(Friday Night History) Brewing and the Gods

Wall of sake casks at Meiji Jingu. (Image PD)

If the old folktales are any indicator, the gods and other supernatural beings of Japan love their sake. And sake is also an important part of Shinto ritual today. So, this week, I want to turn a little bit to talking about how the production of sake– and vinegar– and the administration of shrine and temple districts, overlaps with and changes the usual systems of political jurisdiction in the Edo period. Or to put it more plainly, where the gods are involved, even the Shogunate’s and domains’ usual rules don’t quite apply.

The Tokugawa Shogunate and many feudal domains had an administrative posting called the Office of Temples and Shrines (Jisha Bugyosho), headed by a Magistrate (bugyo) of Temples and Shrines. In the Shogunate, this was the administrator responsible for government oversight of the lands, clergy, commoners, and dependents of land belonging to or immediately surrounding Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Tokugawa house land and cities. Why, you may well ask, institute an office like this rather than trust these institutions to be self-governing? We can get a sense of this when we consider that temples and shrines before the Edo period were in some cases also very heavily armed, and could thus impose their political will at the point of spears or guns just as easily as a daimyo could. Even the powerful Oda Nobunaga, the first of the 16th century’s famous Three Great Unifiers, had a hard time fighting the armed temples of Ishiyama Honganji and Hieizan Enryakuji; Nobunaga rather infamously resorted to burning the mountain that Enryakuji sat on, with all of its people inside. So, temples and shrines that were too independent were a liability for the Shogunate as much as they were for the myriad feudal domains. The Shogunate issued many injunctions for everyone from commoners to the imperial court to the clergy. On that last point, it isssued a series of injunctions, starting in the early 17th century and reaffirmed at the start of each shogun’s reign, which regulated and circumscribed the activities and independence of religious institutions in Japan regardless of their particular affiliation. While doctrine and internal organization was left to the religious institutions themselves, this was as far as their independence went. Given the events of the preceding century, all of them were a potential liability. In the interest of overseeing their affairs from the governmental level, and ensuring that the larger temple-shrine complexes were never again left unwatched long enough to be a military threat, the Office of Temples and Shrines was instituted.

The Shogunate’s iteration of the Office of Temples and Shrines had four magistrates assigned concurrently, chosen from the ranks of Tokugawa vassal (fudai) daimyo and reassigned on a regular basis. For a fudai daimyo, this was not the highest office one could aim for, and while there were plenty of Temple and Shrines Magistrates who were capable administrators, most of them did not remain in the office, and went on to more senior postings in the Shogunate administration. The Office reported directly to the shogun or the head Senior Councilor who managed the shogun’s affairs, rather than to the Senior Council, to whom most of the other Shogunate administrative offices answered. Because the magistrates were daimyo, they populated the Office’s positions with people seconded from the ranks of their own retainers. On the domainal level, there was a similar division of jurisdiction when it came to where this office (which usually had the same name as the one in the Shogunate government) fit in a given domain’s apparatus and to whom it reported. So, Sendai domain, too, had a Temple and Shrine Magistrate who oversaw the land and people affiliated with those institutions, while in the Sendai Castle town, the city magistrate (or magistrates) oversaw the governance of the commoner neighborhoods, with other administrators responsible for the warrior quarters. On the level of the average city-dwelling commoner, this meant that most non-warriors lived in jurisdictions where they were governed by a city magistrate, while those in temple and shrine neighborhoods and on their lands were governed by the Magistrate of Temples and Shrines. This difference in jurisdiction was put to creative use by people in need. Even in popular depictions of the period today, you sometimes see a person on the run from the city magistrate’s authorities, taking sanctuary in temple or shrine land in order to seek justice from different, higher, arguably more impartial authority.

These neighborhoods also could and often did have privileges that the regular commoner neighborhoods did not. So, for example, let’s consider the three neighborhoods of Miyamachi, Kameoka-cho, and Hachiman-cho, in the old Sendai castle town. These were the neighborhoods of three major shrines that enjoyed the direct patronage of the Date clan: in order, Tosho-gu, Kameoka Hachiman-gu, and Osaki Hachiman-gu. While shrines and their people were naturally under the jurisdiction of the Office of Temples and Shrines in the Date lands as their counterparts in the Shogunate territories might be, in this case so too were the neighborhoods around them. And a privilege that two of the three enjoyed was brewing.

Just like today, a would-be brewery needed to get the appropriate permits from its local government to run a legal operation– after all, if you’re running a brewery on the sly, the result is moonshine. So, for a neighborhood to have permission to host breweries was quite a perk! So, Miyamachi was the one neighborhood in the Sendai castle town that had permission to brew sake, and Kameoka-cho was the neighborhood with permission to brew vinegar– that is, rice vinegar, of the sort you might still cook with today.

Brewing, like we said at the beginning, is something that’s of particular interest to the gods and important to the running of shrine ritual, as it’s a common type of ritual offering. It’s also something that was in the interest of the warrior caste to control, because it relied on rice production, which was the way that a feudal domain paid its retainers most of their stipends and was how the domains’ incomes– and thus the taxes and labor that they owed to the Shogunate– were rated. Sake was also important to the domain’s functions and its military needs as well. As we discussed in recent episodes, Sendai Castle itself had a brewery, where shortly after its establishment, Masamune personally experimented with some of what became standard sake for official Date functions. So when the domain granted special permission for brewing sake and things like vinegar that derived from sake, it was no small matter, because this was a privilege it usually guarded.

In fact, there’s a pretty noteworthy case of the house of Date doing this, which continues to the present. Stay with me, because this story’s a good one.

Shiogama Shrine– Shiogama jinja, in Japanese– is a big and very old shrine in the coastal city of Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture. It is the ichinomiya, the preeminent shrine, of the former Mutsu Province. It sat immediately northeast of what used to be the seat of imperial administration in the region in the early Heian era, which is the modern city of Tagajo, Miyagi Prefecture. The city of Shiogama, as both transport hub and a fishing port, grew around the shrine, and it predates Sendai by several centuries. It’s always been a fishing port, but it gets its name from the salt kettles (shiogama) that were historically the divine vessels in the shrine’s inner sanctum. According to shrine lore, the god of Shiogama shrine “is the kami that first cooked salt in our country. His salt kettle remains to this day as the shrine’s shintai. Its miraculous virtue is difficult to put down in ink.” In other words, the lore has it that the gods of the shrine taught the local humans how to extract salt from seawater. The same source claims that in the Edo period, there were four salt kettles that served as its divine vessels, where there were had once been seven.

The Northern Fujiwara, the Emishi-Japanese rulers of a quasi-independent Tohoku region a millennium ago, knew this shrine and cared for it during the late Heian era. And several centuries later, when the house of Date took possession of the region with aspirations to the mantle of leadership once claimed by the Northern Fujiwara, it too supported the upkeep of the shrine and even carried a banner representing its gods in the suite of banners that accompanied the Date field headquarters into battle.

Date Yoshimura (1680-1752, r. 1708-1743). [Image PD]

One major refurbishing of Shiogama Shrine was completed in 1724, during the reign of the 5th generation Date daimyo, Date Yoshimura (1680-1752, ruled 1708- 1743). As the daimyo following the disastrous Date Disturbance which nearly destroyed the domain through internal discord, Yoshimura is chiefly remembered today for having been the lord who took personal involvement in the domain’s affairs and supervised its reestablishment on firm financial footing through things like land reclamation and the restructuring of the domain’s administration. He also oversaw the repair and reconstruction of landmarks including Shiogama Shrine. It was immediately following the completion of this construction project that Yoshimura ordered the brewing of a new type of sake for use at Shiogama Shrine’s ceremonies. This was overseen by the local Saura family, whose descendants still brew the same sake today. It’s called Urakasumi, they’re not sponsoring this podcast, but let me tell you, it’s my favorite sake ever. It’s still brewed in a brewery that’s built around the Edo period brewery. I went up the tall, narrow steps of the storehouse in 2005, and I remember the scent of the sake fermenting in these huge, wooden casks, it had a faint hint of apple.

Fortunately, not even the 2011 tsunami stopped Urakasumi. The Date government is gone, the old systems of city and temple magistrate are gone, but that sake is still in production to this day, and still relatively straightforward to get ahold of even in North America. Meanwhile, back in Sendai, Miyamachi no longer brews sake, nor does Kameoka-cho brew vinegar. But in quite the amusing twist, the most reliable online source of news on Kameoka Hachiman-gu is the website of Abe Sake-ten, a Kameoka-cho sake vendor.

I think the gods would approve.


  • Abe Sake-ten. http://abesake.com/ Accessed 8 April 2021.
  • RHP Mason and JG Caiger. A History of Japan: Revised Edition (Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1997), p. 195.
  • Mihara Ryōkichi. Kyōdoshi Sendai Mimibukuro. (Sendai: Hōbundō, Showa 58 [1983]), pp. 123-126.
  • Sasama Yoshihiko. Edo Machibugyo Jiten. (Tokyo: Kashiwa Shobo, 1995), pp. 2-3.
  • “Shiogama engi.” Shinto Taikei v. .27, pp. 118-119.
  • Conrad Totman. Politics in the Tokugawa Bakufu, 1600-1843. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 40, 42, 137, 182.
  • “Urakasumi no Rekishi: Hajime ni, Vol. 1.” https://www.urakasumi.com/about-us/history/2014/08/post-5.html Accessed 8 April 2021.

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