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“Nara: The Birthplace of Modern Sake”

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Nara was a Japanese political and cultural center from the 3rd century, and flourished in the 8th century as the capital of Japan. Many of the cultural aspects from this time remain today, giving Nara a pleasantly historical atmosphere. Some of these, including the world’s oldest wooden architecture (Horyuji-temple)and Todaiji-temple’s very large Buddha statue, are registered as UNESCO world heritage sites.

Even though Nara is famous for historical reasons, it is less known for being the birthplace of modern sake in Japan. Nara Prefecture Institute of Industrial Development (NPIID) continues these traditions with a modern twist, providing technical support for the sake industry such as providing scientific analysis of sake and cultivating yeast for breweries.

Sake Experience Japan interviewed NPIID Research Director of Foods and Biotechnology Group, Ms Hiromi Shimizu, regarding the research and development in Nara.

Although sake has a 2000-year history of evolving production methods all over Japan, for much of this time sake was cloudy and was produced in a different manner than today. “Modern sake” (a clear liquid using current techniques) was developed around 500 years ago in Nara.

The birthplace of modern sake is a Nara temple (Bodaisan Shoryakuji temple). Generally speaking, temples are regarded as places which should not have any connection with alcohol production or consumption. Even today, some temples display a notice that those who have consumed alcohol are not allowed to enter the temple gate.In contrast to (Buddhist) temples, shrines not only to offer sake when praying (and in gratitude) for a good harvest, but production within the shrine grounds (such as at Ōmiwa shrine and Kasuga shrine) was common.

Since the 8th century, widespread syncretism of Shintoism and Buddhism meant that some temples established shrines in their territory and vice versa. About 500 years ago, temples started producing sake for religious purposes and then, using their large lands, pure water, plentiful workforce and the rice which was payment for land tax, for profit.

Temple-produced sake was called Sōbōshu (“monk temple sake”). The Sōbōshu production methods, especially at Bodaisan Shoryakuji temple (famed for its outstanding, premium quality sake since the 16th to early 17th century) gradually evolved to the modern steps used today, including using a starter, polished rice (for both koji and fermentation), three-stage addition, pressing and pasteurization. That is why Bodaisan Shoryakuji temple has been regarded as the birthplace of modern sake.

正暦寺醸造祈祷

Bodaisan Shoryakuji temple’s sake produced was known as Nanto-morohaku. Nanto means “southern capital” (ie Nara) and was often used to distinguish Nara from the northern capital (ie Kyoto). Morohaku means sake produced using polished rice for koji and main fermentation. Nanto-morohaku was groundbreaking in its way, because previously polished rice was only used for the main fermentation (three-stage addition), not for koji. As a result, Bodai-moto starter was developed, named after the temple.

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