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Ultimate guide to boozing in Japan

by Stephen Mansfield

DRINKING JAPAN: A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments, by Chris Bunting, Tuttle Publishing, 2011, 272 pp., $24.95 (paper)

I don’t recall who wrote the line “If Venice is built on water, Tokyo is built on alcohol,” but the author was spot on. Its not only the capital, but the entire country — from the breweries of northern Hokkaido to the tiny distillery I made a thirsty visit to on Hateruma-jima, Japan’s most southerly island — that engages in a keen appreciation of drinking. If Ireland has a pub on every street corner, as they say, Japan has a watering hole wherever people congregate.

The Japanese take their drinking seriously. This is a country that makes a good deal more than fermented cocoa leaf and banana rum. If quality and diversity are the sine qua non of a highly advanced, urbane society, the book’s contention that Japan offers the world’s finest drinking milieu is persuasively supported.

English journalist, Chris Bunting, brings some intriguing factuality to his subject. During the prohibition years in America, for example, we learn that Japan was able to import cheap, secondhand equipment from disabled U.S. breweries and wineries. Contrary to my belief that the sweet potato came to Japan via Dutch ships from Batavia, the writer sets the record straight, telling us that the vegetable, an essential ingredient of shochu, was first planted in Kyushu by the Englishman Richard Cocks in 1615. And did you know that the famously prickly and particular existentialist, Jean-Paul-Sartre, was an admirer of Japanese whisky?

The guide is rich in anecdotes. Bunting meets the sake writer Hisao Nagayama, who, on the subject of unrefined brews, recalls how his parents kept an illicit home concoction in a ceiling space above the toilet, the reek masking the smell of alcohol from the noses of officialdom.

Apparently, quite a number of sake makers, in the belief that it enhances the process, play music while the alcohol is fermenting. The Onna distillery in Okinawa places jars of awamori under the sea for a day, producing what they believe to be a more rounded, mellow Shinkai (deep sea) brand. This reminded me of the endearing eccentricities of certain wine makers in Saint Emilion, a prestige wine growing division of Bordeaux. While living in southwest France I heard of wine cultivators known to set up camp beds next to their vats so that they could observe the overnight progress of fermentation; near one winery, a small chapel had been converted into a tasting room, and one well-known vintner was said to be so dedicated to his work that he literally slept on it, his bedroom situated directly above the chateaux’s main vats.

Having spent an entire year on the road researching the book, Bunting’s credentials are unassailable, his bar listings and sampling recommendations intimate, tested. Along the way, the writer meets some unique characters: the bartender who dons a deer stalker if he senses you might be English; the establishment in Nakano run by a Buddhist priest; the cheerful women — all of a certain age, as the French say — who serve drinks at a Shinjuku izakaya.

There are food tidbit suggestions: bars serving imported cheeses that blend gloriously with the right sake, advice on where you can sample spicy miso and boar’s meat alongside shochu. There is even a profile of a bar where the counter, decor and shot glass you are handed on arrival, are all made of ice. Customers are issued with a cape and gloves in what must be the coolest thing this side of Helsinki, though the cover charge will burn a hole in your pocket.

One of the merits of this guide is that it is thoroughly opinionated. Bunting laments, for example, the consumer habits of mainstream Japanese drinkers, who are “so used to regarding beer as a relatively tasteless and inoffensive thirst quencher that the exciting diversity of styles that is now coming out of the tiny craft beer sector” has hardly made a dent in the market, 99 percent of which is dominated by the bland, though agreeable social lubricants of the big name companies. Habushu, an expensive, much-prized spirit, supposedly enriched by the corpse of a dead pit viper, is dismissed as “moldy, foul-tasting,” a view I can corroborate, having nursed a thumping headache after a couple of glasses of the sickly snake medicine.

Bunting’s work steers the reader toward altogether finer tastes.