It’s that time of year when opportunities to reach for a glass, tumbler or ochoko (おちょこ, sake cup) increase by the evening, while days continue to be crammed with duties, professional and otherwise.
That’s what shiwasu (師走, the old calendar name for December) is all about — when everyone is so harried that even teachers hotfoot it (hence the kanji, shi 師, teacher; and wasu or hashiru, 走, to run). The more colloquial term for this time of year, however, is: ketsu ni hi ga tsuku toki (けつに火がつくとき, when your backside is on fire).
With alcohol coming on top of work, we are reminded to nomu maeni nomu (飲む前に飲む, take a digestive solution or pill before drinking) and to control the drinking so as to make it home OK on the train — and show up for a commitment-packed day of work the next morning. The trick is to make sure you’re the one in charge and not the other way around: sake ni nomareruna (酒に飲まれるな, don’t let the sake drink you up) is a time-honored phrase uttered before millions of nomikai (飲み会 drinking parties) since time immemorial. And take it from one who knows, it pays to listen to this stuff.
That said, the Japanese temperament is way too fond of alcohol to stick by the maxim. In Tokyo, 24-hour drinking establishments are nothing rare, and these joints become breakfast stops past 6 a.m. (for a hair of the dog, of course), morph into liquid luncheries past 11 before, around 3 p.m., launching into another endless round of beer and shochu and everyone’s favorite cheap otsumami (おつまみ, finger food) — maguro natto (まぐろ納豆, raw tuna chunks nestled under a mound of fermented soybeans). On one occasion, I was at such a place just as dawn was breaking; I walked into the ladies room and beheld three girls dressed to the nines and stretched out in deep sleep on the cold, dirty floor.
Still, it’s said that young Japanese aren’t drinking as much as they once they did, and try to avoid the obligatory shigotokei no nomikai (仕事系の飲み会, work-related drinking parties) like the plague. They just don’t want the hassle of drinking with bosses and colleagues, and would much rather go home to play games on their mobile phones or hit the gym. Back in the day, there was a ritual called ikkinomi (一気飲み, downing a huge stein of beer in one swallow) and many a shinjin shain (新人社員, rookie employee) was made to do this. If the shinjin-kun (新人君, new kid) happened to play rugby or football in college, this sort of thing was right up his alley. If not, the results were often disastrous. Every shiwasu, ambulances cart off people suffering from kyūsei arukōru chūdoku (急性アルコール中毒, sudden alcohol poisoning), and many die before reaching the hospital. Recently the numbers have dropped off; more people have become aware of aruhara (アルハラ, alcohol harassment) and that forcing alcohol on others is against the law. So bosses today are more understanding, and they’re also far less inclined to foot the bill for massive busho no nomikai (部署の飲み会, departmental drinking parties). In many ways, drinking has become more of a personal affair.
But some customs die hard. A survey by this writer, for instance, has found that 99 out of 100 people order beer as their first drink — the phrase “toriaezu bīru” (「とりあえずビール」 “beer to start with”) is such a standard line that people say it in their sleep.
The most popular beer of the year is Kirin’s Nodogoshi Nama, which sold over 10 billion units! With the increase of uchinomi (家のみ, drinking at home), there’s a new tendency to indulge more bottles/cans of one’s preferred meigara (銘柄, brand) in the comfort of home than in bars and izakaya (居酒屋, pubs). Says a friend, whose wife became so alarmed at his increasing girth that she put a ban on uchinomi altogether: “What am I supposed to do?” “Dōyatte sutoresu hassan sureba iiwake?” (「どうやってストレス発散すればいいわけ」”How am I to deal with stress?”) We hear you, man.
I suggested switching to the new crop of karorī ofu bīru (カロリーオフビール, calorie-off beer) and even the fake beers with zero alcohol, but Kanda says: “Yappari honmono ja naito nonda kiga shinai” (「やっぱり本物じゃないと飲んだ気がしない」”It doesn’t feel right unless it’s the real thing”).
Speaking of real, since the March disaster more people have developed a taste for Tohoku jizake (locally distilled sake) to support the small, tradition-steeped sake houses in the northeast. Also known as junmaishu (pure rice sake), these contain only three ingredients — water, rice, and kōji (麹, fermented rice) — and there are many who claim it’s the nectar of the gods. It’s only in the last 10 years or so that junmaishu has reached the general drinking public, since before, pure sake was an often inaccessible luxury. At this point in time, a glass of junmaishu costs about the same as a grande size of cappuccino. Ii jidai ni nattanā (いい時代になったなあ, It’s a good time to be alive).