Out of japan: Pints sink and prices soar as West meets East

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The Independent Online
TOKYO - ' pounds 10 for a pint? You can't be serious.' The scene: a pub in a village in the west of Ireland, with three farmers gathered around the bar on a wet and gloomy wintry afternoon. Pints of Guinness on the counter lose depth, disappear and are replaced by new creamy-headed creations. A sacred Irish ritual, at pounds 1.70 a pint - 'and even then we're being robbed by the taxman'.

The pounds 10 pint exists thousands of miles away, where it is the average price in a Tokyo bar for the equivalent of a pint measure of beer. The Irish farmers have been asking for a description of life in Japan. Now they fall silent and the only sound is the clock ticking on the shelf above the bar. It is hard to tell what their imaginations are wrestling with - the lifestyle of a strange country on the other side of the world in general, or the price of the pint in particular. Both seem beyond belief. The questions keep coming, and the conversation develops into a roll-call of my favourite characters and rituals in Japan.

We talk about rice farmers, working with stooped backs in tiny fields with water up to their knees. Japan's narrow valleys of paddy-fields fringed with bamboo groves and forested hills are a world away from the bleak bogs and bare mountains of Connemara. And the fiddly work of planting rice seedlings could not be more different from the brawny ways of cattle and sheep farmers of the west of Ireland, slapping palms at the mart and forcing squealing animals into trailers for the drive home. But the drinkers could sympathise with their Japanese counterparts, who lost their protection from foreign imports last year as the government finally gave in to the greater demands of the Gatt negotiations.

The Irish farmers nodded darkly: they understood that. 'Brussels' and EC farm subsidies have been an important part of their income.

I tell them about the Tokyo bars, run by a mama-san (owner) with young hostesses pouring drinks and chatting with the exclusively male customers. This artificial companionship sounds strange to the men. 'What if you have something important to talk about?' they ask.

But this is the way of Japan, and often it is in such settings that businessmen will bring up the most important subjects, trusting in the discretion of the mama-san and her girls.

Then there is the cleaner of our office in Tokyo, a kindly man of about 70 who apologises for his 'rudeness' every day when he comes in to vacuum the floor and empty the bins. We often hear him talking to his granddaughter on the pay-phone in the corridor outside our office - he is widowed, and she is his sole joy in life. Usually he is asking her what new toy he can buy her. 'You tell me,' he says to the 8-year-old. 'I don't know what these new-fangled things are.' Even in hectic Tokyo there is some heart left.

There is the restaurant owner, Mr Obuchi, who has devoted his life to the fine art of kaiseki haute cuisine, and is the happiest man I know in Tokyo. He lives for his small restaurant, his regular clientele, and his art of food, with its roots in Zen Buddhism. Obuchi-san preparing a dish of sashimi is Japan's answer to pulling a pint of Guinness in Ireland.

There is nothing Obuchi-san likes more than to come out from behind the counter when the cooking is done, bringing a bottle of sake with him to chat to some of his 'honourable customers'. He talks in one breath about matters of state, the availability of certain types of fish and his golf game - which he swears gets worse every time he goes out. 'My handicap is - everything. My back, my legs, my swing . . .'

Yes, Japanese work long hours, take short holidays, and probably don't have as much fun - 'crack' - as my friends in the pub. And it is tough going for foreigners to get even a precursory glimpse inside the society. But the 'economic animal' has its human side.

'And would you get a steak there?' asks one of the burly men of beef. 'You would, but you won't believe me if I tell you the price.'