Sake has long been a social beverage in Japan, and often used to celebrate and support relationships. This concept became more formalized during the Muromachi period (1336-1573 A.D.) when samurai devised the ceremony of shikisankon. This was an intriguing ceremony, which can be summarized as "Drink sake, don't eat," and is even more fascinating because food is served.
Shikisankon involves a formal ritual where there are three rounds of drinking sake, each round consisting of three cups of sake. So, each participant would drink nine cups of sake, though each cup only had a mouthful of liquid. The cups were not the traditional ochoko, but instead were sakazuki, which resemble small, shallow dishes and are most often used for ceremonial purposes. The participants would also drink from the same sakazuki, sharing, and thus solidfying their bond.
The sake would be accompanied by sakana, snacks, but strangely enough, you were not supposed to eat them! The food generally was not ready to eat anyways, and was valued only for its symbolic value. Some typical sakana foods included konbu seaweed, abalone, dried chestnuts, and dried squid. The dried foods generally would need to be soaked in water for several hours before being palatable. The Japanese names of these foods often reflected their symbolic value.
For example, Konbu seaweed, which is often called kobu, is meant to reflect the word yorokobu, which means "happiness." Abalone symbolizes a few different matters, including "long life." Abalone is known as noshi awabi, and noshi means "victory." Dried chestnuts are known as kachiguri, and kachi also means "victory." Both of these terms reflect the fact that samurai, Japanese warriors, obviously sought victory in battle so symbolism in this regard was very important to them. Dried squid is known as surume, which suggests the word suehirogari, meaning "enjoying increased prosperity." Rather than eat these foods, the samurai would take them and hide them away in their clothes, keeping them like some magical amulet.
Can you imagine serving a tray of food where your guests cannot eat anything off it? The shikisankon ceremony is not the only time when the Japanese served food you could not eat. There were some formal banquets where many of the courses were presented only for their aesthetic or symbolic value. I may discuss those events more in a future post.
Etiquette books in the Edo period (1603-1868 A.D.) discussed the shikisankon ceremony, which led to it eventually spreading among the general populace. The ceremony would change in some respects, but the same basic idea remained, that the sharing of the sakazuki sealed friendships and other relationships. In some weddings, there is the ritual of san-san kudo, where the bride and groom share a sakazuki of sake three times. Enemies could reconcile by sharing a sakazuki of sake, or maintain their enmity by refusing to share a cup with their enemy. Oaths of loyalty could be sealed by sharing a sakazuki, and the Japanese Yakuza do so. Sometimes with these oaths of loyalty, the participants would prick their fingers, adding a couple drops of blood to the sake.
Sake has such a fascinating history.