Tokyo's labyrinth of city streets has always lent itself to marathon drinking sessions. Its best bars are often tucked away in tiny side streets or underneath nondescript office buildings. Simply navigating through the alleyways back towards a train station — and, eventually, home — can become a parade of culinary endurance. Conversations often start with “If we've come all this way” and end with sitting down for a bottle of unfiltered sake at a bar the size of a modest Midtown cubicle.
Chris Bunting's book Drinking Japan takes us along such a drinking session, one that encompassed many months and hundreds of bars throughout the country. Organizing the book by the types of alcohol served at these bars — sake, sochu, beer, whisky and so on — we learn not only the particularities of these establishments but about the process of producing, serving and drinking the thousands of bottles of alcohol waiting to be drunk in Japan.
And it is in Bunting's travelogue approach wherein we find Drinking Japan's greatest strengths. We journey with him from one bar to another, listening in on conversations with bartenders who proudly report on the provenance and aging of their prized liquors. We vicariously drink through Japan while nestled comfortably on a couch at home.
Bunting does a fantastic job of putting each bar in context. We learn, for example, that the head bartender at Tender invented the “hard shake,” a complicated shaking, twisting technique now with ardent proponents amongst some of the top bartenders in the world.
Each section begins with an explanation about the process of producing each type of alcohol that these bars specialize in. Bunting's explanation of the sake brewing technique, for example, is incredibly detailed, if at times awash in Japanese terms.
For anyone who wondered why Bill Murray was hawking whisky in Lost in Translation, Bunting admirably plays the added role of historian, tracing Japan's love of whisky back to the beginning of the 20th century.
In covering so much ground, though, depth is the first casualty. It's clear Bunting has had only a few drinks at many of these bars but will recommend them. He includes a sidebar about a recent international debate as to whether or not Tokyo is the best cocktail city in the world — Bon Appétit seems to think so — and yet devotes only 21 out of the book's 272 pages to the bars that serve these legendary libations.
Considering he's covering a nation of over 127 million people, this is easily overlooked. The majority of the bars he covers are in Tokyo, but the rest run all the way from the snowy tundra of the northernmost island of Hokkaido to the tropical southernmost island of Okinawa.
And he came back from his travels with beautiful pictures. Each one captures the unique and often eccentric personality of the bar and those who work there, hinting at a drinking experience unlike anywhere else.
We want to be served by a Buddhist priest at Nakano Bozu Bar and imbibe on his green tea liquor-based “Heaven” cocktail. We want to drink barley shochu and dine on mackerel sushi. Our bars in LA suddenly seemed unsatisfactory. Where could we go on a drinking and eating marathon of such soul and substance?
Ultimately, we ended the book in melancholy, unable to find the answer in Venice or Downtown. It seems the only cure is a one-way ticket to Tokyo so that we, too, can drink Japan.