About the Connection between People and Sake in the Edo Period

There is a saying in Japan, “Sake wa ten no biroku” (Literal: sake is heavenly beauty), referring to sake as a gift from heaven. That being said, where, when, and with whom to drink it with widely varied.

Firstly, there is the izakaya that gained popularity in the Edo period. In response to requests from customers, sake wholesalers or ‘ukezakaya’ began a service that allowed people to drink sake in the shops. This led to the birth of the name ‘izakaya’ (izake meaning ‘drinking on site’). Such a scene of an izakaya is depicted on the advertisement leaflet or ‘hikifuda’ in Beloved Sake at Sumida River. On this flyer, a high-class sake, named “Daigoku Jojo Kitsu” (a word used in actors’ commentary to mean the top) is listed with the price, 800 bun.

At the same time, sake was also enjoyed in pleasure quarters, restaurants, theaters, and even outdoors. Work Evening View of Ryogoku, The Kabuki Actor Sawamura Sojuro III and Courtesans, Early Evening in Yoshiwara Inn depicts sake enjoyed with courtesans and geisha, and sake enjoyed in theaters is depicted in A Glance Inside the Theater. Somewhat unique is the piece that shows sake being enjoyed in the dressing room of a popular play in A Depiction of a Backstage Drinking Party After a Great Ichimura-za Theater Show.

The most common type of sake enjoyed outdoors is hanamizake, a sake drunk while admiring cherry blossoms in “Famous Places in Edo: Views of the Four Seasons” Viewing Cherry Blossoms at Gotenyama, etc. Even those causing a ruckus in Scene of Cherry Blossom Viewing seem to be having fun. In fact, one of the policies of the Kyoho Reforms set out by Tokugawa Yoshimune, the eighth shogun, was to upgrade the cherry blossom viewing spots to capture the citizens’ hearts and to improve flood control. The riverbanks of the Ueno and Sumida rivers have always been famous spots, along with Gotenyama in “Famous Places in Edo: Views of the Four Seasons” Viewing Cherry Blossoms at Gotenyama, Asukayama, and Koganei some distance away. Of these, Gotenyama,with a view of Edo Bay, was a famous spot to enjoy flowers and the sea at the same time. Women packed their lunches in boxes known as sageju, and dressed up fashionably. Various ukiyo-e prints show them enjoying flowers and sake together.

Aside from cherry blossom viewing, the relationship between seasonal events and sake is also a compelling point of interest. This can be seen in New Year’s Day in Sacred Wine Bottles and Yema (Sacred Picture for Dedication in the Temple), etc, the Doll Festival in The Festival of Dolls (Third Month), early summer firefly hunting in “Comical Views of Famous Places in Edo” Number 20: Listening to the Insects at Mount Dokan, summer fireworks viewing in “Famous Places at the Eastern Capital” Enjoying the Cool at Ryogoku, listening to the chirping of autumn insects in Listening to Insects in Autumn Evening, and more. It certainly feels as if the culture of drinking sake is deeply rooted in the lives of Japanese people.

In addition, sake is also present during many of life’s milestones, such as weddings in Fukusuke and the Otafuku, “Twelve Zodiac Signs” Beloved Boar and death in Story of the Loyal Retainer Oboshi Yuranosuke Number 35. The most heartbreaking is perhaps the last sake shared between two people before they choose to end their lives together in Inanoya Hanbei. The work is based on “Koina Hanbei Mono”, an adaptation of an anecdote, and features the characters Koina, a courtesan from Otsu, Shibaya, and Inanoya Hanbei, dying beneath the pine trees in Karasaki while gazing upon each other.

Regardless of one’s personal opinion of sake, it features time and again throughout the milestones of the lives of Japanese people. So how about sparing a thought for the culture of historical Edo as you enjoy your evening drink tonight?

Mayumi Sugawara (Professor of Literature, Osaka City University Graduate School)

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