One of my favourite sayings remains, much the the Ewing’s chagrin, if you’re going to get wet then you may as well go swimming; a motto that perfectly encapsulates drinking while on holiday. Or how a lunchtime ‘lite’ beer can quickly escalate to a dinner time bottle of sweet potato sochu (firewater would probably be too kind a word) followed by some late night drunken sausage eating. No euphemism intended.
The best way to start any lash up has got to be with a visit to Tokyo’s famed ‘Piss Alley’ or Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane). Set amongst the ultra-modern skyline of Shinjuku this tumble down warren of alleys by the railway station remains untouched by the bulldozers of modernity. Which is a jolly good thing as these tiny drinking dens, thick with the smoke from charcoal grilled yakatori skewers, remain one of the most exhilarating places in the city for a jar or two.
We got their early doors on a Saturday, just as the sun was going down. Despite my intention to stay cool and wander up and down for a bit checking things out, we were commandeered almost immediately by a friendly lady beckoning us to sit at her tiny bar; with most of the establishments being of a similarly bijou size we took the opportunity to get settled down in a friendly spot.
Feeling fearless, I commandeered the menu and ordered two sticks each of gizzards, chicken skin, tsukune (chicken meatballs), cartilage, chicken and Japanese spring onion, pork tongue and garlic. These can all be ordered with tare (sweet glaze) or shiro (salt). We just pointed and hoped.
First up was the skin, burnished and crisp from the hot coals, followed by the cartilage (bordering on distressingly crunchy) meatballs (good, but still full of cartilage) chicken (a safe, but tasty choice), tongue (surprisingly good, if a little offaly) garlic (potent enough to dissuade an army of vampires) and gizzards (the Ewing finally gave up, calling them ‘chewy pebbles’ and made me finish them).
The following day was my birthday and after a sake lunch at Genki sushi, before a restorative matcha frappucciono at the Starbucks overlooking the famous crossing in Shibuya we made like Bill Murray and headed up to the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo for cocktails in the New York Bar.
In an interesting quirk of the changeable Japanese weather, Typhoon Phanfone, the first of our brief visit, had rapidly descended and you would have been lucky to see your hand in front of your face let alone the glittering lights of the big city. While we had been rather spilt with our visit up the Government Tower the day before, where we had seen Mount Fuji at sunset, the swirling gloom outside only served to make it more exciting at night time.
Clearly there was only one drink I could have ordered, the Suntory Hibiki 17 Japanese whisky. ‘For relaxing times, chose Suntory times’, to borrow a phrase. It was very nice, as were the little rice crackers that they dished out to each table, which I gobbled up to take the sting out of the fact my single finger of whisky cost more than lunch for two had earlier.
Of course, it was worth it, even with the labyrinth like route to the top that involved walking through a library and two restaurants before taking two lifts and three sets of stairs and even involved one poor lady at reception running out ion to the road to steer us back in the right direction. If you’re there yourself I can recommend the French 75, made with both gin and ‘proper’ fizz to see you right.
In the miracle that was actually escaping without incident we decided to head down into the bowels of the building, there is also a food court, shops and offices at the same location, for some late night supper. We chose Saboten, primarily because of the bewitching plastic food in the window (still one of my favourite Japanese quirks) and had soon both chosen a set meal of pork cutlets and other deep fried things with rice, white cabbage and various other accouterments.
Tonkatsu is a big deal in japan and the shredded cabbage also bought with it a ridged dish of black and white sesame seeds alongside a wooden pestle. Here the object was to pulverise the seeds with the wooden object, before adding ladles of sweet tonkatsu sauce from the crock on the table.
What you did with it next was anyone’s guess as in the intervening time we had ordered and made serious inroads, into a large bottle of sweet potato sochu, a kind of fortified rot gut that feels like such a good idea the night before.
Of course, there were also the cutlets themselves; a straight pork number and a rolled cutlet, made of wafer thin curls of meat that resembled a porcine cigar. These were served alongside alongside giant crispy shrimp, a croquette of minced chicken and vegetables and a chicken breast stuffed with umboshi sour plums. Add rice and miso soup and it was a proper, pissed feast.
Needless to say we had a wonderful evening that was, thankfully, curtailed when we were thrown out in the politest way possible. No because of any terrible transgressions, merely they were trying to close for the evening. We still managed to have lots of fun recording the automatic flush noises in the loo outside, before ’comically’ riding the escalators for a bit, though.
Of course the evening couldn’t end there and so we found an off licence near our hotel that was crammed to the gills with all sorts of weird and wonderful (native and imported) goodies. First up was the huge choice of Japanese whiskeys, including a bottle of Nikka from the barrel we picked up for under a tenner (there were four litres of cheapo whiskey available for about 12 quid) sake and sochu (wisely declined). They also had a full range of Hachiko Japanese craft ale as well as the biggest range of Brew Dog beer I have seen anywhere, including most of their bars (they do have one in Tokyo, which may be a clue to how they were so well stocked).
After walking around for a while in an inebriated daze we left with our whiskey, reserves of crazy flavoured Pringles, amazing snack sausages and some ales including a Hitachino Espresso Stout and Suiyoubi No Neko Yona Yona Ale, a wheat beer the Ewing coverted as it had a cat on the label. Definitely a place to check out if there’s any room in the suitcase, or if you just want the party to carry on a little longer.
Of course a big night before means a morning after but I knew I could always get through the day knowing I could come back to my massage chair, and the prospect of a vending machine beer from the hotel lobby.
Another great drinking accompaniment are dumplings. Like ramen, Japanese gyoza (or, originally, jiaozi) are a Chinese import; and like ramen, the Japanese have taken to them like the proverbial duck to water (and a very many ducks have ended up in these dumplings). One of the best spots in town to enjoy some gyoza is Harajuku’s Gyozaro, a nondescript place just off the main drag that can be identified by its yellow and red sign advertising (I presume) the two types of dumpling on offer there.
Alongside the dumplings there’s not much else, just a two side dishes, chicken soup and rice and drinks. To start we had a round of frosty Kirin beer and the sides; firstly a utilitarian bowl of sliced cucumber with miso followed by bean sprouts with a meat sauce. Both sounded rather uninspiring but tasted superlative, reminding me of the benefits of a small menu where everything has to earn its place.
After the appetisers I worried the dumplings would disappoint. Thankfully I needn’t have worried, the main draw, ordered by the half dozen - either pan fried or steamed and filled with a choice of pork or pork and garlic chives (nira) - were spot on. We had a portion of each, both with chives, and I can highly recommend both the crisp gossamer skins of the fried version and the chewy, succulent steamed snacks; especially good with lashings of rice vinegar, soy and blazing chilli oil, and icy beer, of course.
Everyone loves a train beer and thankfully Japanese beers, like most beers, are getting more sophisticated. No longer is cheap, gassy lager going to cut it (although low malt, low flavour brews are still popular thanks to the low tax they attract from the government).
The beverage I chose for my trip on the Shinkansen was a Aooni pale ale, an pale ale touted as 'a taste of magic', which went down a storm with my tonkatsu sando (yes, that is a breaded cutlet sandwiched between yet more bread) and pickle flecked potato salad. And one of the most gratifying meal I had on the whole trip, enjoyed as the plains of Honshu whizzed past at nearly 200 km an hour.
The return trip was a little more restrained. This time I enjoyed an Asahi autumn lager (bizarrely I had been drinking the winter edition while in Kyoto) alongside some short and crumbly matcha biscuits.
Of course, there is always a place for a cold lager, and so we headed for a Sunday brewski at the pop-up Kirin beer garden in Shibuya. After sitting through the (mercifully short) promo video before we could actually gain access, we were lead to the bar where we chose one of their special frozen beers. The Ewing going with the brown one (stout) which I later described on Instagram as being Mr Hankey-esque, while I chose the curious, orangey one.
The lack of English made me slightly concerned, but hey, it was beer, right. And yes it was beer, only with the addition of long life orange juice. It was as harrowing as it sounded; God only knows what was in the red one…Of course, I drank it anyway, as quickly as I could and with a sad look on my face all while trying to desperately convince myself it was merely a Calippo with a faintly ‘adult’ flavour...
After I had successfully sunk it I rewarded myself with a ‘proper’ frozen Kirin, still rather weak and watery (as is most crowd-pleasing lager), but rather fun and refreshing on a muggy day. To be fair a deuce of these was all I needed in the heat of the afternoon to mean a restorative trip to Genki was needed for a fix of maguro nigiri. Any excuse…