Let's Get Nerdy About Japanese Sake in Ghost Of Tsushima

By Brian Ashcraft on at

This weekend, I stayed up far too late playing Ghost of Tsushima. I’m having a blast and think it’s good fun. But as a Japanese sake nerd, there were several things I quickly noticed.

Note: This article contains some light spoilers.

Besides being fortunate enough to work at Kotaku, I also write books about various things, such as Japanese tattoos, whisky, and sake. With my forthcoming sake book fresh in my mind (you can pre-order right here!), I kept wondering if Ghost of Tsushima would use a sake brewery as a location. It did.

In the game, Jin meets sake brewer Kenji and, before going on several side missions for the colorful character, you can check out his brewery. I was especially keen to see how Sucker Punch recreated one in 13th century Japan.

Upon entering into the brewery, you can see several large kioke or wooden tubs for brewing. If you visit, for example, the Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum in Kobe or the Kinyro Sake Museum in Kagawa, you’d see kioke like these.

Some breweries, such as Aramasa in Akita (pictured) still brew in kioke. Most other breweries don’t and use modern tanks.

However, during the late 13th century, big wooden tubs were not used for brewing. Instead, earthenware urns called kame were used because sake brewers in Japan did not yet have the necessary woodworking technology to make large kioke that didn’t leak sake all over the floor.

(Urns do appear elsewhere in the game, but are found next to houses and seem to be for holding water and not sake.)

Below are sake urns from the Sawanotsuru Museum in Kobe’s Nada brewing district. Due to their size, it was not possible to brew large amounts of sake with kame.

But making big wooden brewing tubs didn’t happen until the carpenter’s plane and large saws were imported from China during the 15th century. These tools made it possible to craft large wooden tubs, and the adaptation of kioke led to sake-brewing on a big scale—mass production, really. So, the technology that is being shown in-game is off by centuries.

Coopers fix a wooden tub at Kenbishi in Kobe’s Nada brewing district.

This isn’t the only historically inaccurate sake-making tech in the brewery. As seen below, there is a sake press known as tenbin shibori on which rocks are balanced with a long beam. The weight of the rocks pulls the beam down, slowing pushing down on stack bags of unpressed sake in a rectangular box.

You cannot see the rocks in Kenji’s brewery, but you can see the rope from which they would be balanced. This technology would not become common until the Edo Period (1603–1868). Actually, I think it’s more likely that the sake Kenji would make wouldn’t even be pressed. His brewery has a rather advanced setup, but considering the time period, a guy like him might be making doburoku, or unpressed sake, instead.

Using this kind of press takes considerably more time than the modern automatic sake presses the majority of breweries use today. Some, like at Miyako Bijin on Awaji Island (pictured), still do this time-consuming method, but most tenbin shibori presses are relics in brewery museums.

Other items pop up in Kenji’s brewery, such as wooden dakidaru. These are canisters used to regulate temperature while brewing. Though, their shape is somewhat incorrect as they should fan out slightly at the top. I imagine the uniform cylindrical shape was to cut some necessary corners on the development end.

These wooden canisters are associated with centuries after the game takes place, but can be seen in brewery museums. The Kenbishi brewery (below) still makes the dakidaru it uses to brew out of wood.

Now, none of these sake-nerd nitpicks detract from Ghost of Tsushima itself. Rather, for me, it provides a window into what the game’s artists were looking at for reference materials—namely, they do appear to be looking at old sake-making tools, but ones that weren’t old enough. However, many people, in Japan as well, would equate this technology with old-timey sake making, even though it’s far more advanced than when the game takes place.

So, in that regard, parts of this game are trying to meet expectations—accurate or not. If the game had depicted an actual 13th-century sake brewery, nerds like me would go, wow, they did some incredibly deep research. But regular folks might think it’s now how they’ve come to picture old sake breweries. It’s certainly what they see when they visit brewery museums.

As has been pointed out online, there are other historical inaccuracies, and the game evokes later centuries. To get really nerdy, the style of hat pictured below dates to around the Muromachi Era (1336–1573), which is after the game takes place. Even with the historical misses, the Nagasaki tourism industry has embraced the game, creating a website so that people can visit real-world locations that appeared in the game. Even if you are not a sake or a history nerd, there are other ways that the game is inaccurate—ways that most Japanese would quickly know is a distortion of reality and might even help them suspend their disbelief. This is clearly fantasy.

For example, as evident by the continuously falling leaves, the game is set in autumn. But, in the forests, you will come across bamboo shoots, which you would find in the spring, not the fall.

In another mission, you have to follow what’s referred to as “blue flowers” in English, but in Japanese, they are called ajisai or Japanese hydrangea (see above). These flowers bloom in June and July in Japan. Below, you can see both bamboo shoots and Japanese hydrangea next to each other, which I don’t think is possible! They’re only a short horse ride away from falling leaves. Fireflies also appear in the game, and as they’re seen in the summer in Japan, I do wonder if the developers were intentionally compressing the seasons, but leaning most in fall for the larger motif. The same could be true for the armour and the sake making.

People in Japan are fully aware of when these flowers bloom and the hallmarks of the season. But even if that’s too subtle, the characters do speak with a modern sensibility. Think about how English sounded in the 1200s. Now, imagine how different Japanese would sound. The Japanese dialogue in the game is not hard to follow, and that’s the point.

Ghost of Tsushima does evoke a highly romanticised idea of Japan, whether that’s through samurai lore, flower-covered landscapes, or wooden tubs of sake. This isn’t reality, but a depiction of a reality. Ghost of Tsushima does give the feeling that the developers, working closely with Sony Japan, have done their research, even if the historical and cultural elements feel compressed, streamlined, and sometimes, inaccurate.

A lot of what the developers appear to be drawing upon, as evident by the game’s Kurosawa Mode, is Japanese cinema and not Japanese history. And like many Japanese movies, this is not a documentary, it’s fiction, and I’m not convinced 100 per cent historic accuracy is even the goal.

All images: Brian Ashcraft