Kuma Shochu: Bringing people together through communal drinking

Kuma Shochu’s unique drinking set: the ‘gala’ and ‘choku’


“gala” “choku”

The home of Kuma Shochu (the distilled rice spirit) is the Kuma Region which surrounds Hitoyoshi City in Kumamoto Prefecture. In the Kuma region, the customary way of drinking this deep and strong beverage with 35-40% alcohol is to pour it into a “gala”, a container that looks like a flask with a long spout. The shochu is then heated on a stove top and served. Kuma Shochu cups, known as “choku” are smaller than sake cups, and the opening is not very wide. Since shochu used to be served in a wooden box that held “2-gou-5-shaku” in the ancient measurement (equivalent of approximately 15.25 oz, or 433ml), the gala was designed to contain the same amount. It is large enough to add some hot water to adjust the intensity of the shochu. The preferred material for the gala and choku is white porcelain made in the famous Arita Region (in the neighbouring prefecture Saga.) Arita producers make them specifically to meet the demand from the Kuma Region. Due to this, the gala and choku are found only in the Kuma Hitoyoshi region. The size of the choku cup is small in order to soften the sharp aroma of heated Shochu. The slim spout of the gala makes it easy to pour shochu into the tiny choku. Since the gala is made of porcelain, it does not break on direct heat and therefore is convenient for warming up the shochu within it. There is another shape of Kuma Shochu cup called a “solagyu”. It has a pointed bottom similar to that of the spinning top toy, and tilts to the side when rested on a flat surface. As such, you have to finish the cup in order to place it down on a table. The shape of solagyu reflects the alcohol-loving culture and history of Kuma Hitoyoshi region. The name solagyu comes from a typical social exchange by locals. The host serves shochu to a guest, saying “Here you go” (“sola”), and the guest drinks it up (a gesture sometimes described as “gyu” in Japanese).

ガラチョク写真|熊本県人吉市球磨郡米焼酎のトップブランド球磨焼酎酒造組合


Kuma Shochu Customs


The Custom of Shochu Tasting in the Kuma Hitoyoshi Region.

Before drinking the first cup of shochu of the evening, people in the Kuma Hitoyoshi region used to drip one drop of Shochu onto different areas of the house depending on where they are. The edge of the fireplace in the living room, or the decorative alcove in the dining room, or somewhere near a guest’s seat at a garden party.
This custom came from the idea of leaving a drop of Shochu for the local god, and then the leftover to be shared by the people.


Kuma Shochu Party Etiquette


In modern times, most shochus are around 25% alcohol (this was established during the WWⅡ), and are most often drunk with hot water, with cold water, or on the rocks. In older times shochus were between 30-33% alcohol and would be heated (Jikikan) inside of a gala to 40-45℃. If it were to cool down while drinking, it would simply be reheated.
Even if one’s guests may prefer a more diluted version, it was considered rude to serve diluted shochu from the start since it reflected on the host as being stingy.
Even in the era where shochu became 25% alcohol, people would drink it heated up and undiluted at 25%. But from around 20 years ago, the practice of drinking diluted shochu has become more commonplace.


Kuma Shochu Drinking Cup (‘Sakazuki’)


Kuma Shochu drinking cups are known as ‘choku’, and are unique and small objects. These are often used as part of an exchange of drinks, known as ‘kenshu’.Of course, it is perfectly fine for superiors to pour drinks for their inferiors, but here in Kuma there is a special custom called ‘Sakazuki o suru’ where inferiors, called ‘shitate’, first serve their superiors and seniors, called ‘uwate’. In other words, the exchange of cups is meant as a form of tribute. Once the shochu is poured and the uwate drinks it all, the shitate immediately must pour a second cupful. After this exchange, the uwate superior can then offer the cup to the shitate inferior.
However, this practice is not observed during certain special occasions, such as funerals, wakes and weddings. When exchanging cups, you can either use both hands, or rest it on the fingers of your right hand.
When the uwate superior receives the sakazuki cup, it is fine for them to collect and hold their cup with their fingers, however, the shitate inferior cannot; instead, they must put out their right hand, palms facing down, underneath the offering hand of their uwate superior, who thens ‘drops’ the cup between their middle and ring finger so that it lands gently on the hand of the shitate. When offering the cup to their inferior, it is fine for the uwate to hold it as usual between their fingers.

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