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Serving Sake

Sake served in a wooden box (masuzake or 升酒)

This is the traditional way of serving sake – in a box and full to the brim (CC)

Every so often when I was in Japan, I’d come across something small that just stood out as odd, and the Japanese way of serving sake (rice wine) was one of them. Now most of the time if you go to a Japanese pub or restaurant, sake will be served in a glass just like you’d expect. But now and then it’s served the traditional way – in a box. A glass of sake inside a wooden box which is also filled with sake

If your server keeps pouring when the glass is already full, it’s not an accident – they’re just being generous (CC)
The experience is strange enough when the boxes are made out of lacquer (wood coated in tree sap, which produces a smooth shiny surface, usually colored dark red or black). But when the box is wooden it’s even odder. It’s not just what they look like (there’s something fundamentally peculiar about wooden glasses), but when you pick them up and drink from them it’s a whole new experience. Can you imagine what it’s like to drink from a container that’s got a square top?

Admittedly it’s quite rare for sake to be served just in a box. More often a glass is placed in the box and filled to the brim. Now if the server stops there, you’re not getting any special treatment – but if they are being generous they’ll keep on pouring so the sake overflows and fills the box to the brim as well. Now you first drink from the glass (replacing it in the box of sake in between sips), and once you’re done you can put it aside and start drinking from the box instead. It might seem logical just to use a bigger glass, but this is tradition – and it does mean you get two drinks for the price of one.

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