The Sanctity of Ceremony

Sake ceremonies are about more than just drinking.

Sometimes fruity, often rich, and almost always with an acidic tingle, sake is more than Japanese rice wine served at your favorite sushi restaurant. It’s a warm sign of tradition, a tool used for strengthening relationships, and a revered libation that has been an icon of Japanese cultures for centuries.

Today you’ll find sake in celebratory circumstances, reserved for friends and family as they toast the most important bonds in life. But sake has been an icon of Japanese culture for centuries, reflecting some of the country’s most vibrant history. The ceremony of sake is authentically known as Kagamiwari, which translates to “opening the barrel.” The phrase is directly related to the first step of the sake ceremony, where the lid of a traditional sake barrel is broken and opened using wooden hammers.


The Origins of Sake

Though the drink can be traced back to China more than 4,000 years ago, Japan is responsible for the libation’s legacy and popularity. Through the last few centuries, various sake recipes have been passed from one generation to the next, drastically changing in some ways and more subtly in others. Today we can find sake all over the world. It’s most often served at birthdays, weddings, sporting events, reunions, opening days of new companies, and other events worthy of celebration. It’s also a traditional “end of the summer” gift, but always presented in person, so that the giver and receiver can share a sip before parting.

But sake isn’t just a tradition. It’s an experience.

Understanding Kagamiwari

Sake ceremonies are held in high regard. Sake was originally distributed from the barrel and enjoyed by groups of people from large, communal cups. As brewing techniques—and thus the sake—began to improve, communal cups were replaced with individual ceramic or lacquerware cups, known as sakazuki (what you now see at your favorite Japanese restaurant). This new tradition came with its own set of rules: It is believed that you should not pour your own cup of sake. It instead must be poured by a friend, and vice versa.

Modern sake ceremonies share the same goals of celebrating the relationship between drinkers and encouraging mindful consumption. The more formal the situation the more that traditional sake etiquette is involved, but the act of pouring your companion’s drink is present even in the most casual of settings. If you’re tossing back some sake with a group of close buddies, the pouring rituals are typically abandoned after the first round, and folks start to refill their own glasses in a process known as tejaku. (After all, things might get a little too wild to remember everything.)

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Regardless of formality, as individuals gather around the table, thoughtfully pouring the liquid (it can be served hot or cold), it’s easy to see that the sake ceremony breeds community. This community thread makes the drink a common wedding ritual, in which couples and their relatives share a few sips to symbolize the new bonds that hold them together. It’s almost like sharing a bottle of wine on Christmas Eve, or passing a handle of whiskey around the campfire: The drink is a reflection of the bonds between the group of people. Each person is drinking the same thing, provoking connection and conversation.

Drinking Mindfully

These types of ceremony aren’t solely limited to sake. Far from it. In Ecuador, friends will share sips off of one communal bottle of beer, and in Fiji, there is a special ritual for drinking kava that involves passing the shared cup around a circle of friends. One night in Florence, my brother and I dined in a restaurant until close, upon which they passed around communal bottles of Limoncello for us all to share shots and swigs.

Consciously sharing a drink fosters community and strengthens relationships; it asks that the practitioners remain present—just like in a yoga class. When we share food, drink, or a practice, we’re sharing our energy, and thus deepening our connection in this beautiful human experience.