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Sugidama

by Alice Gordenker

Dear Alice,

I recently noticed a large ball hanging from the eaves outside my favorite sake shop. It seems to be made of carefully clipped evergreen branches. I quizzed the shop owner about it, but we didn’t understand each other. I asked a Japanese friend, but he had no idea what I was talking about. So, what the heck is that?

Dan P., Tokyo

Great balls of fir, Dan! You’ve spotted a sugidama, sometimes referred to as a sakebayashi. In the olden days, sake brewers would hang one of these outside their door to signal that fresh production was on its way. “Sugidama” means “cedar ball,” and that’s exactly what it is: boughs of fresh cedar branches tied together and clipped into a perfect sphere. Sake makers would hang up a fresh green sugidama in November or December, right after they pressed sake made from the new rice harvest. Customers knew that a few months later, when the sugidama turned completely brown, the sake was ready to drink. These days, you’re most likely to spot a sugidama outside your better class of sake seller and restaurants that pride themselves on a great selection of nihonshu (sake).

There aren’t many folks left making sugidama, but, believe it or not, you can find suppliers on the Internet. These aren’t for the casual shopper — a 30-cm fir ball will set you back about 30,000 yen, minus the little roof, and the price goes up as the balls get bigger. Just how big do they get? Well, I knew you’d ask, Dan, so I did a little research on that very question.

By some unfortunate oversight, Guinness World Records doesn’t have a “Largest Sugidama” category (although they do have a record for the “Largest Christmas Wreath,” made entirely from disposable plastic cups, and the “Largest Bouquet”). However, through some enterprising sleuthing, I discovered that the Momokawa Sake Brewery in Aomori Prefecture recently made what they modestly call a “big” sugidama. It’s 2.2 meters in circumference, weighs about 500 kg, and took a team of five workers a week to make.

If reading this has aroused Martha Stewart-type urges (of the craft kind), and you are now itching to make your very own sugidama, or better yet beat Momokawa Sake Brewery’s “big sugidama” record, take a look at this very interesting Web site: ww7.tiki.ne.jp/~murozono/sugidamanotukurikata.htm It outlines, step by step and with 34 color photographs, the process for creating a sugidama. The text is in Japanese, but the photos say it all.

And Dan? One last thing: Is that Japanese friend who didn’t know what you were talking about from Hokkaido, by any chance? If he is, cut him some slack. Sugidama are rarely sighted up there. It seems the custom never took root north of Honshu.