Food & Drink

What not to do at a nomihodai

by Emma Brooke

Special To The Japan Times

One of the first phrases you should learn when you set foot in Japan, before all the trivial stuff like “excuse me” and “where’s the hospital?,” is “nomihōdai.” The holy grail of budget boozing, it’s an all-you-can-drink offer, provided in many Japanese clubs and bars, for a fixed price and period of time. It is also regarded by a certain sort as an opportunity to get seriously sozzled while trying not to die or spend the evening sleeping in a ditch.

Back when I set out to experience this phenomenon for the first time I was, well, a little confused. Coming from Britain, where all-you-can-drink isn’t so much a good offer, but rather a direct challenge to see how many gin & tonics you can consume without your liver exploding, I couldn’t quite believe it was true. In my mind, the results would be catastrophic. Surely every Friday night Tokyo must be full of blokes with bloody noses and women flashing their knickers while vomiting in bus shelters?

Eager to see a famously reserved population descend into a night of booze-fueled debauchery, I grabbed a couple of fellow newbies and headed out to a little place in Tokyo’s Koenji district named Captain Bacchus, where for a mere ¥980, customers are given night-long access to an endless barrel of wine. And though I was slightly afraid that some of the less-experienced drinkers might meet an untimely death, the prospect of discovering such a Dionysian wonderland was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

As the clock struck 10 p.m., we settled in for a good old-fashioned night of boozing. A few glasses later, heartfelt conversations about our hopes and dreams slowly descended into a succession of drinking games and one extremely high-stakes bet on whether our friend at the bar would ever notice the wedding ring being worn by the woman he’d been chatting up for the past 30 minutes. Another hour or so passed and I found myself awakening on a very comfortable tatami mat that, a little while earlier, I had decided would make an excellent place to nap. OK, I was a little embarrassed — but how bad could it be? I mean, there’s a never-ending supply of wine! There had to be several other poor souls who have unwittingly succumbed to the evil clutches of the all too familiar “red wine coma.”

Or maybe not. Throughout the night, our more experienced Japanese counterparts managed a level of self-restraint that is somewhat alien to someone who has consumed beer through a funnel on multiple occasions. They did have a good time, but when things started to get a little too hazy, they wisely decided it might be time to head home (or at least fall asleep on a bench near the train station).

For the Japanese, nomihōdai is an integral part of contemporary culture, with many people heading down to the local izakaya (Japanese pubs) on a regular basis with their colleagues and friends. The concept boomed as an offshoot of the all-you-can-eat “Viking” buffet concept, inspired by the Swedish smorgasbord and imported to Tokyo in the late 1950s. For the locals it was all in a day’s work and they knew when it was time to call it a night. I, on the other hand decided that, despite the fact I was lying in a puddle of drool, it was time for karaoke.

Now, when people mention doing karaoke in Tokyo, what comes to mind are “Lost in Translation”-esque images of partygoers enjoying an evening of carefree sing-along frivolity in front of a futuristic neon skyline. You don’t imagine a dark, dingy room with a sticky floor and a balding English teacher dancing on a table as he slurs his way through “My Sharona.”

An hour or so in, things turned ugly. After a rather emotional rendition of Disney’s “A Whole New World,” the fella who’d been singing the part of Aladdin had gone AWOL and Jasmine, a lovely American girl who wasn’t usually a big drinker, had begun emptying the contents of her stomach into three beer glasses and showed no signs of stopping. The party was most definitely over, and as the designated “female who could still walk,” I was to ensure her safe passage home while the boys embarked on what would become a citywide manhunt for Aladdin.

Climbing into the taxi, I knew two things. First, my friend was going to vomit again. Second, this must be hidden from the driver at all costs. Things were looking good. I’d sacrificed my beautiful vintage scarf to the cause and initial mishaps had been disguised in the form of a chesty cough. However, Mr. Cab Driver soon got wise, and slammed on the brakes while screaming in a torrent of angry Japanese.

While most people would turn on their best Japanese-language skills and apologize profusely, I, being a little the worse for wear, opted for the alternative “look confused, throw some money, and run away” scenario.

Now I can hear you all scolding me for taking the “easy way out,” while managing to single-handedly give all foreigners a bad name. But you try crouching down behind some shrubbery as you’re stalked by a vengeful taxi driver, all the while wondering how on earth you’ll get a combination of red wine and mud out of a very expensive coat.