Saijo, a small town in Higashi Hiroshima city, comes to life in the first weekend of October each year. People flock to Saijo from nearby prefectures, making a day trip to enjoy the Sake Matsuri, the Sake festival. A half-hour train ride from the city of Hiroshima in the Hiroshima prefecture, Saijo is a small [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Sake fever in Saijo


Saijo, a small town in Higashi Hiroshima city, comes to life in the first weekend of October each year. People flock to Saijo from nearby prefectures, making a day trip to enjoy the Sake Matsuri, the Sake festival.

A half-hour train ride from the city of Hiroshima in the Hiroshima prefecture, Saijo is a small town surrounded by mountains which remain lushly green throughout the year. The nearest Shinakansen station is Higashi Hiroshima which is a short bus ride away.

Saijo is home to about 200,000 people of whom around 4,000 are foreigners either working as English teachers or postgraduate students attending Hiroshima University’s main campus.

Just to taste: Free samples being offered to visitors

The main building in the Saijo town square is the Japan Railway station, busiest during this weekend as people use the railway to get to Sake Matsuri (as drinking and driving is strictly prohibited). Next to the station, less than a minute away by foot is the Sakagura Street where most of the Sake breweries of Saijo are located.

The Sake factories in Saijo are not large in size but wield a huge capacity in producing some of the best rice wines in Japan. The narrow Sakagura Street houses sake factories as well as a few small liquor bars on either side reminding you of a pre-industrialized setting.

The liquor bars have narrow entrances with a Japanese style short curtain. If you are above five feet tall, you have to bend your head to enter. The bars have counters where people sit in a row to smoke and drink after a hard day’s work in a tranquil atmosphere. They talk almost in whispers, and it is common to find lone drinkers. There are few Okinomiyaki restaurants located along Sakagura Street, serving Okinomiyak, similar to Sri Lankan Kottu, but a noodle version with many sauces instead of spices.

The Sake breweries on Sakagura Street have small sales outlets in the premises, marketing each individual factory’s products. Rice wine bottled in all sizes, presented in a wooden boxes, sake ice cream, preserved fruit and jelly are some of the most popular. They also sell Sake drinking cups made in traditional Japanese pottery and bamboo products, such as a rice measuring square made of wood.

The Sakagura breweries also make the spring water they use, considered the purest of water that contributes to longevity, available to the general public. Residents line up to collect the water in bottles, from bamboo pipes pumping water outside the factory, at designated times.

During most of the year, Sakagura Street is quiet, the typical scene is people collecting drinking water, a few tourists (mostly from Japan) walking around the Sake breweries, not more than five to ten persons at any given time. One can only see the closed doors of the breweries and small retail shops, left unattended until you call out to purchase a product.

All this is transformed for the first weekend of October. Tourists from many parts of Japan, as well as outside Japan, visit Saijo and all breweries prepare for the events days ahead, cleaning, decorating the premises with flowers and paddy grains. Flags of different colours, Japanese lamps and empty Sake bottles filled with flowers appear on either side of Sakagura Street.
Sake Matsuri commences with the Osakabayashi Mikoshi parade. On the morning of the first day of the Sake festival, the symbol of sake breweries Osakabayashi, which is dedicated to the god of sake, is carried on a portable shrine. With the Mikoshi parade, the Sake festival begins.

All the breweries along Sakagura Street open their doors to the public during the festival. They offer free tasting, presenting small glasses of Sake to all visitors and with this most people have their fill of Sake for the day. This is an event geared toward hard drinking and eating well, with the local fare much in evidence and the smell of charcoal, grilled fish, meat, and oysters fills your nostrils. Well-known artists performing at the venue on both days create a party atmosphere. Many families come with their young children with schools organising school trips too. The school children come to learn all about Sake making and to have a good time surrounded by the festival atmosphere.

At the official venue for serious Sake tasting, a ticket enables you to drink as much as you want. On the first day, a long line of people wait patiently until the doors open at 11 a.m. to buy a ticket. The long line is seen right through the weekend. Sake Matsuri is also time for flea markets and bargains. Local handicrafts, traditional pottery, cloth, bead jewelry and homemade preserves in tiny bottles are the popular goods for sale.

Even when intoxicated the Japanese people are peaceful; the only sign that they have had too much to drink is seen through their laughter, women giggling, men and women singing, crying and hugging trees along the path. Indeed this is a contrast to the very formal Japanese people you meet in the course of everyday life. Letting your hair down takes a new meaning in Saijo during this weekend! Fortunately for the over indulged, Monday is a national holiday giving them enough time to sleep off the after effects.

The Japanese Police do not leave anything to chance. A heavy police presence is felt throughout the festival. Rigid law and order in Japan does not excuse the drunken scuffles. Hence one can understand how Sake Matsuri can remain an essentially a family event. Most people might be dead drunk but the famous Japanese culture of peace prevails.

In midst of all the fun, visitors do not forget to light a candle for their loved ones. Such bonding (Kizuna) has become more precious in the aftermath of Great Eastern Tsunami. Even as a teetotaller I enjoyed Sake Matsuri, roaming around Saijo basking in the wonderful atmosphere of rich culture to sounds of the Japanese drum and flute music. I enjoyed the crowds. Mostly I enjoyed the peaceful gathering of several thousands of people in the usually sleepy town of Saijo, where I have been living for almost a year.

( The writer is attached to the University of Colombo and is a Japan Foundation fellow, University of Hiroshima, Japan)

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