Big in Japan

Michael Jackson was taken on an all-night crawl of Tokyo's German- style beer halls, exclusive whisky bars and geisha hangouts. He discovered that the city's drinkers don't do things by halves. Photographs by Tom Wagner

The communal bath had washed away more inhibitions than I realised, apparently including the one about not mixing grape and grain. As I struggled for a comfortable way of kneeling or crouching in a yukata (bathrobe) and slippers, the dinner table sprouted the local koshu grape (in the form of both wine and brandy); the plum (in a traditional sweet wine); barley (as both beer and whisky); and rice (sake and shochu). I tried to be alcoholically monogamous, but it was futile. My companions kept pouring me drinks. I followed suit (or bathrobe) by charging theirs just as relentlessly.

That is the way it is done in Japan, and nowhere with more eclecticism than in Tokyo. Those of us who voluntarily choose to live in the biggest cities tell ourselves that we do so for that very reason: choice. Where else can you get a properly made Martini at two in the morning? You may never actually require one, but the possible need is neurotically felt. Tokyo's neuroses need constant balms. No city has so many: neuroses, or balms.

"Let's dress," commanded Tetsuya. "Why?" I asked. "Because we have serious drinking to to do." The Japanese have been drinking sake for centuries and despite the tag "rice wine", it is - being fermented from grain - really a beer. Western-style beers have been made in Japan for over a hundred years, and whiskies since the Twenties, both to a very high standard. Tetsuya wanted to drink them all.

Snack pub, Shimbashi

Tetsuya and I visited a series of drinking stalls under a viaduct; the bullet train kept whistling overhead. Was this how country folk felt in the gin palaces of Dickensian London? The stand-up bars are known as tachi- nomi (meaning, "standing drinking"). Slightly more elaborate ones, like the bar pictured here, are called sunakku pabu ("snack pubs"). Tetsuya took me from one stall to the next, sampling shochu, an indigenous spirit that is typically distilled from rice, but we sampled versions made from molasses, buckwheat and sweet potato, the flavours as stinging as the alcohol. This was no farmers' market or jolly beer garden in Bavaria full of Catholic families. I felt more like a Protestant, seeking dark refuge. At each stall, we ducked behind a half curtain. It is no sin to be publicly drunk in Japan, and in this condition indiscretions are excused, but that half curtain offered token anonymity, like the ground-glass windows in an English gin palace.

Sapporo Lion, Ginza

This is the traditional face of beer drinking in Tokyo. The Sapporo brewing company dates from 1876. Its original brewery is in the city of Sapporo, and the Lion in Ginza was originally its Tokyo showpiece. This coolly smart bar and beer hall is under a modern block that houses Sapporo's Tokyo offices. Here, we enjoyed a beer that Sapporo is especially known for, the Dortmunder-style lager Yebisu - originally the name of a Shinto deity, but also a Tokyo district where Sapporo once had a brewery. We also sampled a black beer similar to those traditionally made in Thuringia, Germany. These Japanese beers are made to very high standards.

Caracalla hostess bar, Akasaka

Hostess bars have diminished slightly in numbers, with feminist sensibilities, but they are still a distinct feature of drinking in the big cities of Japan. They are sometimes call "cabarets". Call me sexist, but by the stage of the evening that we reached Carcalla I was just relieved to have a beautiful young woman of poise and attentiveness to look after me, even if that did mean her pouring me more drinks. I vaguely remember her being something of a conversationalist. "That's part of her job," explained Tetsuya, "but don't expect intimacy. Proper hostesses don't have sex with clients." I suspect it would not have been a practicable proposition anyway. Carcalla is located in the Akasaka district, near the parliament and government offices. The area has only recently developed any kind of night life.

Radio whisky bar, Aoyama

The whisky bar is a phenomenon that

is popular in Japan and, increasingly, the US, but not in Britain. (Why not? Don't we want to showcase a national drink that is celebrated throughout the world?) Bars like Radio are very expensive and often beautifully combine the clean lines and woods of Japanese interior design with clubby elegance. Radio has a touch of Art Deco. Japanese whiskies on sale here are modelled on Scotch, but they are not poor imitations. Although some of their names and labels have a British accent, there is no attempt to pass them off as being Scottish. In Japan, local whiskies sell in quantity, but Scotch is more revered, especially at very old ages. This love affair has slightly diminished in recent years, and cocktails are having something of a revival. Later in the evening, Tetsuya took me to a "bottle-keeping" bar, where he ordered the barman to bring out his own bottle of Ballantine 30-year-old, which he had instructed them to keep locked away in a little safe, awaiting his visit.

Festbrau Beer Hall, Yebisu

The district of Yebisu (usually spelled in English with a "Y", though pronounced "ebisu") now houses the huge Yebisu Garden Place development of shops, hotels and restaurants, five of the latter in a Sapporo "Beer Station" complex, more like a beer theme park. Within this, the Festbrau Beer Hall offers a younger crowd massive helpings of German food and a lightly malty, amber-red, Vienna-style lager served from huge, visible, tanks. "Why the tanks?" I asked Tetsuya. "They want us to think they make the beer here - though they don't." There are other bars that do, however. Until four or five years ago, giants like Sapporo, Kirin, and Asahi were the only brewers. Now, there are about 200, making ji-biru (local beer), often in gleaming coppers in the middle of pubs. To accompany my beer at Festbrau, Tetsuya suggested I try a saucer of green soy beans, squeezed straight from the pod into my mouth. Soy beans are the beer snack in Japan the way black radishes are in Munich. The difference is that a Japanese person would scarcely countenance drink without at least some food, while in Britain the pork scratchings are a mercifully optional extra.

Bois Cereste, Akasaka

This piano bar is owned by jazz musician Masaharu Yamada. He spent some time working in Belgium and fell in love with the local beers. Bois Cereste pioneered the serving of Belgian beer in Japan, and these kind of bars are now very popular. There are at least half a dozen in Tokyo and they preceded those in London. Other beer fashions come and go, though. Every year, the big brewers introduce some new notion: beer made from the "first squeeze" of the barley-malt; beer made from huskless barley; beer guaranteed to have left the brewery only hours ago; beer that smells of a bath-house ... In a beer bar owned by Kirin, we were even offered a super-strong lager that could be diluted to the customer's taste, with sparkling water. n

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