Japanese are great social drinkers
The Japanese drink a lot: not only green tea in the office, at meetings and with meals, but also all types of alcoholic beverages in the evening with friends and colleagues. Many social scientists have theorized that in a strictly conformist society, drinking provides a much-needed escape valve that can be used to vent off feelings and frustrations without losing face the next morning. In Japan, the drinking age is 20 (as is the age of majority and smoking age, for that matter). This is notably higher than most of Europe and the Americas (excepting the United States).
Where to drink
If you're looking for an evening of food and drink in a relaxed traditional atmosphere, go to an izakaya (Japanese-style pub), easily identified by red lanterns with a sign for alcohol hanging out front. Many of them have an all-you-can-drink (nomiho-dai) deals which are about ¥1,000 (US$10) for 90 minutes (on average), although you'll be limited to certain types of drinks. Very convenient. An izakaya will usually have a lively, convivial atmosphere, as it often acts as a living room of sorts for office workers, students and seniors. Food is invariably good and reasonably priced, and in all, they are an experience not to be missed.
Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage which is brewed from rice. Though often called rice wine, in fact the sake making process completely different from wine or beer making. The fermentation process uses both a mold to break down the starches and yeast to create the alcohol. The Japanese word sake can in fact mean any kind of alcoholic drink, and in Japan the word nihonshu is used to refer to what Westerners call "sake".
Sake is around 15% alcohol, and can be served at a range of temperatures from hot (atsukan), to room temperature (jo-on), down to chilled (hiya). Contrary to popular belief most sake is not served hot, but often chilled. Each sake is brewed for a preferred serving temperature, but defaulting to room temperature is in most cases safe. If you are inclined to have one hot or chilled in a restaurant, asking your waiter or bartender for recommendation would be a good idea. In restaurants, one serving can start around ¥500, and go up from there.
Sake has its own measures and utensils. The little ceramic cups are called choko and the small ceramic jug used to pour it is a tokkuri. Sometimes sake will be poured into a small glass set in a wooden box to collect the overflow as the server pours all the way to the top and keeps pouring. Just drink from the glass, then pour the extra out of the box and back into your glass as you go. Occasionally, particularly when drinking it cold, you can sip your sake from the corner of a cedar box called a masu, sometimes with a dab of salt on the edge. Sake is typically measured in go- (180 mL), roughly the size of a tokkuri, ten of which make up the standard 1.8L issho-bin bottle.
The fine art of sake tasting is at least as complex as wine, but the one indicator worth looking out for is nihonshudo, a number often printed on bottles and menus. Simply put, this "sake level" measures the sweetness of the brew, with positive values indicating drier sake and negative values being sweeter, the average being around +2.
Sake is brewed in several grades and styles which depend upon how much the rice is milled to prevent off flavors, if any water is added, or if additional alcohol is added. Ginjo- and daiginjo- are measures of how much the rice has been milled, with the daiginjo more highly milled and correspondingly more expensive. These two may have alcohol added primarily to improve the flavor and aroma.Honjo-zo- is less milled, with alcohol added, and may be less expensive; think of it as an everyday kind of sake. Junmai meaning pure rice, is an additional term which specifies that only rice was used. When making a purchase, price is often a fair indicator of quality.
A few special brews may be worth a try if you feel like experimenting. Nigorizake is lightly filtered and looks cloudy, with white sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Turn the bottle gently once or twice to mix this sediment back into the drink. Though most sake doesn't age well, some brewers are able to create aged sake with a much stronger flavor and deep colors. These aged sake or koshu may be an acquired taste, but worthwhile for the adventurous after a meal.
Worth a special mention is amazake, similar to the the lumpy homebrewed doburoku version of sake, drunk hot in the winter (often given away free at shrines on New Year's night). Amazake has very little alcohol and it tastes pretty much like fermented rice glop (which is to say, not that bad at all), but at least it's cheap. And, as the name implies, sweet.
If you're curious about sake, the Japan Sake Brewers Association has an online version of its English brochure. You can also visit the Sake Plaza in Shinbashi, Tokyo and taste a flight of different sakes for just a few hundred yen.
Sho-chu- is the big brother of sake, a stronger tasting distilled type of alcohol. There are largely two types of sho-chu-; traditional sho-chu- are most commonly made of rice, yam, or grain, but it can be made of other materials like potatoes, too. The other is rather industrially made out of sugar through multiple consecutive distillation, often used and served as a kind of cooler mixed with juice or soda known as a chu--hai. (Note however that canned chu--hai sold on store shelves do not even use sho-chu- but even cheaper alcoholic material.) Sho-chu- is typically around 25% alcohol (although some varieties can be much stronger) and can be served straight, on the rocks, mixed with hot or cold water at your choice. Once solely a working-class drink, and still the cheapest tipple around at less than ¥1000 for a big 1L bottle, traditional sho-chu- has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years and the finest sho-chu- now fetch prices as high as the finest sakes.
Umeshu is prepared by soaking Japanese ume plums (actually a type of apricot) in white liquor so it absorbs the flavor, and the distinctive, penetrating nose of sour dark plum and sweet brown sugar is a hit with many visitors. Typically about 10-15% alcohol, it can be taken straight, on the rocks (rokku) or mixed with soda (soda-wari).
Whisky in Japan
Whisky production in Japan began around 1870, but the first commercial production was in 1924 upon the opening of the country's first distillery, Yamazaki. Broadly speaking the style of Japanese whisky is more similar to that of Scotch whisky than Irish whiskey, and thus the spelling typically follows the Scottish convention (omitting the letter "e").
There are several companies producing whisky in Japan. Perhaps the two most well known are Suntory and Nikka. Both of these produce blended as well as single malt whiskies.
History of Japanese Whisky
Two of the most influential figures in the history of Japanese whisky are Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru. Torii was a pharmaceutical wholesaler and the founder of Kotobukiya (later to become Suntory). He started importing western liquor and he later created a brand called "Akadama Port Wine", based on a Portuguese wine which made him a successful merchant. However, he was not satisfied with this success and so he embarked on a new venture which was to become his life's work: making Japanese whisky for Japanese people. Despite the strong opposition from the company's executives, Torii decided to build the first Japanese whisky distillery in Yamazaki, a suburb of Kyoto, an area so famous for its excellent water that the legendary tea master Sen no Rikyu- built his tearoom there.
Torii hired Masataka Taketsuru as a distillery executive. Taketsuru had studied the art of distilling in Scotland, and brought this knowledge back to Japan in the early 1920s. Whilst working for Kotobukiya he played a key part in helping Torii establish the Yamazaki Distillery. In 1934 he left Kotobukiya to form his own company—Dainipponkaju—which would later change its name to Nikka. In this new venture he established the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido-.
Distilleries in Japan
There are currently around ten whisky distilleries in Japan, these include:
* Yamazaki: owned by Suntory, located between Osaka/Kyoto on the main island of Honshu-.
* Hakushu: also owned by Suntory, located in Yamanashi on the main island of Honshu-.
* Yoichi: owned by Nikka, located on the Northern island of Hokkaido-. Nikka is a part of Asahi Breweries.
* Sendai / Miyagikyo: also Nikka, located to the North of the main island, near the city of Sendai.
* Fuji-Gotemba: owned by Kirin, located at the foot of Mt Fuji in Shizuoka.
* Karuizawa: owned by Mercian (a part of Kirin), located near to the town of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture on the main island of Honshu-.
* Hanyu: located in Saitama prefecture near Tokyo on the main island. Sometimes also referred to as Golden Horse or Chichibu. Closed in 2004.
* Chichibu: located near Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture. This is the new Chichibu distillery, founded by Ichiro Akuto, grandson of the distiller at Hanyu. It opened in 2008.
* Shinshu: owned by Hombo, located in Nagano Prefecture on the main island of Honshu-.
* White Oak: owned by Eigashima Shuzou, located in Hyogo on the main island of Honshu-.
Japanese Whisky reputation
For some time it was believed by many that whisky made in the Scotch style, but not produced in Scotland, could not possibly measure up to the standards of the traditional Scotch distilleries. Until fairly recently, the market for Japanese whiskies was almost entirely domestic.
However, in recent years, a number of blind tastings have been organized by Whisky Magazine, which have included Japanese single malts in the lineup, along with malts from distilleries considered to be among the best in Scotland. On more than one occasion, the results have had Japanese single malts (particularly those of Yoichi and Yamazaki) scoring higher than their Scotch counterparts.
Japanese Whisky style
The production of Japanese whisky began as a conscious effort to recreate the style of Scotch whisky. Pioneers like Taketsuru carefully studied the process of making Scotch whisky, and went to great lengths in an attempt to recreate that process in Japan. The location of Yoichi in Hokkaido- was chosen particularly for its terrain and climate, which were in many ways reminiscent of Scotland (although financial constraints resulted in the first distillery actually being built in the more convenient location of Yamazaki on the main island).
One facet of the style of Japanese whisky comes from the way in which blended whisky is produced, and the differing nature of the industry in Japan. Despite the recent rise of interest in single malt whiskies, the vast proportion of whisky sold in the world is still blended. The requirements of blended whiskies are one of the main driving forces behind the diversity of malts produced by Scotland's distilleries. Typically each distillery will focus on a particular style, and blenders will choose from a wide array of elements offered by all the different distilleries to make their product. Whilst sometimes a particular brand of blended whisky may be owned by a company that also owns one or more distilleries, it is also quite common for trading to take place between the various companies. The components of a blend may involve malt whisky from a number of distilleries, and each of these could conceivably be owned by a different company.
In Japan however a different model is generally adopted. Typically the whisky companies own both the distilleries and the brands of blended whiskies. These companies are often reluctant to trade with their competitors. So a blended whisky in Japan will generally only contain malt whisky from the distilleries owned by that same company (sometimes supplemented with malts imported from Scottish distilleries).
This clearly means that blenders in Japan have in the past had a significantly reduced palette from which to create their products. It has been suggested that this may have been a limiting factor in the success of Japanese blends, particularly outside of Japan.
As a reaction to this, individual distilleries in Japan have become increasingly more diverse over recent years. It is quite common for a single Japanese distillery to produce a wide range of styles, from the smokey and peaty style of Islay, through the heavily sherried, to the lighter and more delicate floral notes of Speyside.
The diversity and innovation to be found in Japanese distilleries may be one of the contributing factors to their recent high profile and acclaim in the global arena. Japanese consumption of whisky also has unique characteristics, lending its whisky's distinctiveness. Drinkers often drink their whisky with food and in oyuwari (hot water) and mizuwari.
Beer in Japan
There are several large brands of Japanese beer (biiru), including Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, and Suntory. A bit harder to find is an Okinawan brand, Orion which is excellent. Yebisu is also a popular beer brewed by Sapporo. Microbrewed beers are also starting to appear in Japan, with a few restaurants offering their own micros or ji-biiru but these are still few in number. Most varieties are lagers, with strengths averaging 5%.
You can buy beer in cans of all sizes, but in Japanese restaurants beer is typically served in bottles (bin), or draft (nama meaning "fresh"). Bottles come in three sizes, o-bin (large, 0.66L), chu-bin (medium, 0.5L) and ?? kobin (small, 0.33L), of which medium is the most common. Larger bottles give you the opportunity to engage in the custom of constantly refilling your companions' glasses (and having yours topped off as well). If you order draft beer, you each receive your own mug (jokki). In many establishments, a dai-jokki ("big mug") holds a full liter of brew.
Some Japanese bartenders have an annoying habit of filling half of your mug with head so that you only have half a glass of actual beer. Though the Japanese like their draft beer poured that way, you may find it irritating - especially when you're paying 600 for a glass of beer as in many restaurants and bars. If you have the gumption to ask for less head, say awa wa sukoshi dake ni shite kudasai ("please, just a little foam"). You will baffle your server, but you may get a full glass of beer.
Guinness pubs have started appearing all over the country recently, which is nice for those who like Irish drinks.
For those with a more humourous tastes in beer, try kodomo biiru (literally Children’s Beer), a product that looks just like the real thing but was actually invented with children in mind (there is 0% alcohol content).
Happo-shu and third beer
Thanks to Japan's convoluted alcohol licensing laws, there are also two almost-beers on the market: happo-shu, or low-malt beer, and the so-called third beer (dai-san no biiru), which uses ingredients like soybean peptides or corn instead of malt. Priced as low as ¥120, both are considerably cheaper than "real" beer, but lighter and more watery in taste. Confusingly, they are packaged very similarly to the real thing with brands like Sapporo's "Draft One" and Asahi's "Hon-Nama", so pay attention to the bottom of the can when buying: by law, it may not say (beer), but will instead say (happoshu) or, for third beers, the unwieldy moniker (sono ta no zasshu, lit. "other mixed alcohol, type 2"). Try to drink moderately as both drinks can lead to nightmare hangovers.
Japanese wine is actually quite nice although it costs about twice as much as comparable wine from other countries. Several varieties exist, and imported wine at various prices is available nationwide. Selection can be excellent in the larger cities, with specialized stores and large department stores offering the most extensive offerings. One of Japan's largest domestic wine areas is Yamanashi Prefecture, and one of Japan's largest producers, Suntory, has a winery and tours there. Most wine, red and white, is served chilled and you may find it hard obtaining room-temperature (?? jo--on) wine when dining out.
Tea in Japan
Matcha and traditional sweets, Kanazawa
The major types of Japanese tea are:
* sencha, the common green tea
* matcha, soupy powdered ceremonial green tea. The less expensive varieties are bitter and the more expensive varieties are slightly sweet.
* ho-jicha, roasted green tea
* genmaicha, tea with roasted rice, tastes popcorn-y
* mugicha, a drink of roasted barley, served iced in summer
Coffee in Japan
Coffee (ko-hi-) is quite popular in Japan, though it's not part of the typical Japanese breakfast. It's usually brewed to the same strength as European coffee; weaker, watered down coffee is called American. Canned coffee (hot and cold) is a bit of a curiosity, and widely available in vending machines like other beverages for about ¥120 per can. Most canned coffee is sweet, so look for brands with the English word "Black" or the kanji ("no sugar") if you want it unsweetened. Decaffeinated coffee is very rare in Japan, even at Starbucks, but is available in some locations.
Soft drinks in Japan
There are many uniquely Japanese soft drinks and trying random drinks on vending machines is one of the little joys of Japan. A few of note include Calpis, a kind of yogurt-based soft drink which tastes better than it sounds and the famous Pocari Sweat (a Gatorade-style isotonic drink). A more traditional Japanese soft drink is Ramune which is nearly the same as Sprite or 7-Up but is noteworthy for its unusual bottle, where one pushes down a marble into an open space below the spout instead of using a bottle opener.
Most American soft drink brands (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew) are widely available. The only choices for diet soda will be Diet Coke, Coke Zero, or Diet Pepsi. Root Beer is nearly impossible to find outside of speciality import food shops or Okinawa. Ginger ale is very popular however, and a common find in vending machines. Caffeinated energy drinks are available in many local brands (usually infused with ginseng).
In Japan, the term "juice" (ju-su) is catch-all term for any kind of fruity soft drink - sometimes even Coca-Cola and the like - and extremely few are 100% juice. So if it's fruit squeezings you want, ask for kaju- . Drinks in Japan are required to display the percentage of fruit content on the label; this can be very helpful to ensure you get the 100% orange juice you were wanting, rather than the much more common 20% varieties.