Why Women Do Not Get Served SAKE in Fragrant Wooden BOX-CUPS (MASU) at Japanese Restaurants and Pubs
By Avi Landau
The pleasures of a fine Japanese meal lay not only in the various (seasonal) tastes, textures and colors of the food itself, but also in the PRESENTATION of each dish- meaning, among other criteria, the appropriate selection of the serving dishes, bowls and utensils.
In the same way, the FULL appreciation of Japaneses sake (also called NIHON SHU) is NOT achieved merely by enjoying the mood altering effects of the alcohol and the (sometimes) wide range of tastes which are (amazingly) created from just water, rice, and fermenting agent- though it is surely because of these two qualities that since ancient times sake has been considered a sacred beverage!
No. The COMPLETE sake experience also involves the look, feel and sometimes the SMELL of the vessels used to drink it from.
Just as the Japanese tea ceremony involves the appreciation of the bowls and other utensils used, good SAKE-TIME, is often spent with a pleasant buzz contemplating the deep beauty and feel of a small ceramic sake cup ( these types of cups are called OCHOKKO OR GUINOMI and can sometimes be made of materials other than pottery or porcelain). You do not have to know the meaning of the words wabi and sabi to appreciate at such special moments the splendors of traditional Japanese beauty.
And there is another type of drinking vessel which can add even further depth to your drinking experience. I am talking about MASU, square, box-like vessels which were actually first used in Japan more than a thousand years ago as MEASURING BOWLS.
Besides being uniquely shaped (is there any other country in which alcohol is drunk from a box?), these vessels are packed with symbolic significance- in Japanese MASU means to increase, and thus represents better harvests, more children or increased profits. To compound this symbolism, when you are served sake in a MASU it is always poured until it over flows- this can be done either by placing a glass inside the MASU and letting it overflow the glass and then fill the box, or by putting the MASU on a dish and letting it spill over from the MASU onto the dish.
Besides their being very auspicious and plenty of FUN, certain MASU bring with them another characteristic to be appreciated- aroma. When made of uncoated wood- usually cypress, but sometimes cedar, MASU can be delightfully fragrant (though I would not recommend drinking finer sakes from such boxes as the wood fragrance might overpower or clash with that of the wine).
The only thing is though, that if you are a woman and order sake,, you will NOT be served in a fragrant wooden MASU, even though the man (or men) you are sitting with will.
Women are given lacquered MASU instead!
I have had the experience several times. Ordering sake and being brought MASU- pure wood for the me (and any other men who might be with us) and lacquer-coated for the woman.
I always just took it to be because the staff felt it appropriate for the woman to have a PRETTIER drinking vessel.
That is what I thought until the other day when I had this experience at a Japanese restaurant. I will never forget it, and it taught me not only why women are not given plain wooden boxes but proved to me once again that in Japan you can learn something new almost every day.
Learning Why Women are not Served Sake In Plain Wooden Masu
I had an appointment to meet some people for dinner at a Japanese restaurant/pub (izakaya). One was an old friend, a Japanese man, and the other, his acquaintance, a European woman who is here in Japan for a short stay and is very interesting in experiencing Japanese culture.
To start off I ordered us all some sake. The waiter brought us 3 MASU – naturally, two plain wooden ones for the men, and one lacquered one for the woman.
We watched with anticipation as our servings were poured- to overflowing. Then the waiter left us.
Since I wanted our guest to experience drinking out of the MASU fragrant with cypress wood ( which could certainly be rated as a special Japanese experience) I offered to change MASU with her. I took the lacquer box and she took the plain wooden one.
With pleasure we lowered all our lips down to table level to take the first sips so that level of liquid would be lowered and the boxes lifted.
Given the conditions- good drink and good company, it should come as no surprise to hear that we then proceeded to enjoy ourselves immensely!
But then the waiter came around again- and he became clearly UPSET- though he did his best to conceal his feelings. ‘Why did you change MASU’ ?, he asked revealing his annoyance. I noticed his gaze shifting accusingly between the wooden MASU and the woman`s face.
Like a flash of satori I realized then that it was not only because lacquer boxes were pretty were they given to ladies. There was surely some OTHER, more pressing reason!
I went ahead and asked the waiter straight out- What`s the problem with her having the wooden one?
He once again focused on our female friend`s face. “Its lip-stick”!, he said. ” If it gets on the wood, it seeps into the wood and doesn`t come out” !
Luckily, our friend wasn`t wearing a drop of make-up, and the waiter was relieved not to have lost a precious MASU- and I came to understand why I have always seen women getting the pretty lacquered box-cups.
So remember- if you are a woman and would like to experience the fragrance of the cypress wood with your sake- insist on being given a plain wooden MASU- BUT MAKE SURE TO SHOW THEM YOUR LIPS ARE LIPSTICK FREE!