Tag Archives: beer

Drunk on Culture

There were a couple moments the other day when I was reminded that Japan does things a little differently. It was about 7pm at the Yokohama Octoberfest, every seat was packed and people were clearly enjoying themselves when a couple of foreign guys stood atop their benches to greet the rest of the crowd. They promptly got a friendly response from all the other revelers but were just as quickly and politely told to sit down by security (a security I hadn’t even noticed until that point). They didn’t complain, they sat down with a smile and everyone carried on as normal.

That this only happened once in the few hours I was at the festival didn’t betray a lack of good times. On the contrary everyone was thoroughly enjoying themselves and when the German musicians came out to greet the tables outside the main tent they got a fantastic reception, glasses and arms swaying as we all cheered along.

So what was different about it all?

To me, I guess it simply felt more grown up.

I hesitate to use the phrase as to suggest that the Japanese are in someway more mature than other nations, to imply that kind of comparison between nations at all feels condescending.

The truth is that what I’m talking about isn’t maturity but a manifestation of culture.

Though people of a European or North American background make up less than 0.5% of the population in Japan the figure is marginally higher in Yokohama which prides itself on being an international city.

Nonetheless however, Yokohama is still overwhelmingly Japanese and as such so was yesterday’s event. Japanese culture, not an international mix was the dominant force in setting the atmosphere of the day and so I doubt 95% of the crowd would even consider for half a second, no matter how heartily they’d taken to the festivities or yards of Heineken they’d drunk (if the crowd wasn’t that international the choice of beer certainly was), clambering atop their bench and drawing all the attention of the other drinkers towards them.

What makes this even stranger is that this kind of behaviour, from a British point of view at least, ought to be more pronounced at a Japanese Octoberfest. That Far East Asian people often have a lower alcohol tolerance than other ethnic groups is a fairly commonly held conception (I wouldn’t like to make too much of a claim as to its veracity, anecdotally at least it seems to hold true…ish) as such shouldn’t there be more not less drunken shenanigans? Hell, even based on the lower average height and weight of the Japanese this ought to hold true.

Yet, no.

Not at all.

Once again I’m inclined to believe that culture trumps genetics because as Kate Fox of the SIRC (Social Issues Research Centre) noted in her episode of Four Thought  on the BBC last October, alcohol by and large has little to do with how we act as a nation when knocking back the booze. Far more powerful are the myths and narratives that we build around it. The self fulfilling prophecy that imbibing inevitably leads to putting a traffic cone atop a bus stop. Or as she rather more academically describes it,

“The effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol.”

The article further mentions that countries like the UK and US have something called an ambivalent drinking culture, in that we assume all manners of behaviour, usually negative, to be the by product of alcohol consumption.  However, in Integrated cultures e.g. many Mediterranean countries, alcohol is seen as morally neutral  therefore these kinds of negative behaviour aren’t associated with alcohol consumption per say.

So where does that leave Japan?

Well, certainly many things that might be considered to be a moral matter here such as sex and gambling, aren’t viewed in quite the same way as they are in countries with a different religious background. Certainly alcohol isn’t seen to be as much of a moral issue as a practical issue.

Take a look at the decline in Salaryman pocket money over the years or the tradition of handing over one’s pay cheque directly to one’s wife in Japan for example. Men drinking too much isn’t so much a moral problem, it’s a practical one. There are home loans, children’s educational costs and taxes to pay first and if there’s something left over then the husband might be able to spend it on a night at an Izakaya.

There’s one problem with my argument though.

Yes, culture appears to dictate what is acceptable behaviour while drinking, however, while national cultures are persuasive in this way (and the Japanese have the proverb, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” for a reason) sub-cultures are equally if not more persuasive at times. So as you read about the surprising maturity evident at an Octoberfest event of all places, there is most probably a drunk salarayman asleep across four seats of the train disproving my foolish notion.

Shoganai ne.

Or as we say in English, ‘it can’t be helped, can it?’

Ah well, let’s just stop worrying and enjoy it shall we?

Cheers!

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Travel by Tweet: How to Throw Away Your Guidebook in Japan

I was in Shizuoka City looking to find a nice little bar I’d read about for a celebratory pint (I’d just got a new job), when once again I was reminded how little people know their own cities and towns.

Everyone I asked had little idea about where I was talking about. In fact, at one point I was stood almost beneath the sign of the bar in question, as usual unable to spot anything that isn’t directly under my nose.

Eventually I asked two gentlemen where I could find the bar; not a clue, never heard of it. We were ten feet away.

On my second lap around the block I did eventually spot it and rather embarrassedly walked up the stairs to find ‘Beer No Yokota.’ Fortunately it was more than worth getting a little lost for.

It’s understandable I suppose that people don’t always know their own towns so well. When it’s the place you call home it’s easy to get into a routine, to only dine and drink at the usual familiar places, to discover new places through the recommendations of friends, family and co-workers. In Japan, with the tendency for restaurants to be tucked away on the fourth floor of a non-descript tower block it’s easy to never know a place even exists.

Now this can be a problem for those of us who live in Japan and speak a little/a lot of Japanese. So how much more difficult must it be if you’re in Japan on holiday, what do you do if you’re trying to escape Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka or any other tourist friendly location for a slice of real Japan?

Go with your guidebook?

Hardly.

With the Lonely Planet Japan guidebook devoting around one hundred pages each to the big three of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka it’s easy to understand why other areas get fewer pages assigned to them.

Even then it’s inevitable that otherwise great travel writers are going to miss some local gems when they haven’t got the time to search out every hidden corner of a town.

Indeed even if you’re local it can be pretty tough to get recommendations from Japanese people. Particularly if you’re a teacher out here, as many long-term foreign residents are, then your students will often be reticent to offer recommendations for fear that you won’t like the places they enjoy.

However, there’s another reason why it’s so hard to stray off the well-worn guidebook paths and in likelihood it’s the one you’re worrying about.

The language.

Leaving Tokyo and it’s English menus behind can be daunting for many travelers but even if you haven’t had time to master some few thousand Japanese kanji there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try to enjoy a bit of real Japan. Armed with a couple simple phrases and a little local knowledge there’s no end of places to discover outside of the big three.

So how to go about finding them?

Go local. Get specific.

Not literally.

Digitally.

I discovered Beer no Yokota via the gastronomic musing of one Shizuoka Gourmet

If you’re a craft beer fan like me then you won’t go wrong with the Japan Beer Times a bilingual go-to-guide for all you Hop Heads out there.

Fancy catching some footy while you’re out here? Then take a look at the fan blogs for a quality English resource. My local team, Shimizu S-Pulse is followed by the UK Ultras who offer the complete lowdown on everything you need to know to get to the games and sing along with the fans.

For those of you who’d prefer to spend your holidays in a more healthy fashion taking in all Japan’s beautiful outdoors has to offer then head on to Outdoor Japan.

However, if you want to track down somewhere with a limited web presence, a pretty common thing in Japan, then look no further than Twitter. Once you’ve found one person or company who shares some of your interests then Twitter handily starts recommending more of them to you. On top of that it’s one of the few forms of publicly accessible social media that Japan has truly embraced.

It’s also an easy way to discover real life connections between places as most independent places know the other people running shops and restaurants in their town and follow them on Twitter.

So there it is. A little prep, a little wi-fi and possibly a lot of google translating later you can be sat in a little antique café, eating local ice-cream or supping the local brew.

And when you do, don’t forget to blog or tweet about it so the rest of us can enjoy it too.

 

 

Sentimental Sake:The Perils of a Late Night Beer Run

Every time I buy beer at precisely 9:55 in the evening I feel nostalgic, almost wistful. I begin to think about all the things I’ve done with my life, the myriad of things I’ve dreamt about that I haven’t even begun to get close to.

I start to plan and plot the months and years ahead. I make promises to myself. I challenge myself to do more with my time here in Japan, to take risks, travel and throw myself into the culture, to spend my money on something innately Japanese, to save more money for the day I eventually go back to England.

All these things pile up around my head as I make my way to the checkout, hand over my points card (it’s the second Japanese economy), exchange pleasantries with the staff who now know my face well enough to smile and bow from three tills away, hand over my cash, drop the six pack of Japanese lager into my reusable shopping bag and make my way to do the door wondering why all Japanese supermarkets have to play the tune of ‘Old Lang Syne’ at closing time.

Then I open my first can and forget every single resolution I just made in the ten minutes it took me to walk to the supermarket and back for a few beers after work.

Until the next time I’m greeted by an alcohol free fridge at least…

A Different Ball Game: Welcome to the J-league

There’s something not right about Japanese football fans. It’s like they haven’t got the memo. Don’t they know that football is supposed to be endured?

It’s an affliction, an addiction that blights the lives of supporters across the world.

I mean, teams are supposed to be owned by morally dubious Russian Oligarchs or Arab Sheiks, not by local companies, local government and certainly not the fans themselves.

It’s supposed to be the last bastion of masculinity, not a place where women, children and babies in tiny replica shirts venture or even god forbid participate as fans.

You’re supposed to randomly hurl abuse at the referee, a man or woman who has devoted countless hours to the game, who knows the rules inside out and yet still doesn’t know better than you. You are most certainly not to be respectful of them.

Then of course there are the songs and chants; these should at least be mildly offensive to the other team and its fans. However, if you can manage to incorporate, racism, sexism or homophobia into them, all the better.

They should not include dance routines.

But most of all and this really is quite important… you’re not supposed to enjoy the game!

Actually, on second thoughts, Japan might be onto something here…

Let’s face it, Japan has got fan culture down pat. They are Zen masters in the fanatic arts, fully in tune with Wa, their sense of a communal Japanese identity. Their football is still like all football worldwide, tribal at heart, but this tribe at least is open to most.

Even at my hometown club, Huddersfield Town AFC, a club voted Family Club of the year a number of times, I still wouldn’t want to take a young kid all the time. Exposing a kid to the kind of red faced, vein throbbing, eye popping anger and vile language that can come out of some supporters isn’t exactly high on my to do list. I may not blink when I see or hear it but I’ve seen little kids absolutely stunned by it. I can still remember the look on the face of a little four year old girl, just staring, mouth agape as a man nearby turned a bright shade of red as he hurled invective in the direction of the fella with the whistle.

My experience at an Shimizu S-Pulse game was somewhat different. The contrast was in fact pretty stark at times. The S-Pulse fans, all decked out in bright orange replica kits and homemade fan t-shirts, spent almost the whole ninety plus minutes singing their hearts out. Simply put, they were enjoying the sing-along and the football too much to be incensed to such a degree by one decision not going their way on the pitch. On top of that, the friendly, though no less passionate atmosphere was welcoming enough that a girl who couldn’t have been more than ten years old spent the entire match bouncing and cheering away, cajoling her rather less interested older sister to do the same. She must have picked up this habit at a young age, much like the one year old a few seats away who had already mastered the fist pump to, “ore!” Yes, “ore.” The Japanese ‘l’ isn’t ready for a full Spanish “ole!” quite yet.

So, what is it about Japanese football that makes it so different from that played on British, European and every other nation’s soil that includes kicking a ball as a national pastime?

First of all, age. The J-League has only been in existence since 1992/1993. The historic rivalry of clubs like Liverpool and Manchester Utd in England, Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain, Inter and A.C. Milan in Italy and Rangers and Celtic in Scotland cannot possible have had time to emerge in such a way here in Japan. In addition, the political, historical and in the case of Rangers and Celtic, religious differences have no equivalents here in Japan. Also, by starting their existence within the last twenty years Japanese clubs benefit from a supporter environment that would not have held the inbuilt sexual and racial biases of those in countries that have played football far longer.

There is also the rather complicated fact of culture to contend with. If you ever wonder why Spain plays pretty football while the English hoof it and the Scottish cheer slide tackles like goals, think of the weather. Have you ever tried to play the beautiful game on a rain sodden pitch? Wind blowing too? Not so simple. Ever slide tackled on dry soil? Not so easy.

What about mentality?

What do fans traditionally value? The British; a player busting a gut, appearing all over the pitch, a one man whirlwind devoted to team play. Italy; catenaccio, otherwise known as the door bolt. The Japanese, a beautiful passing game, but one that rather lacks in a cutting edge as said cutting edge requires a degree of selfishness rather lacking from their sporting mindset.

Although perhaps the most telling difference comes with the alcohol. Japanese fans can bring their own. Three hours before kick-off even. In contrast it’s banned in Scottish football stadiums, though not in Rugby ones. The mentality is simply different.

But is it better? Well…

Frankly it’s a matter of taste. If you bleed, sweat and cry your team’s colours and so did your father before you and his before him, then it may not be your pint of bitter.

But for me? For the kids and families filling the stadium? Passing football, cheap beer, food aplenty, friendly fans and a victory dance called the Roko Roko (the loco loco, again struggling with the ‘l’)?

That’ll do us just fine. And with the Nadeshiko Japan (Japan’s women’s team) having brought home the world cup. You have to assume it’s only going to get bigger still.

Viva S-Pulse!

 

Harry Potter and the Matsukawa Matsuri

Japan in the summer is hot, it’s humid and frankly downright unpleasant at times. In addition, we’re currently experiencing the last vestiges of the rainy season or ‘tsuyu’, which means that I am never without an umbrella.The Japanese summer does have however, one major redeeming feature. It’s festival time.

What does this mean? Well the usually quiet streets of every village or town will be full to the brim with people of all ages. Little kids clad in kimonos strike a traditional tone somewhat tempered by the Pikachu mask while grown men sway and bounce as they carry large wooden floats down the street powered only by sheer force of will and a plentiful supply of sake.

Then there’s the street food. The takoyaki (octopus dumplings), the yakisoba (fried soba), barbecued ika (squid), barbecued everything on a stick, and most necessary in such weather, all manner of kakigori (flavoured ice) to lessen the suffering of my scolded tongue; the takoyaki was particularly hot. My friend believes that the takoyaki is in fact super heated to drive sales of the kakigori and beer.

Considering how quiet these little Japanese towns can be it is absolutely wonderful to see them packed to the brim. Local dance groups perform for the crowd, hanabi (fireworks, though the literal translation is fire flower) burst in the clear night sky, shimmering against the black night. All the while the booze flows quite freely. In fact, if the guys carrying the floats down the street aren’t very hammered indeed, well you’re simply in the wrong kind of town because the festival season is the time of year when the otherwise polite and restrained Japanese let their hair down.

Towards the end of the festivities a friend of mine, another English teacher, bumped into a former student of his. Standing on the side of the road and being quite the talkative bunch, particularly after a few beers, we ended up talking not only to his former student but to many a passerby. In particular the five of us gaijin English teachers there that night, met a very nice Malaysian family. Having revealed our various nationalities (Serbian, American, Canadian and English) the parents began trying to remember what English person I could possibly remind them of. With floppy brown hair, dark brown eyes and a fairly quintessential English accent, I’m used to being compared to pretty much anyone out of a Richard Curtis movie. However, I’d made a fatal mistake. I was wearing my glasses. I give a warning now to any Englishmen of the bespectacled variety that ventures onto foreign shores, there is only one man, nay boy, you will be compared to should you meet anybody under thirty or with children. You may think the individual in question, who you have no doubt guessed the identity of by now (mostly by dint of the title) is a wonderful chap, and in real life he may perhaps be just that, but in literary form he is a multi-million pound boy wizard who has never captured my cynical imagination.

So having raised giggles from all around with my resemblance to Harry sodding Potter, I thought it couldn’t get any worse. Then someone said, ‘cast a spell! You know, for the kids.’

Lets get something straight. This was in no way, for the kids, the kids were simply bemused by the random collection of foreigners. This, this was for the parents and my friends.

My cynicism however, only goes so far. Handed the inflatable toy sword of one of the kids I sheepishly proceeded to cast a spell above his head.

Ah well, if all I have to do to enjoy festival season in Japan is occasionally impersonate a fictional wizard I’ll do it.

I won’t be wearing my glasses to another festival mind you.

Three White Russians, a Buddhist Priest and a Gaijin

Japan is as littered with peculiar contrasts as any country, but having modernized so quickly and completely, having lurched into modernity at such a pace while simultaneously remaining quite distinct from the outside world, it often finds these two faces cheek to cheek. The traditional kneeling next to the contemporary is like any distinction, sometimes held up with pride and oft times a source of friction. Like two tectonic plates colliding, new masses will be formed and shock waves will ripple and as always people will rebuild on what’s left.

The Japanese living in a land where the earthquake is no stranger to their lives, have designed buildings that bend and flex with the violent forces beneath their foundations. The people I would suggest are built much the same. Marrying elements of their own culture with surprising ease to a variety of other cultural influences until it is barely distinguishable from the native. Often the only reason my particularly young students know something isn’t Japanese in origin is that the word appears in katakana, the written form of Japanese for loan words. Otherwise it’s simply part of their world and they’re none the wiser.

However, despite the global invasion, and the seemingly universal love of a cheeseburger I’ve yet to see a kid out here devour anything quite as quickly, or quite as gleefully for that matter, as a bowl of rice. It’s like watching a vacuum cleaner attached to a set of chopsticks. Sometimes globalization simply doesn’t make a dent.

The time I experienced this mix of cultures most clearly was last New Year’s Eve.  Nagano was covered in snow. The mountains with their white capped peaks were stunning to behold, while out in the countryside the snow drifts, pristine and white under a clear night sky shimmered in the moonlight. No electric lamplight to dull the stars as I sat far out in the countryside in a beautiful Buddhist temple run by one of my students.

I’d been looking for a way to spend New Years and very kindly two of my older students invited me to spend New Year at their temple. What I hadn’t expected, and nor had they, was that my lift to their temple would drop me off a whole twelve hours early.

So there we sat dictionaries in hand, both beginners in each other’s languages, drinking green tea and trying to stay warm under the kotatsu (essentially a heated coffee table with a blanket/duvet wedged under the table top and covering your legs – it’s amazing). For a while he showed me how some simple kanji (the Chinese characters used by the Japanese for part of their writing system) had developed over time. Then how two wholly separate ideas could combine to create new meanings and how these would then be refined down to their bare bones to create the modern form of the word as the technique for writing it became the standard in much the same way as Johnson’s dictionary locked English spelling into place.

Before long the conversation has drifted towards what I’d done for a living before I’d become an English teacher. So I listed my litany of crimes, library worker, dish washer, petrol station worker and finally bartender. In England this receives a barely perceptible nod, as pretty much everyone seems to have pulled a pint at some point in his or her university life. But in Japan, and with an ageing couple, a young man who once shook a steel container filled with booze and ice is apparently quite exciting.  However, the conversation moved on and soon my student and I were on a New Year’s Eve errand, running gift boxes temple to temple with my erstwhile profession forgotten… or so I thought.

On the way back to his temple my student suddenly veered off into a Megaten, a large chain of off licenses here in Japan, and I was asked to pick up the ingredients to produce a cocktail. Aiming for simplicity and not to bankrupt him with the cost of liquer I quickly grabbed two smallish bottles and headed to the till where of course he wouldn’t let me pay.

Once back at the temple I was guided towards the kotatsu in the room adjacent to the kitchen where my students were preparing the New Year’s Eve feast. I offered to help as often as possible but eventually took the hint that my help would be more of a hindrance. So instead I ended up watching Casablanca with Japanese subtitles.

Before all the local people began to arrive we sat down for an early meal and I duly made some Black and White Russians. A traditional feast next to western cocktails, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting to say the least. Fortunately they thought the creations to be rather nice, but another consequence was on its way. Knowing the English, ‘do you like…?’ rather well, but being quite limited in other areas of communication they decided to make use of that phrase as often as possible with the addition of a different alcoholic beverage at the end each time. Sake, wine, gin, beer…

By the end of the evening I was outside by the fire in front of the temple, attempting to keep warm with the other visitors. There is a tradition in Buddhist temples at New Year that the bell should be rung precisely one hundred and eight times (representing the 108 sins as recognized in Buddhism) and so with my belly warmed by hot sake I rang the bell twice, the number of times I had been told was appropriate. Eventually as the night drew on and toes began to freeze someone gave me a nudge, ‘go ring the bell again would you, we’re getting cold.’

Tradition is pretty flexible it seems.

Forza Júbilo!

With rapidly burning arms in the hot Shizuoka sunshine I was beginning to look like the archetypal British tourist abroad. Towel draped over my neck and beginning to turn a medium rare pink on every inch of my body exposed to the midday sun. Just to complete the stereotype of a hooligan Brit abroad I was shouting at the football. Now before you think I’d somehow discovered a Red Lion pub in Eastern Japan and draped myself in a white napkin knotted at the corners I should point out that I was in fact attending my first Japanese football match (Júbilo Iwata v. Kobe Vissel), the towel was the Japanese equivalent of a football scarf and… ok the sunburn I can’t defend.

Last weekend, with an adult student of mine acting as my guide I ventured out to my first, though hopefully not my last, Japanese football match. An eight hour round trip to Iwata in Shizuoka prefecture the cost of getting the fix of live football that has been sadly absent from my life since I left Britain’s shores last year.

Arriving at the tiny stadium on a quiet and beautifully sunny Saturday afternoon around half an hour before kick off I was surprised to see so little a crowd edging their way to the stadium. The reason it turned out was that the place was already more than three quarters full. Some six thousand or so fans already lining the terraces, snacking on yakitori, kebabs, fries, sandwiches, iced drinks, cold beers and as usual in Japan a few edible items of indeterminate origin. Every single fan sporting a scarf/towel hybrid in Júbilo Iwata sky blue or a replica shirt from any number of seasons and sponsors past. The safe standing area in what most British fans would know as the cow shed end of the stadium was already packed (but in an orderly Japanese fashion) and bouncing to a drum beat from a Brazilian fan, cheered on by some huge flags that looked to have poles long enough to jab the goalkeeper with. Of course such mischief would never occur to these fans. Unfortunately. I may or may not have been envisioning a giant foam finger on the end of a flagpole…

As I noted in the Hiroshima Carp post a while back, Japanese fans are crazy and I love them for it. Their enthusiasm is simply boundless. The players arrived for their warm up around twenty minutes before kick off and the fans immediately burst into a full throated round of songs and chants declaring their love for every player and all things Júbilo Iwata.

This is also probably one of the few places in Japan beyond Tokyo and the port cities where internationalism is clearly visible. To begin with Júbilo is Portuguese for, ‘exultation’ while the score board declared, ‘Forza Júbilo !’ A frankly wonderful declaration of support for a Japanese team using a mix of Italian and Portuguese that I guess means, ‘forward exultation’. Frankly I’d march to that, nevermind bounce on the terraces.

Inevitably though, when the goals did come it wasn’t from a Japanese boot. This is a country seemingly socially incapable of producing a striker. The team ethic is so well honed and drilled in children from such a young age that the creativity, individuality and downright selfishness required to be a decent striker doesn’t exist. So like any other nation in the world, they brought in some Brazilians to do it for them. The goals in this game came from the boot of one Gilsinho, his first a sublime effort after cutting in from the left wing and his second a neat finish after some chaos in the box.

You can find the match report here.

As the final whistle blew I waited for the anticipated rush from the stadium that so characterizes the end of English football matches, that mad dash to the car in an often ill-fated attempt to avoid the traffic. Yet it never materialized. No mad rush, but instead half the stadium gathering as close to the pitch as they could get as the players took a long stroll around the pitch to thank the fans. A more appreciative group of fans would be really hard to find.

So, a hint of carnival, kids running around and my twenty five year old student screaming like a demented toddler who thinks he’s just spotted Santa coming down the chimney in an attempt to catch the attention of his favourite player.

It’s no cold day at the Galpharm but it’ll do nicely for now.