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Gunosy has an article on one of the traditional vessels for drinking sake – the masu.

If you’re having beer, you choose a beer glass. Wine? A wine glass. Sake? Could be one of several things, chosen to the suit the sake itself or the occasion. A pottery or porcelain ochoko cup, a masu, a large-mouthed glass or a wine glass. Varying the vessel can even help discover new facets to a familiar sake.

The article starts off by defining what a masu is – although many assume it’s a drinking vessel it was originally a measure, used to serve or sell quantities of rice, sake or soy sauce. It was also used by local lords and landowners to quantify the yearly tax or tribute, and made into a standard measure during the Edo Period.

One masu is 180 ml – equivalent to the  (合) measurement used for sake. [The historical reason behind 180 ml “one cup” glasses and 4- (4合) 720 ml standard bottles. And 10 is 1.8 L, the sake “magnum” or isshōbin (一升瓶).]

The article then points out there are two kinds of masu, wooden (kimasu, 木升) and laquered (nurimasu, 塗升). [And cut glass, see Beyond bring your own bottle – make your own masu]

Wooden masu are usually made of Japanese cypress (桧, hinoki), Japanese cedar (杉, sugi) or Japanese fir (樅, momi). Each material transmits its own aroma and flavour to the sake in the masu.

Although nurimasu appear laquered, they are often made out of plastic – if you’re not sure, tap to see what they sound like. [Price will probably also be an indicator] Masu made with real lacquer traditionally have a luxurious two-colour pattern with black outside and red inside.

There are also two ways of using a masu to drink sake:

  1. Pour sake into the masu and drink directly from it
  2. Put a glass inside the masu, and pour the sake into the glass until it overflows (もっきり, mokkiri)

The seemingly obligatory “drinking manners” section follows, pointing out the dos and don’ts for drinking directly from a masu.

  1. Don’t lift the masu by holding it by the sides. Put one hand underneath, place the thumb of that hand on the side of the masu to hold it steady, then put the other hand opposite the thumb.
  2. Don’t drink from the corners. Place your lower lip against the straight edge and sip.
  3. Add salt. [I had to check I didn’t misread that.]

According to the article, adding some salt is the way to make everyone around you think you’re a sake pro. Sprinkle some salt on the corner of the masu and gently lick some up as you drink. Apparently one of the reasons why you don’t drink from the corner is because it’s used for salt.

The article also claims that sake has long been used as an accompaniment for sake and so it’s not unusual at all. [No sources cited, although I think I’ve read something else saying that salt was served with sake simply because it was a rare commodity.] You can also try different salts with different mineral content to see if there’s one you prefer.

And the dos and don’t for mokkiri:

  1. Take one or two sips directly from the glass first to stop the sake overflowing when the glass is lifted.
  2. Then lift the glass and drink from it.
  3. When there is enough space in the glass, pour the overflow in the masu into the glass, or else drink the sake directly from the masu.

The article also points out that at stage 2 you can just pour the sake from the glass into the masu and drink it from there if you feel like it.

I know it’s a cultural thing, but the schoolmarm tone of these dos and don’ts still gets me. Plenty of it in the Sake Service Institute textbook too, which was translated (mostly) but not localised.

And although I appreciate the “look how much sake we poured for you! The glass overflowed! Hospitality WIN” aspect of mokkiri, I’m not so keen on having sake all over my hands from the overflow on the outside of the glass. Maybe less of a problem in Japan where you’re likely to have a damp shibori towel to hand.