Garrett DeOrio reviews Chris Bunting’s Drinking Japan
I tend to approach tomes of this genre with a fair dose of skepticism as they often fall into one of two categories, even when they’re not bad: a. strong on one drink or area, weak on the others, or b. written by authors who don’t know the turf and focus on spots tourists would find anyway.
Thankfully, my skepticism was dispelled within moments of cracking the cover on Chris Bunting’s attractive new release. He included a few places I know and love (which shows he has good taste!) and listed many more I either didn’t know or hadn’t tried. What better way to give a drink or travel book a fair shake than to road test it?
Bunting’s motivating premise, as he sets forth in his introduction is, simply, that “Japan. . . [is] the best place to drink alcohol in the world.”
He allows that the denizens and partisans of other capitals might be irritated by his proposition and grants them their due. He’s being too nice – those who put forth other locales, especially other cities against Tokyo (where the majority of the bars Bunting includes are located), simply don’t get it, which is why his book is so welcome.
Drinking Japan reads like a travel book – not a touring handbook, mind you, but a travel book, replete with anecdotes and impressions, which not only gives the reader a better idea of what they might be getting into, but also allows Bunting to establish a voice. And that voice is one that will make most readers feel like having a beer, or a whisky, or a glass of wine, or shochu, or awamori, or sake, or even makkori, with the man.
After a brief introduction to Japan’s drinking culture, complete with both a few warnings for the neophyte (or for those who just haven’t yet learned their lessons) and some history, Drinking Japan is divided up into chapters based on the sort of drink each of the 112 establishments he includes specializes in or is most-worth going for. These being: Sake, Shochu, Awamori, Beer, Whisky, Wine, and then others. Each of the seven drink-centered chapters is preceded by an introduction to the drink and its history and place in Japan’s tippling milieu.
The drink chapters are followed by a chapter on liquor stores and other retail establishments and a brief appendix on “Bar Japanese”.
Drinking Japan is focused on the good stuff and written for people who are interested in drinking, as opposed to people who just drink. While not every place he includes is pricey, this is far from a guide for the budget traveler. If you believe that you get what you pay for or don’t mind paying more for better drinks and good atmosphere, Bunting has something you’ll like, if not 112 things. On the other hand, if a cheap happoshu nomi-hodai is all you want out of your drinking life or don’t care how knowledgeable the bartender is or how friendly the clientele might be, you probably won’t get much from his work.
As with any effort of this breadth, Drinking Japan has a handful of minor shortcomings. First and foremost is geography: Of the 112 establishments included, 75 are in central Tokyo and a further nine are lumped together in “West Tokyo”. Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city, rates only two entries – both beer bars. The entire Tohoku and Chubu regions merit just one each: Sendai’s Isshin and Takayama’s Pub Red Hill, which means Japan’s fourth-largest city, Nagoya, is overlooked entirely. Likewise, the entire island of Kyushu is represented only by two shochu bars in Kagoshima – nada for the Fukuoka metropolis – and lovely Shikoku is passed by.
Being centered on the drinks themselves, the book also omits a number of neighborhoods known for their charm more than their pure liquid gourmet appeal, although he does include the venerable Lion Ginza 7-chome (the old one) solely for its mosaic and its place in history. Similarly, the inclusion of the cheap izakaya Kaasan – a chain shop for the cheap gourmand and notable for its ability to host sizable parties seems odd. Nothing wrong with the place, and its branches tend to have a more relaxed atmosphere and fewer screaming kids than other chains, but it does raise a question: Why Kaasan and not any of the numerous more worthy entries of the same sort?
That said, I still eagerly took a number of Bunting’s recommendations and largely agreed with him. He doesn’t mind spending a bit at times, but he knows whereof he speaks, gets the details right, and won’t steer you wrong.
If you’re unfamiliar with Japan, especially Tokyo (and that seems to be the target audience), Drinking Japan is a great place to start. If you live here, you’ll still find some new gems.
If you pick it up and decide to try it out, let us know. If you have a beloved haunt Bunting missed, let us know about that, too. Heck, invite us to try it out with you sometime. (We bark a lot, but we rarely bite. Except for that one time, and Pellegrini is really sorry about that.)
by Chris Bunting
Tuttle, US$24.95/2,130 yen (may vary), 272 pgs.
Entered in the ‘Whiskies – Other’ category, Suntory’s Single Malt Yamazaki 1984 won one of several gold medals awarded to whiskey distillers from around the world. Later on, in a second round of blind tasting by several international judges, Yamazaki 1984 was awarded top prize in the category.
While this category does not include Scotch, which has a category of its own, Yamazaki 1984 beat out major competition from several Irish labels (Jameson, Bushmills, etc.) in taking the trophy.
Suntory was then awarded “Distiller of the Year” honors for its contributions to the global spirits industry. And on top of that, Yamazaki 1984 came away with the “Supreme Champion Spirit” award. Both honors are a first for a Japanese distiller and product, respectively.
Yamazaki 1984 sells for nearly 100,000 yen per bottle (700ml) in Japan, and Suntory actually had several other entries in the same category that were also assigned gold medals by the auditors.
Asahi also managed to score two gold medals for Japan in the same category with its “Taketsuru 21 y.o.” and “Yoichi 15 y.o.” labels.
Japanese cocktail recipes for beginners
Despite being home to some of the best bartenders in the world (by now many will have heard of Hidetsugu Ueno, bartender at the legendary Bar High Five or Kazuo Uyeda, purveyor of the ‘hard shake’) Japan is better known for its beer and its sake than for its cocktails. Even Japanese whisky enjoys a higher profile thanks to Bill Murray and a certain Suntory Limited.
Enter Yuki Kato. In her new book, Japanese Cocktails, Kato makes the case for Japan to be taken seriously as not only a cocktail loving culture, but also as a destination for those seeking to experience the unique flavor of ingredients like ume, yuzu and shiso.
The book is organized into four sections: sake cocktails, shochu cocktails, whisky cocktails, and cocktails made with other ingredients such as rum or vodka. Along the way, we encounter Japanese standards such as the Hinomaru (sake and umeboshi), the Oolong Hai (barley shochu with oolong tea) as well as curios like the Tokyo Dome (barley shochu, apple juice, lemon juice and ginger ale) and the Oyaji (whisky soda with the additions of a slice of orange and maraschino cherries).
From the outset, Kato demonstrates that she is able to discuss Japanese concepts of balance and seasonal produce in a way that is readily accessible. Although raised in Japan, she understands her audience may not be familiar with ingredients such as shichimi togarashi (a Japanese mixed spice) and writes for those with little or no knowledge of Japan or it’s drinking culture.
“Drinking,” she writes in her introduction, “is an intrinsic part of traditional Japanese family culture. Many homes include a well-stocked liquor cabinet with Japanese whisky, Scotch, bourbon, sake, and shochu. Sometimes you’ll find a case of domestic beer, but alcohol like wine or chu-hai, canned cocktails, are not typically kept on hand.”
Here, Kato also points out some of the essential differences between Japanese cocktails and their western equivalents. She notes that Japanese cocktails are, by and large, light on alcohol. She quite rightly observes that “It is not a Japanese custom to drink without eating, so there are not many bars that serve alcohol without food in Japan. Paring food and cocktails may be new in some countries, but not in Japan”. Readers may be forgiven, then, for wondering why Kato did not complete this thought by adding food pairings to her recipes.
The recipes themselves are, on the whole, mercifully straightforward. Those seeking a challenge, however, may want to look toward the Hotate-zake (“In a small saucepan over medium heat, add butter, scallop, and rosemary and heat for 1 to 2 minutes”) or the Bubble Shooter (remember to marinate those salmon eggs overnight!)
Alongside are brief snippets of cultural background, and while well chosen, there’s not a great deal of depth. There are passages on baseball in Japan, Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market and cherry blossom season, but few of these go beyond the tourist brochures. Nevertheless, there are also some great little tidbits of information scattered throughout the book, such as the fact that the Kamiya Bar in Asakusa, Tokyo lays claim to being the oldest bar in Japan (1880).
The book’s structure make a good deal of sense – the four sections are easy to navigate and let’s face it, this is the kind of book you dip into rather than read from cover to cover. Still, international readers might question which cocktails are commonly found on Japanese menus, which are unique to particular Japanese bars, and those that are Kato’s own original recipes.
Japanese Cocktails’ credits afford copyright to Suntory International Corp. As a result, some parts of the book feel like an ad campaign. Unsurprisingly, this is particularly the case in the whisky section, where the history of Japanese whisky may as well be the history of the company.
Japanese Cocktails is a good English-language introduction to the world of Japanese drink culture. Those new to sake and shochu are going to want it on their coffee tables. Those with a serious interest in the history of Japanese cocktail culture, however, will be hoping Kato’s follow-up explores the subject in greater detail.
Mixed Drinks with Sake, Shochu, Whisky and More
by Yuri Kato
Illustrated, 96 pages
Chronicle Books, 1,384 yen
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