When it’s hot out, I can think of many refreshing things I’d like to drink. Rice typically isn’t one of them.

I can think of a lot of words people might use to describe sake. “Health drink” typically isn’t one of them.

But apparently they both work.

This is amazake–literally, “sweet sake,” as produced by Okuizumo Shuzou (brewery). As mentioned before, Shimane is known for high quality sake thanks to it’s rice and clean water, not to mention the trained hands that handle the process. Okuizumo is especially good for this, as it is known for Nita Rice, which is gathered from locals cropped fitting very specific environmental requirements in order to be considered Nita rice–one of the ultimate rice crops of Western Japan. It’s been awarded the gold medal in national rice competitions for the past three years running.

Like regular sake, amazake it is made from fermented rice, but the process is such that it becomes low-alcohol or non-alcoholic (like this version). It is thick and textured, a naturally milky color, and in many processes it breaks down carbohydrates into simplier, unrefined sugars, resulting in a natural sweetness. Hence, this is used as a base for many other drinks–or even a cure for hangovers, or a base for baby food! This particular variety comes in three flavors (plain, matcha, and cocoa), and you can see much nicer photos here.

This is particularly popular in summer not as only as a refreshing sweet, but as a health drink to replenish your energy when the heat tries to suck it out of you (this is because it’s full of B vitamins–not the fearsome stuff you’d find in American energy drinks!). Whatsmore, because of its unrefined sweetness, it can be used as a replacement for sugar in recipes.

I could a couple of wagashi (traditional Japanese confectioneries) that were made with it. This is youkan, a gelatinous and smooth bar of sugar, agar, and sweet bean paste (azuki, resulting in its typically maroon color, or kidney beans, resulting in a translucent, easily changable color). Vegan and long-lasting though typically free of artificial perservatives, it is one of the oldest forms of wagashi. For these youkan, the plain amazake was used in place of sugar.

The package on the left is for plain amazake-youkan (which had a purpley-maroon azuki color all throughout), and the open example on the right is a citrus-flavored translucent youkan with some azuki paste in the center.

Youkan isn’t usually my wagashi of choice, but I was pleased with them. They were firmer and lighter in flavor than Jello, though just as refreshing and didn’t leave a sticky aftertaste.

I have a bottle of plain amazake waiting for whatever I may use it for this summer… still haven’t decided what to try. Smoothies? Pancakes? Maybe youkan myself is probably out of the question.

We got the overview of the home of the Yamata-no-Orochi last time. It didn’t only love the coolness of the Shimane mountains, it loved alcohol–especially Shimane’s rice wine.

If you drive around Unnan with a Yamata-no-Orochi tourism map, you can find your way to places like Kamaishi, a stone that marks the spot where the sake was brewed eight times over, or Kusamakura, a set of hills the monster used as a “grassy pillow” when it was tipsy.

Perhaps the most important site is Inze-no-Tsubogami, where the basins that held the potent liquor were buried (couldn’t have those falling into the wrong lightweight hands, after all!).

It’s a bit of a drive (or bike ride)…

…and then you need to abandon your car for a short hike.

Getting closer…

…and then you find this.

There’s not much on this mountain, but it does have atmosphere. The fenced area is around the rocks that closed off the sake basins from the outside world. A curse upon anyone who tries to dig them out!

Maybe a long time ago someone thought reaching in and leaving a 5-yen coin would bring them good luck.

Like the previously mentioned chopsticks, this legend is one of the first records of sake production in Japan. It is not the only legend that suggests the Izumo region was the first to enjoy the stuff. Rather, it’s association with Izumo City is stronger than with Unnan City, given the fame and prominence of Izumo Taisha even in modern Shintoism.

Izumo Taisha is where all the gods in Japan congregate for their annual meeting to decide the fates and interminglings of people and nature–otherwise known as en. It’s not all work, though–those gods are known for drinking lots and lots of sake. This perhaps has less to do with drunken kami-sama so much as sake‘s purifying qualities, hence, it is used extensively in Shinto rituals. Because there are so many gods to offer sake to at Izumo Taisha, it means that there is lots and lots of high quality sake contributed there.

The shrine is all fresh and new thanks to the Heisei Sengu!

Izumo Taisha is not, however, the leading sake shrine. Instead, that would be Saka Shrine (yes, there is sake-related history behind that name). You can read a more thorough description of the brewing-related rituals that take place there on the Connect Shimane website, but suffice to say for our purposes here that the main deity is the patron of brewers, and this is the lead shrine among all others that also worship that kami. This shrine is also sometimes called Matsuo Shrine, which should indeed sound familiar if you’ve been to this famous old shrine in western Kyoto.

So Shimane has history with sake, perhaps the first to make it. Sure, that’s great. But is it any good?

I tend to stick with Matsue’s tea and wagashi culture rather than drink alcohol so I can’t say for sure, but the general concensus is that it’s phenomenal.

Here’s what Sake-World.com has to say about it:

And most importantly, what’s it taste like? Indeed, Shimane sake has one of the most easily identifiable, describable, and likeable flavor and aromatic profiles in the country. In short, Shimane sake is comparatively dense in flavor, yet fine-grained and clean. There is usually a higher amino acid content, giving Shimane sake plenty of “umami.” More concretely, much sake from this region has a nutty touch with a subdued sweetness in the background, full flavor, and a brilliant acidity that both spreads the flavors and provides some backbone. Aromatically, flowers, melon-like fruit, and touches of autumnal things like pumpkins are common in Shimane sake.

Shimane is already known for award-winning rice due to the clean water and ideal temperature conditions in the mountains, but those qualities don’t just make for good staple food. To borrow more of Sake-World’s explanation:

Even more commendable is that 60% of all rice used in sake brewing in Shimane is proper sake rice. As 80% of all sake brewed in Japan is “table sake,” most of this does not use premium sake rice, but rather run-of-the-mill stuff. The fact that Shimane is way above that average is encouraging.

I’d ask the Yamata-no-Orochi if it agrees with all this sparkling praise of the sake fit for kami-sama, but it’s a little beat up and buried now. With that monster out of the way, Susano-o and Kushinada-hime had wedded bliss to keep busy with, which we’ll take a look at next time.

This is a similar story from Chizu, Yazu County, in Tottori Prefecture.

A long time ago, there was an old man and an old lady who struggled through a very meager life. Seeing as they could hardly even feed themselves, the old man tried picking flowers to sell, but no matter how many he picked, no one would buy them. At the end of the day, he’d always go to the Chizu bridge. There, he’d say, “I offer these to Otohime, the Princess of the Dragon Palace under the sea” and then ceremoniously chuck the flowers into the river before going home.

Every day it was the same thing. He told his wife, “Hey, Old Lady, I’m goin’ out to try to sell flowers again,” and when he couldn’t sell any, he’d drop them in the river, saying, “I offer these to Otohime, the Princess of the Dragon Palace under the sea.” It looked like they would float on forever, but one day they flowers sunk instead. Upon returning home, he told his wife, “I haven’t been able t’ sell a single flower. Aw, well, I guess I’ll just keep offerin’ ’em to the Princess of the Dragon Palace.”

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. A beautiful, young girl with eyes full of sympathy had come to pay a visit, holding the flowers. “Today, the lovely flowers you tried to send to the Dragon Palace wound up at my doorstep instead. I’d like to thank you very much for them. I told the Dragon King about you, and he said to bring you along to pay a visit to the Dragon Palace. Would you like me to take you?”

“Me? Go t’ the Dragon Palace? Well, I guess I’m not doin’ anything else,” he replied, and agreed to go along. She brought him to the ocean’s edge, where a giant turtle was waiting. She instructed him to ride on the turtle’s back, and the turtle told him to close his eyes. Just as soon as he did so, they had arrived at the Dragon Palace.

Upon entering the palace, he saw feasts prepared in every room, and he was treated to the finest of hospitality. The old man was quite enjoying himself, when the young girl whispered to him, “When Miss Otohime asks what she should give you, you should reply, ‘I don’t want anything, just a little boy with a runny nose will do.'”

Almost immediately afterward, Otohime said, “Now, what shall I bestoy on you as a parting gift?”

It seems the old man did indeed reply, “Ahh, I don’t really want anything, just a lil’ boy with a runny nose will do.”

“Very well,” replied Otohime. “That is what I shall give you.”

And that she did. He was a filthy little ragamuffin with a horrid runny nose, but the old man brought him home anyway. When they said to him, “Hey, Runny-Nose Boy, we got no more rice,” the boy made infinite amounts of rice appear. “How ’bout sake? Got any sake?” they’d ask, and he’d give them sake. Whatever they asked him for, he provided. When they said, “We want money!” the floor was covered in piles of gold coins.

Little by little, their lot in life improved and they lived quite comfortably. Their little old hut of a home could no longer suit them, so they told the boy they wanted a fancy dwelling place. Once that appeared, they even had use for servants, which the boy with the runny nose also provided. This was how they spent their days.

While this was all well and good, wherever the increasingly selfish old couple went, the boy with the runny nose was right at their side, and his presence was downright irritating. “What are people gonna think of us if we always have that nasty little brat around?” asked the old lady. They tried asking him to hold his runny nose shut, or at least to wipe his face, but it was no use.

At last, they said, “Just go away somewhere!”

“Alright, I’ll go away somewhere,” the boy with the runny nose replied, and he left.

Everything they had received from the boy rapidly disappeared–the rice, the sake, the money, even their fancy house turned back into an old hut.

It suited them perfectly.

Continued from Part 4

Continued in Part 6

Continued from Part 3

Continued in Part 5

Following up the previous post about the first shrine and temple visits of the new year, this is a report on my visit to Kamosu Shrine.

Not that it looked like this when I visited at night. Thanks, Wiki!

Kamosu Shrine (an Izanami shrine–and one that the people of Matsue are most proud of) is the oldest shrine with Taisha-tsukuri architecture, which is particularly known for its roof design unlike that of the curved roofs of temples borrowed from Chinese style. Like most Shinto shrines, it is not just one shrine–rather, many little houses for different Kami, with a primarily one facing the entrance of the shrine. Vistors don’t enter them, but instead stand in front and peer in from windows or doors, if they happen to be open. Furthermore, the main focal point for the offerings isn’t even the true shrine itself. Instead, the main shrine (the honden) is behind this room and elevated. Kamosu’s honden is a National Treasure.

One of the key points about Taisha-tsukuri shrines is that based on the angle of the ends of the crossed sections on top, you can tell whether the diety being honored is male or female. That doesn’t make much sense in words, so take a look at a couple of the smaller shrines within Kamosu:

Click to follow to photo source and more photos of Kamosu Shrine (Japanese)

After watching the end of Kouhaku Uta Gassen–the biggest musical event of the year, over 4 hours of popular performers in a men-versus-women singing competition–and bringing in the new year with soba noodles and watching the ringing of the joyonokane on TV (a Buddhist ritual to cleanse humanity of the 108 sins and temptations), we set out at around 12:30am on January 1st to do our visit. It was like shrine visits any other time of the year–rinsing your hands before entering, tossing money before the kami, then praying in the bow-twice-clap-twice-wishful-thinking-bow-again style, and repeating the process at any of the smaller kami houses throughout the shrine.

Here's a little of my pocket money. Now can I get rich this year, please?

Also like any other time of the year, you can buy o-mamori (good luck charms and talismans) and draw omikuji fortunes, but the ones being sold at New Years are new, and many people return the previous year’s good luck charms so they can be burned.

Time to pick out this year's omamori...

Nevertheless, heavy emphasis is placed on many firsts of the year, and the visit felt special. It helped that the weather created a certain mood–it was a windless night with slowly falling snow, the moonlight was hazy, and the features of the shrine seemed to glow under a light layer of snow. Unlike larger shrines around Japan that were packed with people even at midnight, Kamosu was nearly silent. Even the miko (shrine maidens) offering New Years amazake (sweet rice wine) moved silently with sweet smiles, and spoke in soft voices like whispers.

Would you care for some sake and brown rice?

Oh, but this was different. Brown rice was being offered with the sake? We asked the miko what the significance of this was, and their pleasant atmosphere seemed to shatter into confusion. These miko probably had no idea why they were serving rice–after all, contrary to what popular culture might lead one to believe about the fine upbringing of holy maidens, these girls were most likely high schoolers who took on a part time job for the New Year season.

After our brief visit, we took a drive over to the Tamazukuri Onsen area to take a 1am visit to the outdoor ashiyu (hot spring foot bath) as the snowfall gotten thicker. We stayed under a covered roof for this visit, but it’ll be nice to go back when the weather is warmer to use the ashiyu in the stream! This was my first time at trying out the waters at Tamatsukuri, which are said to have some of the best minerals for your skin in all of Japan (on that note, according to POLA research done last year, Shimane is the best prefecture in Japan for beautiful skin!).

Our local hot springs--highly recommended!

Today is my first day back at work, but the season of firsts will still go on until about January 15th or so. I still have time to write another entry about my other firsts of the year and how else I celebrated Japan’s most important holiday of the year!

Happy Year of the Snake!

Rather than sending Christmas cards, the custom in Japan is to send nengajou: New Years greeting cards. While not necessarily so, they typically feature the Chinese zodiac animal for the upcoming year.

What better way to celebrate the passing of the Year of the Dragon to the Year of the Snake than with everyone’s favorite eight-headed serpent? The Yamata-no-Orochi made his (their?) home out here in the San’in region, after all! Consider this a preview for the next installment in my Kojiki-retelling, which I plan on starting in late January or sometime in February.

Until then, there are plenty of New Year firsts to keep me busy. In the spirit of Japan’s most important holiday, let’s welcome this year with special attention to the first sunrise, our first smiles, and our first dreams~

Start reading about the legend associated with this piece!
The Yamata-no-Orochi

See the other Nengajo!

See the Kojiki a.t.b.b. masterlist!
The Kojiki Myths in Manga Form