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The Livedoor News site asks a deceptively simple question – how cold is hiya?

The character 冷 (hiya, also read rei) by itself means cool or chilly, so it seems self-explanatory. But it’s actually not so clear, as evidenced by some discussions between izakaya staff and customers on Twitter. A customer orders hiya and gets room-temperature sake… which is wrong… right?

A Twitter user going by the name of Kuma-chan, who had worked in an izakaya while a university student, reported a conversation between a customer and member of staff at an izakaya.

  • Customer: I ordered my sake hiya…?
  • Staff: Yes, this is hiya.
  • Customer: But it’s tepid…
  • Staff: Yes, hiya for sake is room temperature.
  • Customer: Hiya means cool, doesn’t it?
  • Staff: That’s reishu.

One very confused customer.

The 7th edition of the Kōjien dictionary defines hiya as sake that has not been heated, with no mention of chilling. So technically, it means room temperature even though the word is commonly used to mean chilled.

Replies to the original Twitter post pointed out other factors at play – more bars and restaurants are storing sake refrigerated, and more sake are best served chilled, so the “real” meaning of hiya may no longer be so suitable. As more places refrigerate their stock and carry a different range of sake, they understand hiya to mean chilled where more traditional izakaya still think of it as room temperature.

So although the original poster pointed out a pattern where the customer expected chilled sake but the staff understood hiya as room temperature, and a reverse pattern where the meaning of the term seems to be shifting.

The article mentions coverage by J-Cast News of mega-brewery Gekkeikan, founded in 1637, on 24/25 October 2018. They launched a summer sake called Rieyō Bishu (beautiful sake for serving chilled) in 1934. The marketing copy told drinkers to chill the sake before drinking by putting it in the fridge… or suspending it in their well.

So why is sake served at room temperature called hiya? The J-Cast feature asked Gekkeikan’s PR representative what they thought, and their opinion was that it came from trying to distinguish unheated sake from heated sake. Asked whether hiya meant both room temperature and chilled, the PR rep speculated that wider ownership of fridges brought the meaning of “chilled” into the term where it wasn’t there before. Until the beginning of the Showa period people chilled food by suspending it in a well, but fridges made it much more convenient to chill a wider variety of products.

Government consumer surveys show that ownership of fridges hit 50% in 1965, and went over 90% in 1971. After that a fridge in the home was taken for granted. Gekkeikan developed namazake – best drunk chilled – that could be shipped at ambient temperature in 1984, and point to that point in time as when hiya started to mean “chilled”.

The J-Cast feature also covered the Shōtoku brewery in Kyoto, where Shikō Kimura shared the same view. Kimura reflects that everything is hiya these days. Heat damages sake, so best practice is to store it cold. He thinks it’s best to explore all the variety that sake has to offer, but also cautions against chilling it so much that the finer elements of flavour are lost.

The J-Cast feature interviewed izakaya staff and found that those who understood hiya as room temperature were mostly in their 60s. Some of them also thought that chilling sake was mistaken. On the other end of the scale, some younger staff had never associated hiya with room temperature before being asked this question. Their preconception was that sake tasted better chilled than at room temperature.

So it’s not only the meaning of the term that’s changing, but the way sake itself is drunk.