When Chris Bunting and I finally connect on the phone, the world is seemingly both crumbling—and beginning. The transplanted Briton is out of breath, hastily hoofing it to his apartment in Tokyo ahead of possible citywide blackouts, caused by the Tohoku earthquake, to frantically fetch… a pair of slippers. Amidst all the turmoil and confusion, Bunting’s wife is about to go into labor and give birth to their second child. Still, he gracefully (and breathlessly) manages to answer some of my questions.
Bunting is the author of "Drinking Japan: A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments" and the founder of Nonjatta, probably the most complete guide to Japanese single malt whisky on the web.
“Japan is the best place to drink alcohol in the world,” he says, and anyone who has spent any time sampling from the myriad of "izakaya," "nomiya" and other bars and drinking establishments in this country would surely agree.
Yet for those who have just arrived in Japan, or who can’t speak or read much of the language, finding the best place to enjoy your favorite tipple—or discover a new one—can be a daunting task. Bunting himself readily admits that he was not the sort of person who could confidently brush past the "noren" of a boisterous watering hole and sit at the bar to find out what’s on offer. When he first started out here, the only Japanese he could muster was "sumimasen." The lack of communication skills precluded him asking the local bartenders for recommendations.
“I spent nights sitting in Denny’s drinking beer,” he says of his first experiences imbibing here, before he discovered Japanese craft brews and premium single malt whisky. “I want the book to help those new to Japan, as well as delve into the history and development of [the country’s] alcohol and drinking culture.”
And delve it does. Bunting spent a good year and a half literally drinking Japan. Though it won’t be available in the travel section of bookshops, it certainly could be. From sampling traditional awamori on islands south of Okinawa to roaming the legendary Susukino drinking district in Sapporo, "Drinking Japan" is filled with a staggering amount of information that includes indexes, maps and language tips. No matter where you find yourself in Japan, there’s a good chance that Bunting has sampled libations nearby, and has a few recommendations on the local poison or watering holes, and more probably–both.
With the mind-boggling number of places to drink in Japan (let alone just one city or region), I ask if he ever considered writing it as a travel book: “Yes, and at one stage Tuttle talked with me about changing it into that sort of format, but I felt the advantage of this guide format is more practical in the hands of the reader. There is fairly comprehensive info on each bar, as well as my pompous ramblings.”
Are there some big myths and misconceptions people have about drinking in Japan? “Yes. That getting into things like sake, shochu or awamori is for people who can speak great Japanese,” he says. “Those bottles and menus look intimidating, but actually with a few words and kanji, which I try to provide in the language section of the book, you can get well off the beaten track and some of the most incomprehensible bottles can be deciphered in a jiffy.”
The main sections of the book are divided not into geographic area, but into the main alcohols traditionally found in Japan: sake (the rice wine), shochu, awamori, beer, whisky and wine. Half of the chapters are taken up with Bunting’s incredibly complete histories and details of the surprising breadth of Japanese alcohol’s range.
He is quick to stress that the book is not just a glorified bar guide, but the first comprehensive survey of Japanese alcohol history and culture published in English. And that discovering the rich variety of traditional liquors in Japan goes far beyond the usual rice wine the country is famous for.
“There are some phenomenal books on 'nihonshu,' but 'Drinking Japan' goes beyond sake.”
Available April 10 via Amazon.com.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today