Going with the Grain

This time of year in Japan, sake drinking becomes a national pursuit. As the ubiquitous cherry blossoms briefly turn the country pink, clusters of friends and relatives converge to claim squares of picnic space beneath the trees. They admire the blooms, sing songs and devour delicacies, but mostly they get uproariously drunk on cup after cup of sake.

Like most Japanese, I grew up around sake. The clear rice liquor—a fermented product somewhat similar to wine—infuses many important holidays and traditions here, not to mention poetry and cuisine. My father, an American who has lived in Japan...

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