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Mixed Blessings

SakéOne hosts Kura Blessing, Japan disaster fundraiser
by: Chase Allgood Reverend Koichi Barrish leads a Kura Blessing at SakéOne in Forest Grove in 2009. This year, the event will include a fundraiser for Japan.

Forest Grove's SakéOne brewery has been a fixture for promoting Japanese culture since opening in 1997. Now, as businesses and organizations around the globe rally to provide relief funding to victims of Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami - which left an estimated 18,000 dead - SakéOne is using its role as a purveyor of Japanese culture to help make a difference.

This Saturday, the brewery will hold its annual Kura Blessing, a ceremony with ancient roots in Japanese spirituality designed to cleanse the brewery for the year to come. The annual ceremony has long been a draw for people curious about the cultural aspects of the beloved rice wine.

This year, it will also serve as a fundraiser for Mercy Corps' relief efforts in Japan, with a collection being taken and 10 percent of tasting room sales benefiting humanitarian aid.

'This certainly is a point of ... understanding not only Japan a little bit more, but a chance to come together for relief efforts and to pause during all of this and remember what's going and pay our respects for those who are working just to survive over there right now,' said SakéOne vice president of marketing Dewey Weddington.

Saké has deep roots in the Japanese Shinto religion. During the ceremony, Reverend Koichi Barrish of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Granite Falls, Wash., performs a ceremony in both Japanese and English, splashing saké in the brewery's corners to purge it of evil spirits.

'The reason he empties a bottle of saké and splatters it in the corners of the brewery is for any evil entities or spirits that might be lingering, he gives them saké so they'll get drunk and go away happy,' said Weddington.

Thunderous performance

Following the ceremony, attendees are treated to saké as well as a thunderous performance by Takohachi, a group specializing in traditional Japanese drumming and dance.

Early in the brewery's life, the event attracted only a handful of people. Now, Weddington said, it draws upwards of 150 people to the small space - a number Weddington expects to see rise due to the event's links to the disaster.

'In the past, attendees would be the mayor of Forest Grove, our brewer and plant manager and friends and family,' said Weddington. 'We brought it out to raise cultural awareness and awareness of what we do and to pay respect to the roots of our product. We're Americans brewing saké, but we definitely keep ties to the history and our roots, and this is a great way to do it.'

SakéOne tasting room manager Joann Takabayashi said the event offers a unique opportunity to forge a further understanding of Japanese culture, which has strong roots in the Shinto tradition and its ceremonies. The Kura Blessing is just one example of the brewery's commitment to infusing tradition into its products.

'It's just like spring cleaning. You clean up, bring in something new and it's just such a great way to start,' said Takabayashi. 'In the Japanese culture there is a lot of spirituality, and then to bring in something that makes you happy, and that's saké. Japanese folks believe it brings people together.'

The event also offers patrons the opportunity to understand the spiritual side of the drink itself, which has been used in Shinto ceremonies for centuries. Weddington said people often overlook the deep cultural roots of saké, but once their curiosities are piqued, they yearn to learn more about its rich history.

'Most people think of saké as that hot liquid. They know it's from Japan, but that's all that shows up on most people's radar,' said Weddington. 'As people get turned on to saké and start wanting to learn more about it, like they do with wine, they want to know where it came from, and Shinto will always come up.

'It takes a level of interest beyond the surface to understand the cultural ties and history.'

'Big hearts'

In the aftermath of the catastrophic disaster abroad, both Weddington and Takabayashi said the organization was eager to dive headlong into fundraising efforts for Japan. With the Kura Blessing already on the calendar, the group says the event as an opportunity to kick off its efforts with something already designed to raise awareness of Japanese culture. The Kura Blessing, Takabayashi said, is just the first of many humanitarian efforts the group is planning, though at press time it was too early to disclose details.

'People out here have such big hearts and everybody wants to be part of this relief and give out a lending hand because it's so catastrophic,' said Takabayashi. 'This is going to be our way of kicking off our relief for Japan.'

Moreover, Takabayashi said the event could serve to bring people together under the shared interest of Japanese history and culture. In such a turbulent time, she said a fundraising effort with positive cultural overtones is a great way to bring people together through compassion, spirituality, cultural traditions and, of course, saké.

'It's just a great way to understand how the Japanese culture does things, and how they make it into a community event,' said Takabayashi. 'These blessings always become a community event to see, to enjoy, to be a part of.'

The SakéOne Kura Blessing is a free event, and donations will be accepted for humanitarian relief in Japan. To learn more, call 503-357-7056 or visit SakéOne.com.