Kinichiro Sakaguchi and the Poetry of Japanese Sake
translated by MARK FRANK

Kinichiro Sakaguchi (1897-1994) was born in Joetsu City in the southern part of Niigata prefecture, Japan. An early authority in the field of applied microbiology, his research on soy sauce, miso, and wine production received international attention and he remains a significant figure in the Japanese sake brewing world. He was among the first to scientifically examine the complex traditional sake making process, and published numerous books on sake brewing techniques and culture.  

Sakaguchi was also a well-regarded waka poet, particularly gaining attention after his tanka was selected for the Imperial New Year’s Poetry Reading in 1975. His poetic muse was an extension of his laboratory research: the world of sake and fermentation.

Soon after he entered Takada Junior High School in Joetsu, Sakaguchi was stricken with polio and had to be transferred to Junten Junior High School in Kanda, Tokyo. Passing daily through the famous bookstore district of Shinbomachi on his way to school, he developed a deep love for reading, particularly Western literature.

After his father opposed his intention to study literature in college, Sakaguchi instead chose science and entered the Agriculture Department of Tokyo Imperial University (now University of Tokyo).

Sakaguchi was inspired by the lecture of a brewing science professor and began studying the koji used in Chinese liquor. Koji (aspergillus oryzae) is a mold traditionally used in East Asian cultures to “malt” rice and other grains for fermentation. He continued his research after graduation, expanding it to include the study of native Japanese koji. Eventually, he collected over 3000 different samples of koji from well-known brewing regions on the four main islands of Japan and Okinawa.

While known (and perhaps feared) as a strict and demanding teacher in the classroom, Sakaguchi was equally appreciated as a warm and generous host at home, going so far as to have a small outbuilding constructed near his home exclusively for tanka and sake parties. There, around the irori (a traditional open-pit fire), guests would grill fish, warm sake, and take turns writing and reciting poetry. 

While poems about drinking sake are not uncommon in the Japanese tradition, the actual fermentation process of alcohol has rarely been treated as a subject for waka. This is where Sakaguchi found his inspiration. It is interesting here to note the subtle and deft inclusion of technical brewing terms in Sakaguchi’s tanka. As much as possible, these terms have been left untranslated in the English versions here in order to preserve the flavor and uniqueness of Japanese sake making.

It takes between three and four weeks to ferment a batch of Japanese sake. The process, known as “multiple parallel fermentation,” is one of the most complex alcohol brewing techniques in the world, requiring the simultaneous propagation of koji mold to malt the rice and yeast to ferment the resulting sugars into alcohol. During this time, the aroma evolves from the nascently sweet, grassy smell of malted koji rice to the more sharply pronounced tones of yeast and alcohol fermentation a few weeks later. By the end of February, during the peak of ginjo brewing, the brewery is alive with this rich, fruity bouquet, a reassuring marker of the season. 

The Japanese sake brewing culture has spawned a lexicon of finely tuned expressions for the bubbles, foam, and aromas which accompany each stage of fermentation. For example, brewers use over 70 distinct expressions to describe the smell of sake.
Sakaguchi uses these much in the same manner as kigo, the seasonal words typically associated with haiku: they locate the poem at a precise moment in the brewing cycle, as familiar to the sake brewer as the solar and lunar seasons are to the traditional Japanese poet. 

Likewise, the plum blossoms in the tanka below be read as a kigo-like indication that the brewing season is coming to a close and the last of the year’s sake will be pressed soon:


kura no uchi
yu moromi no kaori
kezayaka ni
ume saku niwa ni
afure dedetsumo

From the kura
The aroma of fermenting mash
Wafts boldly out 
To the garden 
Where a plum tree is in bloom

The following section will introduce several key sake making terms and show how they are reflected in Sakaguchi’s tanka.

Moromi—the main mash

Moromi is the brewing term for “main mash.” In the central event of sake making, a starter mash (moto) is combined with steamed rice, malted koji rice, and water over a carefully measured four day period to create the moromi. This fermenting moromi is the core of sake brewing, a living thing which changes and grows during the 4 weeks until completion.

Sake making is a continuous dialogue between moromi and brewer. The toji (master brewer) visits the moromi first thing every morning, senses attuned to its taste, sound, sight, and smell. The color of the foam, the shape of the bubbles, the sound, the feel while stirring—all of this determines where the fermentation is and whether it is progressing healthily or not:


awa wakete
sukuhi tori taru
choko no uchi
fukumeba amashi
wakaki moromi ni

Split the foam
And scoop out from the cask
A sake cup
Full of sweetness:
The young moromi

Kanzukuri--cold season brewing

As its nickname “Snow Country” suggests, Niigata is known for its dark, snowy winters. Niigata sake is distinguished for the practice of kanzukuri, or "cold season brewing." The clear frigid air and heavy snow creates a stable, supportive environment for slow fermentation, resulting in sake with a pure, unobtrusive flavor and clean aftertaste. After the peak of the fermentation cycle is passed, kanzukuri sake mash is noted for its quiet sound and placid appearance. 

Although Sakaguchi does not use the term kanzukuri here, it is referenced to indirectly in the following tanka:


hiebie to
samusa ni mi ni shimu
kura no uchi
awa no tsubuyaku
oto kasukanari

A deep chill
When the cold really sets in:
In the kura
The murmuring of bubbles
Is hushed

Kura—the main brewery

In the sake world, the word kura refers to the building where the main brewing occurs within the traditional brewery as well as the brewing business as a whole. Sake is particularly susceptible to contamination from airborne bacteria; to reduce this risk, the kura has traditionally been a cloistered and protected place, a sacred space protected by the Shinto god of brewing Matsuo-sama.

Once inside, it is an intricate factory of life, animated by the songs and calls of workers, the hiss of steaming rice and hot fire, the rough scrape and clatter of wooden tubs, and the constant sound of water in motion. Much quieter and hidden within these, the hushed sound of fermentation can be heard: bubbles rising to the surface, the hidden life of microorganisms as their populations rise and fall. 

The smell of the kura is a nearly tangible mix of fresh steamed rice, sweet koji, and sharply fruity yeasts combined with the woody smell of the structure itself. These smells drift out outside into the surrounding neighborhood during the peak brewing season. The aroma of the kura appears here:


kaori nagaruru
kura no uchi
shizuka ni yukeri
kore no moromi

A fragrant aroma
Winding its way out
From the kura:
This moromi,
Brewing quietly


Every kura has a unique history, and the structure itself provides subtle character to the finished brew beyond the skill of the brewers and the quality of the ingredients used. 

Ginjo—high class sake

Ginjo is the most labor-intensive class of sake, and the fullest expression of the brewer’s art. Ginjo brewing season is in February, in the late winter when the speed of fermentation is slowest. The brewery is at its busiest then and the pressure on the brewers at a peak. Because of the brewing techniques and the varieties of yeast used, ginjo sake produces a clear and powerful aroma reminiscent of tangy apples and ripened bananas. These aromas tie the ginjo to a specific time and also act as a kigo:


kichishiki kaori
ginjou no sake
ima naramutosu

After the wait,
An unmistakable aroma
Begins to arise:
The ginjo sake
Ready at last

Foam and bubbles 

There are at least fifteen distinct terms used by sake brewers to describe the foam that appears on the top a vat of fermenting sake, each connected to a specific point in the fermentation process. Besides the taka awa (“high foam”) in tanka No. 5, there are such expressions as mizu awa (“water foam”), kani awa (“crab foam”), iwa awa (“pebble foam”), and ochi awa (“falling foam”).

“High foam” appears between the fifth and seventh day after the main mash has been assembled. The amylase from the malted rice is most active and the moromi has a pleasantly grainy sweetness. The yeast population is also peaking, adding an ebullient fruitiness and a sharp bouquet of esters and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide produces a thick layer of bubbles as it escapes, hence “high foam.” 


oke ni afureshi
taka-awa mo
hadare no yuki to

Bubbling up
And over the edge
Of the cask,
This high foam will fade
With the lingering snow

In the next tanka, we find Sakaguchi the scientist carefully observing the same foam in his laboratory: 


kiete ha ukabu
furasuko ha

In the lab flask,
The settled foam  
Leaves suspended
A delicate assembly
Of vibrant life

Sakazuki—the sake cup 

As in traditional tea ceremony, the sake cup itself is integral to the aesthetic experience of drinking. A handcrafted cup, perfectly fitted to the drinker’s hands, drinking style, and personality, deepens the enjoyment and satisfaction of the alcohol. There are three main styles of sake cups: sakazuki (a flat, saucer-like cup), ochoko (a small cylindrical cup), and masu (a wooden box cup). Finely made ochoko and sakazuki are objects of contemplation while drinking; the artist’s skill and tradition, the type of clay used, the region, and the firing technique are all considered. 


umasake o
moreba honoka ni
kono sakazuki no
akashoku no hada

Pouring good sake,
Some spills and runs down:
Dark and damp,
The fired red clay exterior
Of the sakazuki


I have had the opportunity to work in several sake breweries in Japan as part of my study of East Asian fermentation, and what I found in the experience was a rough hewn, masculine poetry, reminiscent of Gary Snyder: poetry that does not call attention to itself, content to do what needs to be done quietly and well. I saw a lived rather than written aesthetic in the wordless communication between brewers, where a quickly exchanged glance could convey an entire conversation, and where the toji could determine the condition of a vat of sake simply from the sound of the bubbling mash.

The same spare tempo can be felt in Sakaguchi’s tanka. His work conveys the experience of being in a brewery, of drinking sake with friends, of living a life patterned on the rhythms and mysteries of sake.

Both as a poet and as a scientist, Sakaguchi worked in the conviction that great civilizations naturally possess superb cultures of brewing, and that alcohol itself is one of the highest expressions of culture. He saw the brewing and drinking of sake as profound cultural acts and getting drunk as poetic participation in the divine. Drinking good sake with friends has the inherent ring of poetry to it, and there is even an apt Japanese word, suigin, meaning “to get drunk and recite poetry.”

In Sakaguchi’s world, sake connects mundane human activities back to nature through its reliance on fundamental yeasts and mold, and yet upwards to the sacred through poetry and art.

Poems in celebration of alcohol abound in Chinese and Japanese verse, but these closely observed snapshots of the actual brewing process are rare, particularly when as in Sakaguchi’s case the author also happens to be a world recognized authority on brewing science. Because both drinking and brewing tend to be private, closed affairs, Sakaguchi’s verse can be read as a rare invitation to a world rarely accessed by the outsider.


umasake ha
umashi tomo naku
nomu uchi ni
yohite no ato mo
kuchi no sayakeki

The best sake
Need not call attention to itself
While drinking,
And even after getting drunk
Leaves a clear and graceful aftertaste


hitotabi ha
yo mo sutenishi mi 
sake no chikara ni 

I was ready
To abandon the world
Just now--
But through the power of good sake
Find myself reborn


sake ni yorite 
egataki o 
tokushii nochi nareba 
sake ni sasagemu 
to omoikirinu

Since sake 
Can bring the elusive
Within reach,
It deserves my
Wholehearted devotion


sesouyokome ni 
kono yosei 
ika ni ikinamu to 
sakazuki ni tai suru

Cast a sidelong glance 
At the changing world 
And spend what years 
I have left face to face 
With a cup of sake

MARK FRANK was born and raised in eastern Kansas. After receiving a Master of Arts degree in American Literature from Missouri State University, he moved to rural Japan, where he taught for 12 years. During that time, he also studied traditional agriculture, fermentation, and sake brewing. Six years ago, he moved back to Missouri, where he operates a no-till organic farm specializing in Japanese vegetables and fermented foods. 

His written work draws upon all of these experiences as he seeks to find the unheard voices of the soil and the multitude of organisms that call it home.
The Adirondack Review
FALL 2016