Kuchikamizake

Your Name

            If you already know what I am talking about, great; if not, then you need to go watch Your Name immediately.  It is a great movie and you do not know what you are missing out on.  Kuchikamizake is a type of ceremonial sake that is only made at Shinto shrines and is probably closer to how sake was originally made than the more modern sake varieties.

Chewing Rice

            Kuchikamezake roughly translates to mouth chewed sake, and while sake is also called rice wine, it actually has much more in common with beer than wine.  However, like all types of alcoholic beverages it all comes back to yeast fermenting sugar and creating alcohol (ethanol) as a byproduct, which humanity loves to drink since 7000BC (China).

Yeast

            If you know anything about food and biology, you will realize that this is a problem because the sugar in rice is starch.  Starch is a complex carbohydrate made up of long chains of simple sugars like glucose.

            Yeast can break down and process simple carbohydrates like glucose and turn it into alcohol, but it can not break down complex carbohydrates like starches.

Ethanol Fermentation

            What you need to remember is that all of the sugar in rice is in the form of starch, which yeast cannot break down.  This of course begs the question of how is rice used to make sake when the yeast cannot ferment and turn starch into alcohol?  After the 8th century the answer would be the koji, or Aspergillus Oryzae, a mold that breaks down starch, releasing glucose that yeast can ferment.

            Before the 8th century, however, the solution was human spit or saliva, which does sound a little disgusting, but it served an important purpose.  Besides, the alcohol will probably kill anything anyway.  Human saliva contains the enzyme amylase, which breaks down starches into glucose.  (If you don’t believe me, chew a piece of bread for a long period of time and you will notice it becoming sweeter as you chew, as the amylase breaks down the starches in the bread.)  There are also bacteria in our mouths that can break down starches into simple sugars that yeast can ferment.  So by chewing the rice for a while and then spitting it out and letting it sit for a while one can prepare the rice for fermentation.  The priestess’s do not have to chew all of the rice, just a small portion which is then placed with the rest of the rice.  The bacteria then spread across all of the rice, breaking down the starch.

            In fact, the use of saliva and the bacteria in it is one of, the first steps in making a variety of traditional alcoholic beverages around the world.  This includes airag, the national drink of Mongolia, which is basically fermented horse milk.  Airag is made by sitting a pot of horse milk by the door of the ger (traditional Mongolian house), and each time a person passes by, they spit into it.  This adds the bacteria needed to turn the complex sugars in horse milk into simple sugars, allowing the yeast in the air to ferment it.  (FYI- Not something I recommend trying as it is a very acquired taste.)

But Why does it have to be young Shinto Priestesses?

           The only remotely plausible scientific reason for kuchikamizake to be made by young female virgins is that the bacteria that live in and on every human being differ slightly between males and females, and as you age.  So it is possible that the bacteria that live in the mouths of young girls is different enough from older individuals and males to give the resulting sake a different taste.  Now I personally don’t put too much stock in this theory, but no one has done any actual research on it either.

           There could be some religious reasons for the use of young girls in the making of kuchikamezake, but I am a science teacher and not a religion teacher, so I can’t really say much about it.  Culturally, however, there is one potential reason for the use of young girls in the making of sake.  The indirect kiss is a thing in Japan and shows up in many anime.  Perhaps the making of Kuchikamizake is just a way for many people to have that indirect kiss with a nice looking young girl, possibly making it the original example of the trope.

Pressing

sake pressing

            Normally sake is pressed at the end of the fermentation process to remove the remaining bits of rice that have not completely broken down, as well as other large pieces that are in the rice, water, saliva, bacteria, yeast, and alcohol mixture.  In Kuchikamezake this step is skipped, which adds to the sake’s unique appearance and flavor.

Filtration

Sake filtration

            After being pressed sake is also filtered and pasteurized, which is also left out in the production of Kuchikamizake.  The filtration process removes impurities to refine the taste and color of the sake, while pasteurization process kills the bacteria, mold, and yeast in the sake, meaning that it can be stored longer, as well as being safer to drink.  Both of these steps are skipped in the making of ceremonial sake like Kuchikamizake.  The resulting drink looks nothing like the clear sake we normally see.

sake
kuchikamezake

            It’s more like a milkshake, or really thick soup, than a nice clear sake.  The white color and chunky texture is due to the non-fermented rice not being filtered out of the sake.  As to the flavor, well it is not as bad as you would expect.  It has a sweeter than expected flavor, and you can taste the alcohol, but it’s not a strong taste, there is also an undercurrent of floral notes.  It’s not bad, but not particularly good either, in my opinion, but if offered Kuchikamizake or airag, I will take the sake every time.

Finding Kuchikamizake

            Now if you are wondering how in the world I got the chance to try Kuchikamizake, a ceremonial sake only made at certain Shinto shrines, and only served during certain Shinto celebrations, let me explain (also known as story time to my students).  My chance came during my first trip to Japan in the spring of 2013, where I spent 8 weeks traveling the country as a reward to myself for completing my masters.  (I saved up for a long, long time to do this.)  During my grand adventure I made a stop in Shirakawa-go, which is best described as the Japanese version of Colonial Williamsburg.  It is a small rural village where most of the inhabitants still live in traditional buildings that are several hundred years old.

shirakawa-go

            As expected Shirakawa-go has a small Shinto shrine, which is not much compared to the massive shrines found in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Ise, but it is one of the shrines that is still allowed to make Kuchikamizake.  It also had had a Shinto celebration recently that involved Kuchikamizake.  Normally the shrines can only serve the Kuchikamizake during the celebration, but there is a loophole for all of the remaining sake.  The shrine is allowed to serve it to tourists visiting the shrine if they choose to, instead of letting the sake go to waste, as it cannot be stored for long periods of time.  I just so happened to be one of the few tourists in town that day, and was the only one at the shrine, and one of the shrine maidens offered to let me try some because I was a tourist and clearly not a follower of the Shinto religion.

            If you don’t have the opportunity or means to travel to Japan and be at the right shrine at just the right time, there is a way for you to get a taste of what Kuchikamizake is like.  There is a type of sake called Nigori-zake, which is an unfiltered sake much like Kuchikamizake, and it can be bought outside of Japan.

nigori-zake

Drinking KuchiKamizake in Your Name

            During the climax of Your Name Taki finds the Kuchikamezake and decides to drink it in hopes of reaching her.  Now there are a couple of things you need to know about Kuchikamizake: it is not pasteurized, so its shelf life will be limited, especially in an unsealed, unrefrigerated container sitting at a small Shinto shrine in a cave.  Normal modern filtered and pasteurized sake is only aged for 6 months and is good for 6 months after that.  I can only imagine what is happening inside of the container during the three years that it sat in the shrine before Taki finds it.

Your Name

            This is what the sake looks like after Taki shines his light on it, and it’s clear that there are what looks like bits of rice in the saki, but it should have a whiter cloudier color for kuchikamizake.  Then he actually drinks it and has an experience.

Your Name

           Mystical plot elements, aside I think anyone would have a moment after drinking 3 year old unfiltered, unpasteurized kuchikamezake.  Sake has some similarities to wine, and wine will turn into vinegar over time when exposed to air, which would be the case in an unsealed container.

            For the more chemically minded here is the equation.

           I can only image the horror he is subjecting his taste buds to as the kuchikamezake is probably more vinegar than sake at this point, plus all of the other microorganisms and chemicals in the sake.

Conclusion

            I hope you guys enjoyed this mix of science and cultural content which is a little outside the norm of what I normally do hear at Anime Science 101.