48. Sake

June 19, 2023 - Roger W. Lowther

Welcome to the Art Life Faith Podcast. This is the show where we talk about art, what it has to do with your life, and what it has to do with the Christian faith. And I'm your host, Roger Lowther.

Well, a lot of amazing things have been happening here in Tokyo these past few weeks. We've had five interns come from different parts of the United States. And we've been praying for almost a year that God would work through them, that he would help open up our church again after this horrendously long lockdown of COVID, and also to bring some healing to our church. And that's exactly what we've seen. Stay tuned because I'm looking forward to sharing many of these stories with you in future episodes.

But for now, I'd like to continue this little streak we've been having on Japanese food, this time to talk about the quintessential Japanese drink known as sake or rice wine.

Koji Hanabuchi / Getty Images

Kanpai!

We called in a loud voice together as we clinked our little ceramic cups. This was my very first experience of sake and I really didn't know what to make of it. It was strong, but not too strong. It was sweet, but not too sweet. It was cold, but not too cold. And it seemed to match the lightly-fried food of tempura perfectly.

This was also my very first home-cooked meal in a Japanese home. We were on a two-week missions trip giving concerts in various locations, and this was also the first opportunity for me to meet the various friends she had made during her gap year between high school and college. She had lived in Japan for a year and then again the following summer. And so here we were in this home, with a family that knew her very well but didn’t know me at all, and they were extremely welcoming. They served us tempura, rice, miso soup, grated Japanese radishes—in proportions more than we could eat in many meals—and, of course, they served a huge bottle of sake.

The second time I tried sake was while on a trip as the only native English speaker with a local Japanese public school for a weekend camp to teach English. The lead teacher, my host, really wanted me to try amazake, a sweet rice wine that was well-known in that region. You know that one of the rules of being a good missionary is to accept whatever you are offered to eat or drink. Anyway, in this case too, I had never had anything like it. It had the consistency of drinkable yogurt or perhaps even a milkshake. It was pure white with particles of rice in it that reminded me of snow.

Other times, I remember being served sake by my hosts after various concerts I gave, or by friends as we sat having a picnic under cherry trees during the peak of cherry blossom viewing season. Every time, sake was a big part of their hospitality, a drink from large bottles meant to be shared in community.

I find it fascinating that the fermented and distilled drinks in each area of the world so match the raw materials and kinds of yeast that naturally grow in that climate. For example, Japan has rice wine or nihonshu, literally “alcohol of Japan.” Belgium has Belgian beer, which is famous for various styles that come from open-air fermentation with tastes specific to that region. Scotland has scotch and Scottish ale. Portugal has port. Spain has sherry. Mexico has tequila. Russia has vodka. Jamaica has rum. And there are so many more examples. The list is really, really long. There seem to be as many fermented and distilled drinks in the world as there are places, and in many of those cases the nations actually become part of the name because it is so unique to that region.

All of these drinks are a gift from God, a way to celebrate his goodness in creation. Listen to these words from Psalm 104:14–15.

“You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man.”

And how about Isaiah 25:6?

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples, a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.”

Or Matthew 26:29, when Jesus promises to drink wine with his disciples in heaven.

“I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

One of the earliest heresies of Christianity, Gnosticism, taught that the body and the material things of this world were bad. But the second-century Christian leader, Irenaeus, countered this teaching by talking about, among other things, wine. He wrote,

“The days will come when vines come up each with ten thousand branches and on each branch ten thousand twigs and on each twig ten thousand shoots and on each shoot ten thousand grapes, and each grape when pressed will give twenty-five measures of wine. And when one of the saints picks a cluster, another will shout, ‘I am a better cluster; pick me, bless the Lord through me.’”

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book V.33.3, in Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons (New York: Routledge, 1997), 178–179.

Irenaeus lived in the south of France, where grapes and wine were plentiful. I wonder. If he had lived in Japan, would he have described the wonders of heaven through sake instead? When we gather together at the table of heaven, don’t we expect to find not only wine, but all the fermented drinks of this world? And among them, sake will surely have its place with big bottles to be shared with the whole community.

But there's even more to it, to how sake tells the gospel story. Think about fermentation. Fermentation is about disintegration. The yeast eat away at the sugars in the grains. They digest them until they're gone. But through this “suffering” of the rice, through this disintegration, the drink tastes better, is better for you, and lasts a long time. And in the end, you have more yeast than when you first started, for the next batch and the next batch. Fermentation is about disintegration and death turned into abundance and flourishing and life.

After the death of my mother last year, I was cleaning out her house and found a bottle of wine that had been hidden in the cool of the basement … for decades. No year was listed, but it very well could have been from her honeymoon since she only kept alcohol from the most special occasions. I considered drinking it but wondered, Was it toxic? Would it kill me? Was it even possible to eat or drink something older than me?

Carefully, I opened the bottle, poured some of the liquid in a glass, and lifted it to my mouth, ready to spit it out in an instant. And you know what? It was good! In fact, after all these years, the wine was probably even better than when it was first made.

By the way, I also found a bottle of Coca-Cola in the basement. It also didn't have a date, but I recognized it from a trip our family had taken to the Caribbean almost 40 years before. I tried to drink that one as well, but I'm afraid it didn't age quite so well…

I shared this story recently at one of our gatherings with a woman who is not yet a Christian, and she told me how moving she thought this story was. But you know what I find really moving is the fact that Jesus's first miracle was to turn water into wine. He turned fresh spring water into a well-aged drink. Jesus chose this symbolism at a wedding to show how he remakes all the disintegration of this world into something better than it was before.

Jesus gives these miraculous pointers to the kingdom of heaven to every nation on this planet. I look forward to that day when in the greatest of all feasts, Jesus will prepare for us some of the best nihonshu, the best sake, in quality and quantity far beyond our wildest imaginations.

This is Roger Lowther, and you've been listening to the Art Life Faith podcast. As we say in Japan, “Ja, mata ne! See you next time.”

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