Book Review – Drinking Japan by Chris Bunting

Drinking Japan

Drinking Japan

This indispensible guide will become the bible for anyone passionate about Japanese beverages. Regardless if your preference is for shochu or nihonshu, Chris has covered it all. Clearly written by a reporter, no detail is overlooked, and the information is easy to understand. The descriptions of each bar transports you there and he even includes specific drinks to try once you get there. The bars are not limited to Tokyo but he also guides you on major cities including Sapporo, Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto, and where to go in Okinawa.

I know this book is a winner as many of my Tokyo favorites are included such as the New York Bar & Grill in the Park Hyatt Tokyo, he even mentions to come as the sun is setting, which is what I recommend to all of my friends. Buchi, Buri, Maru, Akaoni, Taproom, Takara, and Sasagin are other favorites that are included in this guidebook. He definitely has his pulse on the bar scene in Japan.

There are also a slew of bars that are new to me that are on my list to check out that include Shusaron for its collection of koshu (aged nihonshu), Garari and its impressive kokuto shochu list, and Cheese and Wine Salon Murase in Ginza. And although I am not much of a whisky drinker, just reading his chapter on Japanese whisky has me thirsty to visit some of the bars listed in the book.

As for covering beverages he definitely has a well-trained palate that I would trust. He recommends Bryan Baird’s beers and in the Q&A below his favorite awamori at the moment is Shirayuri, also one of my favorites. Just knowing this I am confident in reading his notes on the beverages written about in Drinking Japan.

The chapter on the drinking culture that is to be found in Japan is essential reading for anyone who will be drinking in Japan. And Chris explains why Japan is truly is a drinker’s paradise. While other books go into greater detail on nihonshu, he more than covers the base on what readers need to know when drinking nihonshu in Japan. The same goes for shochu, awamori, beer, wine, and whisky.

One of my favorite parts of the book are his directions on finding each bar. Essential information as I have found myself on numerous occasions lost, and I have a good sense of direction.

Chris is quick to point out others who have helped him along this journey, including professionals like John Gauntner, Bryan Harrell, Phred Kaufman, and many more.

This book will become a reference book for drinks in Japan. I have already dog-eared many pages for my next night in Tokyo. For those who do not read Japanese, there is essential Japanese in the book for names of beverages and addresses for bars, which will help you while on your evenings out. Even if you are not physically in Japan, the information presented on the different beverages alone makes it worth investing in. A portion of the proceeds are going to Japan Earthquake Relief.

Chris was kind enough to answer some questions posted below. Very insightful answers – see his suggestions for nursing a hangover and why he would not open a bar in Japan.

Drinking Japan – A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments

By Chris Bunting

Tuttle Publishing

272 pages

$24.95 (2127 JPY on Amazon Japan)

For more information, check out his website:

1. What drink do you have at the end of a long day?

Depending on the mood, I might have a glass of beer or something a bit stronger: whisky, awamori or shochu. Recent favourites have been a bottle of Shirayuri awamori from Ishigaki island, which has delicious unctuousness that I find really relaxing, and a bottle of Japanese grain Kawasaki whisky from the independent brand Ichiro’s Malts.

2. If a tourist is coming to Tokyo and only has time to visit five bars which five would you recommend?

I am going to blather a bit before I answer your question because I want to make clear that I don’t think it is possible to come up with any definitive list of top bars in Tokyo. I went to hundreds of bars for the book and the one thing I discovered was the foolishness of my initial objective of finding the “100 plus best bars.” Everywhere I went I seemed to get a new recommendation for a hidden gem. Japan’s, and particularly Tokyo’s, alcohol culture has a boundless energy about it and it just cannot be nailed down. There are new places popping up all the time. I found myself writing at the end of the guide that all my recommendations were just my favourites from the small slice of Japan’s alcohol life that I had been able to experience, and urging readers to use the book to get out and discover their own new places. That said, six (I am cheating) of my favorites at this point are Shot Bar Zoetrope, a Japanese whisky bar near Shinjuku station; Shusaron, a bar specialising in aged sake near Shinagawa station; The Aldgate, a great pub with good craft beer in Shibuya; Katakura, an izakaya near Ichigaya station with a great selection of awamori, shochu, and sake; Tafia, a rum bar near Roppongi,  and Bar Lupin, a really historic bar off the Ginza where Osamu Dazai and other literary greats used to hang out.

3. Again, advice for a tourist who can only have a few drinks during his stay, can you suggest one of each of the following? Nihonshu, craft beer, Japanese wine, shochu, awamori, Japanese whisky.

I will try. This is a fiendish question because it is a bit like asking someone to pick out one French wine. But here goes (I will cheat again by not naming particular brands in most of the categories but styles instead because that is the key issue): a really wild kimoto or yamahai sake rather than just sticking to the clean, dry sakes; one of the Baird Beers from Shizuoka, a brewery that plays freely over a whole range of styles; a wine made with the koshu grape, which is one of Japan’s special contributions to the wine world and often has a delightful shy and delicate touch; a sweet potato shochu from Kagoshima (my favourite brand is Manzen, because I had a great time visiting Manzen san’s tiny craft distillery in the backwoods of Kagoshima); a “kusu” (aged) awamori of some sort, rather than just the unaged stuff; a Japanese whisky that has been aged in mizunara oak, another unique Japanese style, which often offers distinctive sandalwood and coconut aromas and tastes.

4. Your favorite bar outside of Tokyo?

Pub Red Hill in Takayama city. A lot of the bars in my book have absolutely mind-blowing selections of alcohol of one sort or another. Red Hill doesn’t, but it is really friendly and is run by a good friend of mine. Bars are not all about hundreds of bottles on the shelves, they have to have soul as well.

5. Any remedies for nursing a hangover?

Don’t drink too much the night before. Gallons of Pocari Sweat, if you have strayed.

6. If you could create/own a bar what would it be like? Where would it be? What would you call it?

I would not be able to run my own bar. It takes dedication, attention to detail, and persistence, among other qualities. I don’t have those. If I did have to set up a bar, I would set it up somewhere other than Japan, because my bar simply would not be able to compete in Japan’s very competitive nightlife.

7. Through your travels you had the opportunity to meet so many interesting people. Who was the most memorable and why?

Tatsuro Yamazaki, the 90-plus year old owner of Bar Yamazaki in Sapporo. I write about him quite extensively in the concluding chapter of the book. His life story is extraordinary (including living in a boiler and being cleaned out by theft and fires ) and I think it helped me understand why Japan’s bars are of such a high standard.

8. If you could trade jobs with one of the people you met from your travels who would it be? (Someone who had an awesome bar or maybe a distiller, etc.)

As I say, I don’t think I have it in me to do any of these people’s jobs, but if I could be the assistant to Toshihiro Manzen, who runs a small craft shochu distillery in Kagoshima prefecture, I would be a happy man. It was such a beautiful place: in the middle of the forest, birdsong drifting into the distilling hall, the sound of the river …. The stills, believe it or not, are wooden and the spirit they produce is really distinctive. I had a tremendous sense when I was there that Manzen san was toiling away at something that will one day get international recognition.

9. Your favorite bar snack (or food with alcohol)?

Cheese. Any cheese. Not because it goes with all alcohol but because I love cheese and am starved of it here in Japan (see page 204 of my book).

10. Where are we most likely to run into you in Tokyo? At which bar?

At a not-very-fancy izakaya called Mugiya out the back end of Shimbashi station. It serves standard Japanese lager in small glasses and the fried spam gives me terrible jip the next morning, but my colleagues at work go there so I go too. It is about the company as much as the drink. When I get my way, we go to a place in Nishi-Shimbashi called Craft Beer Market, which has reasonably priced craft beer that is becoming increasingly popular among my colleagues. Recently, my roistering has been restricted because my wife and I just had a baby.

Shochu 101 – Part Four

Large ceramic pots for aging shochu

Large ceramic pots for aging shochu

Depending on how shochu is aged will be reflected on the palate. Shochu is often aged in tanks, ceramic pots, or barrels. Aged in stainless steel tanks the shochu will retain more of the base ingredient. As ceramic pots are allowed to breathe the shochu softens and rounds out on the palate. Naturally, aging in a wooden barrel will add tannins and color to the shochu similar to whiskey.

Finally, aging a shochu for a long period will let it meld and come together making it smoother and gives it a longer finish. Ku-su (クース) is aged awamori. It must be aged a minimum of three years, and be at least 50% or more to be labeled as ku-su, and is often aged in ceramic pots.

Shochu is made in every prefecture of Japan, which can’t be said about sake as it is not brewed in Kagoshima. Shochu is so prevalent on the southern island of Kyushu, that in many places when you walk into a restaurant and ask for sake, a generic term for alcohol, you may be given shochu. Similar to learning village names of Burgundy, it is good familiarize yourself with the names of the prefectures of Kyushu.

Kagoshima 鹿児島 – imo (sweet potato)
Miyazaki 宮崎 – soba (buckwheat)
Oita 大分 – mugi (barley)
Kumamoto 熊本 – kome (rice)
Fukuoka 福岡
Saga 佐賀
Nagasaki 長崎
Amami Oshima 奄美大島 – kokuto (brown sugar)
Okinawa 沖縄 – awamori

Shochu Authority 焼酎オーソリティ
Chiyoda-ku, Marunouchi 1-9-1, Tokyo Station, Yaesu Kitchen Street, 1st Floor
10:00 – 21:00, no holidays (Japanese)

Shochu Authority has one of the best selection of shochu and awamori in the city. There is so much to choose from and the knowledgeable staff can help you find whatever you are looking for. It is conveniently located inside of Tokyo station. It is inside of the station building, but outside of the ticket gate.

Insider’s tips:
• The most important thing to remember when buying shochu, look for honkaku shochu 本格焼酎.
• Antenna Shops will have good selection of local shochu. Check out Kagoshima (antenna shop chapter) and Miyazaki (see Shinjuku).
• Depachika usually carry a selection of the popular brands.

Shochu 101 part one.

Shochu 101 part two.

Shochu 101 part three.

Shochu 101 – Part Three

Sweet potato farm in Miyazaki

Sweet potato farm in Miyazaki

There are two types of shochu:

Kourui 甲類 is made in a continuous still (renzoku shiki). It is very smooth on the palate and is under 36 degrees alcohol. Kourui shochu is typically used as a mixer for cocktails. On its own it does not have any notable aromas and is unimpressive on the palate. This is typically used as a cocktail mixer.

Otsurui 乙類, made in a pot still (tanshiki), are single distillation shochu. It retains the aroma of the base ingredient. The alcohol percentage is below 45 degrees. Otsurui shochu is good for drinking straight, on the rocks, or with hot water. It can also be used as a mixer for cocktails. Otsurui is also called honkaku shochu 本格焼酎. This is the top quality shochu that is worth exploring. If purchasing any shochu, be sure to ask if it is honkaku shochu.

Kojikin 麹菌 (aspergillus oryzae) is a mold that is used to break down the starches in the base ingredients into fermentable sugars. It is what makes shochu different from other distilled spirits. There are three basic types of koji that are used in creating shochu. The type of koji greatly affects the taste.

Shirokoji 白麹 (white koji) creates a very soft, gentle tasting shochu. These shochu are often light-body shochu.

Kikoji 黄麹 (yellow koji) is the same koji that is used for making sake. The resulting shochu is often aromatic with floral tones, and supple on the palate.

Kurokoji 黒麹 (black koji) is famous for making awamori (of Okinawa). Shochu made with kurokoji are often bold on the palate and full-bodied.

Another tip regarding shochu is to ask if it was distilled under high or low pressure. Genatsu 減圧 is distilled under low pressure, these shochu are often softer on the palate. Joatsu 常圧 is distilled under regular pressure creating more expressive shochu.

Shochu 101 part one.

Shochu 101 part two.

Shochu 101 part four.