Japan Eats

Book Review: “Drinking Japan”

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.

Drinking Japan

Drinking Japan by Chris Bunting

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.)

Drinking Japan
by Chris Bunting
Tuttle, US$24.95/2,130 yen (may vary), 272 pgs.

Recipe: Apple compote with red wine and vanilla ice cream

How bout them apples?

Most people are familiar with the  pear compote. A simple dish consisting of pears slow cooked in sugar, water, wine and spices, it’s a dessert which never goes out of date.

What people may not know, however, is that apples work just as well as pears. Here, we’ll be preparing a version which makes use of Japanese apples.

These come in many varieties: Fuji, Kogyoku, Tsugaru and Jona gold. For the purposes of this dish, use a Fuji apple. Its sour flavor will better compliment the sweetness of the syrup and whatever creamy goodness you serve alongside it.

Apple compote with red wine and vanilla ice cream

Apple compote with red wine and vanilla ice cream

Ingredients (serves two people)

  • 1 apple (400g)
  • 100g sugar
  • 250 ml water
  • 100 ml red wine
  • 1 clove
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/2 liter water
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • ice cream/yogurt/marscapone

Method

Peel the apple and then slice it into 4 – 6 wedges, disposing of the core. Add the teaspoon of salt to the half-liter of water, then place the apple pieces into the liquid.

Pour the sugar into a pan together with 250 ml of water. Place the pan on a low heat so that the sugar dissolves. Next, put the apples into the pan, and gently cook for 15 – 20 minutes.

Add the clove, the cinnamon and the red wine and stir. Cook the mixture for a further 3 minutes.

Turn off the heat and allow the mixture to cool. After 12 to 24 hours, the apples should have absorbed the red wine and changed color. When you’re satisfied the apples are ready, take them out of the pan and slice them again (optional).

Place the an back onto a low heat and warm it slowly. Once it has thickened, it can be used as a sauce.

Plate the apples and serve with a dollop of ice cream, yogurt or marscapone. Pour a tablespoon of the sauce over the apples.

Bar review: La Cave Idéale (Kagurazaka)

This wine shop doubles as a standing wine bar and is open from 11:00 to 24:00 every day. Three round tables in the center of the shop allow customers to gaze at the bottles in the glass cases while drinking a glass from the ever-changing lineup displayed on the ‘tachinomi counter’. Wine is typically 500-2,000 yen per glass.

Finger food are also available for purchase with a small variety of cheeses, olives, and other snacks (mostly 300 yen) being peddled from the glass cooler perched on the counter. A small two-piece pack of bread is 50 yen, and don’t be afraid to use the toaster located on the wall opposite the register.

As mentioned before, the wine selection changes periodically as this shop imports directly from vineyards

'Tachinomi' is Japanese for 'drink while standing'.

and dealers in France. That means that they often have wine that you can’t get in most other places.

The “Domaine des Chênes — Le Mascarou 2005″ was dry enough for my liking and was priced at 900 yen per

glass. Another wine that I tried was the “Domaine du Pas de L’Escalette — Ze rozé 2008″ (700 yen/glass) which is apparently one of their monthly featured wine selections and will be replaced soon.

This shop is very well-lit, so it’s often a quick stop on the way somewhere else for business people and small groups of friends. The staff is very cheerful and helpful, and the paintings on the wall would be in my living room if they were up for sale.

Directions: From exit two of Kagurazaka station (Tozai subway line) go left and walk for about 30 seconds. La Cave Idéale is on the left just after “M’s”. You can also take exit one of the station and turn right. The wine shop will be on your right before “M’s”.

April ’10 Magazine Roundup

This month three of Japan’s top culinary magazines focus their attention on things Italian. Also, Dancyu tells aging ramen lovers it’s time to go back to basics and Otona no shumatsu presents yet another lengthy best-of list. Its all here in this month’s magazine roundup.

When Hollywood studios simultaneously release similar films (think Deep Impact vs Armageddon) its difficult not to suspect nervous producers spy on each other in search of original film ideas. Similarly, when three of the major Japanese food magazines decide to feature Italian cuisine on their April covers, one has to wonder if it’s more than a coincidence.

Dancyu April 2010

This month, Dancyu courts those in their 40s and 50s

This month’s Syokuraku (860 yen) features what the editors describe as “Italian food and restaurants from a man’s perspective”. They posit that Italian restaurants are not just places for dates and quiet conversation, but can be places for guys to get together and hang out. Our advice: ignore the cultural analysis and enjoy the food porn.

Ryori Tsushin (980 yen) also stretches the bounds of thematic credibility with an edition focusing on the role flour plays in Italian food. Put differently, the magazine’s editors want to discuss pasta and pizza, and to hell with that other stuff.

April’s Cuisine Kingdom (970 yen) is the last in our trio, the magazine exploring  “the Italian mode”. More cultural background than recipes, this issue covers luxury brands as well as restaurants. The editors also ask where Italian cuisine is headed.

Ramen nerds rejoice! Dancyu (850 yen) has you in its sights. The April edition of the magazine is a veritable cornucopia of ramen, specifically aimed at self-appointed ramen experts in their 40s and 50s. April’s issue features 14 ramen shops – 12 in Tokyo, 1 in Osaka and 1 in Kobe. Urging readers to go back to basics, the magazine also discusses Tokyo’s trademark soy-sauce ramen and recommends 10 restaurants in which to sample the dish.

And where would we be without another best-of list? Otona no shumatsu (580 yen) lists the magazine’s “best 102 restaurants in the past 5 years”. The editors claim to have visited some 18, 000 restaurants in the past 5 years, and to have introduced 3600 in the magazine. Of these, they write, 350 were rated highly . After what must have been much soul-searching at the Kodansha offices, they finally whittled this list down to a (curiously unrounded) 102. All were tested in secret and come recommended for taste, price and great service. They are in Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya.

And also…

Nakameguro is Tokyo’s version of Little Italy? So say our friends at Shokuraku. They map 25 Italian restaurants within walking distance of Nakameguro Station. Worryingly, this figure includes the local Saizeriya. What do you think? Is Nakameguro Tokyo’s answer to Mulberry Street? Leave your thoughts below in the comments.

March ‘10 Magazine Roundup

Sake, seafood and… sumo? It’s time once again to take a look at the month’s food and drink magazines.

Another month, another ambitious ‘best of list’. This time it’s Syokuraku (860 yen) with their “42 best restaurants in Tokyo”.  Dividing restaurants into 7 categories (yakitori, Japanese cuisine, tempura, shabushabu, rice bowls, tonkatsu and okonomiyaki) the magazine’s editors award marks for “the quality of food, cost performance and service”.

The March issue of Ryori Tsushin

Syokuraku takes a more radical approach toward ranking sake, doing so by comparing various types of rice wine to sumo rikishi (come on… what could be more obvious!) It’s east versus west, with the sake divided into yokozuna, ozeki, sekiwake, komusubi, maegashira and jyuyo. The magazine also features 10 Tokyo restaurants which make creative use of nihonshu.

This month’s dancyu (860 yen) continues the sake theme. The magazine introduces upcoming sake breweries in places such as Akita, Tochigi, Hiroshima and Saga. And for those who love seafood but also think cooking fish is difficult, dancyu offers a selection of quick and easy seafood recipes. Dishes include Japanese, Western and Chinese otsumami.

Coffee is flavour of the month in Cafe-Sweets (1300 yen), the editors noting that the cafe scene in Japan is rapidly becoming more sophisticated. In particular, they note that coffee schools are growing in popularity – students can take classes for beginners through to advanced. The March issue features a number of coffee schools, from industry giants Starbucks and Tully’s through to small privately-owned cafes such as Tokumitsu Coffee in Hokkaido and the mail order coffee beans shop Unir in Kyoto.

Ryori Tsushin (980 yen) meanwhile dedicates its March edition to what they are calling “The age of Women”. The editors introduce women who are active participants in the Japanese culinary scene. The magazine features restaurants where all meals and service are provided by women, those restaurants which are owned by women as well as female innovators in areas traditionally dominated by men – sausage and ham artisans, coffee roasters and pizza chefs.

The Wine Kingdom (1500 yen) offers a list of “The best 30 winter reds from Italy”. There’s also a special feature on Sauvigon Blanc and a pull-out section of the magazine introducing 50 brands of wines from Washington. The booklet has information about each winery, their products and personalities.

And also…

The March issue of dancyu sees the announcement of a sake tasting event to celebrate the magazine’s anniversary. 74 different sake breweries will present their wares at the Grand Prince Hotel, Shintakanawa on March 27th from 13:00 to 15:30. Tickets are 5000 yen per person. See the dancyu’s March issue for further details.

Boozehound: Beaujolais Nouveau 2009 hits shelves today!

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and what a nice coincidence that the young wines of Southern Europe have just arrived!

Released on the third Thursday of November every year, French distributors such as the inimitable Georges Deboeuf and Mommessin, Beaujolais Nouveau has been a marketing sensation around the world for a number of years now. Tastings, club parties, and high-priced dinners abound, and it wasn’t too long ago that customers would wait in line to sweep bottles of the fruity red wine off the shelves of their local retailer.

Beaujolais Nouveau on display in a Tokyo convenience store.

Beaujolais Nouveau on display in a Tokyo convenience store.

Such was certainly the case here in Japan, the land of ‘if it’s French, then we naturally understand and will pay through the nose for it‘. During the height of the craze, well over 12 million bottles of the stuff were purchased at an average price of around 2,000 yen (US$20, give or take). That was back in 2004 when the marketing machine had everyone enthused that Japan was among the first to taste these young wines due to a simple advantage afforded by geographical location.

But this is 2009. Less than five million bottles are slated for sale this year, and many of them will be sold in plastic PET bottles (cork or screwtop?). The price has also dropped considerably with supermarket group, Aeon, slashing prices to less than 1,000 yen (around US$10).

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