Book Review: Drinking Japan

Drinking Japan by Chris BuntingA few months ago I received a review copy of a book that is not entirely about beer (but does include a good chapter on it): Drinking Japan (Amazon link). Since then I’ve been (slowly) making my way through it and overall I am very impressed with it.

As the name implies, this is a guidebook (the subtitle is, “A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments”) and author Chris Bunting (a British journalist who’s been living in Tokyo for a number of years) has provided an incredibly comprehensive look into the drinks of Japan and where to find them. The effort that went into this undertaking is impressive as well:

My research for “Drinking Japan” took more than a year and a half and took me all over the country. It is the first wide-ranging survey in English of the history and culture of Japanese alcohol, with detailed coverage not only of the well-known rice brew sake but of much less explored traditions like shochu, awamori, beer, wine, and Japanese whisky.

A year and a half doesn’t seem like enough time to have compiled the amount of information he presents in this book; yes there is that much information here and though the guidebook itself is only about 250 pages of content in length, it’s densely packed and covers the best of the entire country.

Drinking Japan starts off with an overview of Japan’s drinking culture (both past and present) and covers the types of drinking establishments you will find there. Personally these two opening chapters I found extremely valuable as they cover much of what is expected of you when you enter a bar (often very different from what you’ll encounter here in the West) and various customs that exist around drinking while there. For instance, a “cover charge” or entrance fee is often expected (indeed required) when you enter the premises and it is extremely bad form to refuse this. This often comes in the form of a small dish of food that will accompany your drinking, and Bunting’s advice in this area (if it’s a difficult pill to swallow) is to regard these charges as tips—as tipping in bars and restaurants in Japan is not normal practice.

Beyond that we get into the meat of the book: chapters on sake, shochu, awamori, beer, whiskey, and wine. Each chapter starts with an overview and history of the alcohol in question (understandably more time is spent with the indigenous alcohols of Japan: the brewed sake, and the distilled spirits shochu and awamori). These are fascinating reads in and of themselves. The guide portion follows, which is just as comprehensive. You’ll find:

  • Name, address, phone number, website of establishment
  • Map plus directions to find it
  • Hours of operation (always check the website to be sure, of course)
  • Whether booking or reservations are required, if they have an English language menu, what credit cards are accepted, and if they have a cover charge (and how much that is if they do)

Each entry (which occupies a single page) is accompanied by a photo and the writeup not only covers the establishment, but often delves into detail or anecdotes about the establishment itself, the food, or the wares they serve. For instance, for the “Beer Cafe Barley” entry there’s a digression into the beers of the Hitachino Nest brand, and under the sake entry for “Taruichi” half of the write-up is about the extensive whale menu (yes, whale).

Beyond the guidebook and cultural aspects of the book (I actually find it quite fascinating to read about the Japanese cultural approach to alcohol), I have to mention that I really like the physical characteristics of the book itself as well: it’s sturdy, well-bound, small enough to easily fit into a backpack or bag without dominating too much space, and—this strikes me as important for a guidebook about bars and alcohol—the pages themselves are a heavier stock, with a glossy finish that would seem to stand up well to liquids and spills. In other words: slopping your beer on this book won’t hurt it or significantly degrade the pages.

But in the interest of fairness I do have a few negatives however:

  • Small print and narrow font: while I have good vision, I do find the small print problematic at times—particularly when there’s a strong light source (if you’re outside for instance) reflecting off of the glossy pages. This extends to the Japanese ideogram characters as well: while I think it’s a great idea to include them for reference, they are very small and could present difficulties to decipher when looking for the larger equivalents.
  • While I like the map thumbnails included with the one-page listing guides for locations, they are obviously Google Map-looking captures and I wish they could have been bigger. (Though perhaps this is more reflective of being used to an online interactive map.) The maps are about 2 by 1.5 inches on the page, and unfortunately at that size can lack a larger context.
  • Speaking of maps, while there are a few larger ones at the back of the book, I would have liked an overall map of Japan: I’m not familiar enough with the geography of the country to get an overall sense of what Bunting is referring to when he speaks of the various geographical locations.

On more thing I should mention: a portion of the proceeds from the purchase of the book will go to Japan earthquake relief. I know it’s been six months since the earthquake and tsunami that shook Japan and it’s mostly fallen out of public consciousness, but recovery is expected to take at least five years so this is still highly relevant.

I can definitely recommend this book to anyone visiting (or living in) Japan as a valuable addition to your bookshelf; in fact it’s an interesting enough book to belong on your bookshelf as an overview of the drinks and drinking culture of Japan, even if you never visit. The format works well enough, in fact, that I’d like to see it similarly adopted to other regional alcohol guides.

The book sells for $24.95 retail, and currently on Amazon you can get it for $18.21.

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