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Bottled water: It’s naughty, but nice

by Nicholas Coldicott

I know, I know, bottled water is terribly unethical these days. Pinching a natural, life-sustaining resource and flying it to rich people in faraway lands is a bit naughty, all that packaging is trashing our planet, and our taps dispense safe water for less than ¥1 per liter — or a little more than 7,200 times cheaper than Fillico, the spring water from Kobe that comes in Swarovski crystal-studded bottles (¥5,250 for 720 ml).

Though Fillico is at the this-marketing- lark-is-such-a-breeze- these-chumps-will- buy-anything end of the spectrum, there are over 500 other brands of bottled water in Japan, and last year alone we gave them ¥190 billion for a liquid that they told us was pure and natural and clean and glacial and crammed with minerals we’ve never heard of but need.

Mineral water has been on sale in Japan since at least 1880, when an ad in the Tokyo Illustrated Newspaper offered a bottle of Yamashiro Soda Water for one fifth of a yen. Yamashiro didn’t exactly take Japan by storm, and for the next 90 years the country showed little interest in paying for portions of H2O.

Things changed a little in 1967 when whisky distiller Nikka introduced Nikka Mineral Water for fancy hotels and restaurants to make their mizuwari (whisky and water). Suntory Mineral Water arrived three years later on a similar mission, but the bottled water frenzy really kicked off in 1983 as curry-makers House Foods launched Rokko No Oishii Mizu as a chaser for their boil-in-the-bag curries.

Rokko became a popular item for summer gift sets, and Japan’s gourmet-loving media lavished it with attention. House Foods still sells Rokko No Oishii Mizu — it’s that ¥140, 2 liter bottle you sneer at as you reach for the Volvic.

The French invasion began in 1982 with Perrier, soon joined by Evian and Volvic, and their fancy packaging, foreign allure and marketing muscle helped create a thirst for imported water. Last year we guzzled nearly 600 million liters of the foreign stuff.

And I know it’s terribly unethical, but last Tuesday I took my lady friend for a night at Artica, a bar in Yoyogi, Tokyo, that stocks 48 varieties of bottled water. It also serves alcohol, but nothing exciting.

We started with Qual, an ultrahard water from the Izu Peninsula. It has a hardness rating of 1,425 (which measures the calcium and magnesium content), putting it on a par with Contrex. Qual claims to be rich in negative ions, so it’s probably healthy, but it tastes inky and the lady refused to drink it.

“It doesn’t taste like water,” she said. “It doesn’t go down smoothly and I can’t really swallow it.”

The lady liked Jamnica, a naturally sparkling, citrusy water pulled from a half kilometer beneath Croatian soil.

“Tastes like cider,” she said, exaggerating.

You could order a Jamnica in a cafe on a summer afternoon and not feel as though you’ve succumbed to the great water-marketing racket — water like this doesn’t come from any tap.

Jana is another Croatian water, from virtually the same source as Jamnica, but it tastes completely different. Jana has a bitterness that outstays its welcome, although it won the top award at the Aqua Expo in Paris in 2005, so clearly I’m wrong.

Artica’s menu has notes to help you select a water. But rather than describing flavors (taste is subjective, says the bartender correctly), the texts delve into the various health benefits of each drink.

Ippai Sui from Japan is good for your kidneys, thanks to its odorless extract of turmeric. Kikori No Wake Mae, also from Japan, will boost your metabolism because its extraordinary softness makes the molecules easier to absorb (it’s rated just 2 on the hardness scale). And poor Awa Shinsui, Japan’s only naturally sparkling water and the most stylishly packaged domestic drink at Artica, is described as the water of choice to ease chronic constipation.

A bottle of Dr. Grace has oodles of vanadium, a friendly metal found in unusually high concentrations around Mount Fuji, where Dr. Grace is sourced. The lady remembers vanadium as a health buzzword from about a decade ago and believes it may reduce blood-sugar levels. The talk of illnesses and ailments made me wonder about my intake of vanadium and natrium, magnesium, anions and calcium, before the bartender reassured us that drinking too much hard water was as bad as too little. He told us of a water-drinking contest that resulted in natrium poisoning of the contestants.

I switched to whisky.

Artica offers water and spirit pairing suggestions: A Crown Royal works with Canadian Icefield water, they say, and Grey Goose goes well with French Vals or Thonon water. I tried a Speyside Glenlivet water with a Glenlivet 12 Years Old (similar names, similar sources, different companies), which seemed to suit each other. I tried the same whisky with Croatia’s Jana, which was awful.

I know it’s a bit poncy to be picky about the water for your mizuwari. And yes, it’s all terribly unethical. But you can tut-tut all you like; the lady bought two crates of Jamnica the next day, which is a drop in the ocean of Japan’s 2.5-billion liter-per- year habit, and I’ve organized a bottled water tournament with some local tasting experts. I’ll tell you the results in next month’s column.

Artica is at 2F 1-41-3 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; open 11 a.m.-2.30 p.m. and 6 p.m.-2 a.m (closed Sun.). For more information call (03) 3320-3217 or visit www.waterbar.jp