Kobe is a major producer of sake, the Japanese rice wine which can be served cold or hot. Kobe is also the oldest sake-producing region, coalescing some 700 years ago. The area's high quality rice, water and weather conditions create high-grade wine—and the nearby Port of Kobe is ideal for easy shipping (within Japan or abroad). Many of the breweries are located on a 2.5 mile strip along the port and welcome visitors to observe production, sample the product, and learn the history of sake-making.
I am intrigued by the fancy-decorated casks, called Kazari-daru, which were traditionally used to store and transport the sake. These barrels are made of cedar slats, bound with braided bamboo "belts." The cask is filled and wrapped in a woven straw fabric—printed with bold and colorful graphics. The entire "parcel" is then bound with rope. Each cask holds about 72 liters (a bourbon cask holds 195 liters) and weighs about 165 pounds.
The lids to these casks are broken-open with a hammer in a ceremony called Kagami Biraki. At celebrations, the cask is opened with great fanfare and the sake is served to the gathering. Often one will see stacks of these barrels at a shrine—sometimes a wall of them—donated by the breweries for the community's New Year's celebration.
Today, sake is not stored for long in these decorative cedar barrels as the wood affects the sake's flavor too much. In modern breweries, sake is stored in stainless steel vats and packaged for transport in glass or aluminum containers. When the traditional cedar casks are employed, the wine is only kept in them for a few days. And, today, the stacks of decorative barrels are usually empty—which makes them easier to manipulate and safer to stack.
More from Japan tomorrow and in the days to come.
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