering to shrines since ancient times, and there is a custom of sharing sake with participants after prayers. If you search online for an image of “sake”, you will often find images of the consecrated sake barrels at Meiji Jingu Shrine. In other words, sake has become a part of Japanese life, not only as an alcoholic drink at dinner, but also as a gift to share with everyone at auspicious occasions and as an offering to God.
We had mentioned Meiji Jingu Shrine, the largest shrine in Tokyo and one that is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. Did you know that opposite the stacked barrels of sake there are stacked barrels of Burgundy wine? On the path towards the shrine, these sake and wine barrels face each other. This is because Emperor Meiji was actively westernised in the Meiji Restoration (which I introduced in the last post). Consequently, the Emperor was fond of a specific wine from Burgundy and these wine barrels were especially donated by the winery. By the way, the most popularly consumed alcohol in Japan is beer, with sake and wine competing for second place.
We hope you enjoyed our introduction to Japanese culture part 3 – this time via Japanese drinks. Though Japan may seem a long distance from the UK, it is definitely worth a visit. A holiday in Japan will sharpen your senses and enrich you with a culture that is completely different from the western world. And soon the Rugby World Cup hosted by Japan will begin. Whether you are watching the matches at a pub or at home, KANPAI!
* All data as of 2017-18.