The World of Japanese Spirits from Awamori to Zakuro-shu


Kampai is out!

A very, very nice surprise this morning.

My latest work, Kampai, has managed to break the top ten in Japan. 

I'm not crazy about the cover, to be honest. And, the final product is very different from what I intended to write, but, but, but, there's still a lot of interesting information thrown in with anecdotes of my life in Japan. A Kampai! 2 is in the works, and may come out perhaps next year.

Lemme tell ya, this has been perhaps the most productive nine months of my life. In addition to the dozen or so articles I have written for a number of different sites, mags, and journals, I have pumped out:

a new novel (A Woman's Hand), rewritten another (Rokuban), gotten half done on a third (A Woman's Tears),


Seasonal Brews

Nippon Beer's Shironigori

   The Shironigori is such a good "Weißbier" I was tempted to go back to my local Lawson's convenience store and buy their entire stock. The can says this beer is shipped directly from Belgium. I'm not sure if that is a marketing gimmick or fact. Anyways, get it while supplies last.

Suntory's The Royal Bitter

  Not bad. Tastes like something you might find in a British pub, only with more of a head on it.

Asahi's Aki Yoi

  Much cheaper than Aki Aji, this happôsei (see Happôshu) from Asahi called Aki Yoi (an early evening in autumn) also has none of the charm of Kirin's seasonal beer. Treat yourself to a Suntory Kaku High Ball, instead.

Yona Yona Ale

   A very hoppy beer that reminds me of a good microbrew you might find in Oregon. A real keeper.

   Price: ¥260

Sapporo's Nihon no Irodori

   "The Color or Spice of Autumn", made with "some" barley harvested in Hokkaidô, is a remarkably unremarkable beer. Glad I bought the smaller can. 

   By the way, why is everything called "Premium" these days? Perhaps I can get a t-shirt with that written boldly on the chest.

   Price: ¥224

Kirin's Ichiban Shibori Stout


   First off, the can states, "Just taste 'Ichibanshibori Stout.' The first wort gives a marvelously deep taste. The aroma of roasted malt and smooth creamy from enrich your precious time." That was either written by a fiendish drunk, or was meant as a kind of Buddhist kôan to meditate over while you enjoyed your brewsky. Whichever the case, this stout just doesn't quite live up to the advertised hype. A marvelously deep taste? Not really. A deep-ish taste, perhaps. Smooth and creamy? Nah. It does have have a good aroma, though, one which reminds me of my home-brewing days. Now that I think about it, I could have made this beer myself, and Kirin could have done much better. 

   Want a good stout? Treat yourself to a Guinness.

   Alc./Vol 5%

  Price: ¥217

Kirin's Tanrei Draft

   This was disappointing. I was hoping for the poor man's version of Kirin's Aki Aji. What I got was Kirin's Tanrei happôshu (low malt beer), the same old crap in a colorful, autumny can.

   Live and learn.

   Fortunately, this lesson was cheap: only ¥141.

   Alc./Vol 5.5%

Helios Goya Dry

   Helios Goya Dry from Uchinaa (Okinawa) is made with goya (nigauri, a bitter gourd native to the island). Because of its novel recipe Goya Dry can't legally be called a beer. I found a beer from Karuizawa that was also classified as a hôpposhu because it had contained coriander/cilantro. 

  A sticker on the can says Goya Dry has been crowned gold medal winner at a number of beer contests in Japan. Is it really that good? You'll have to find that out for yourself. I will say, though, that it is certainly both bitter and dry.





   This has definitely been el Verano del Mojito (the summer of the mojito) for me. I'd never been a fan of the drink before, but for some reason this year the cocktail has taken a hold of me. Hardly a week has gone by that I haven't had at least one mojito. (It is usually quite a few more than one.) I even started to make the drink at home, and after much trial and error, have gotten the deceptively easy cocktail down. Even my wife, who hardly ever drinks, says it's pretty good.

  As I wrote last week, the minty cocktail has enjoyed quite a surge in popularity in Japan this summer. My suspicion is that the trend can most likely be traced back to a boardroom meeting at the Bacardi headquarters. Their drive to push more Bacardi onto unsuspecting consumers has surely succeeded beyond their wildest imagination. So popular is the mojito today that spearmint has become a scarce commodity. Before ordering the cocktail, I always ask, "Can you make a mojito today?" The waiter will usually run back to the kitchen to check whether they still have the mint. More often than not, I learn, they do not.

   Anyways, a few weeks ago Shûsuke mentioned that he hadn't been to the beach yet. 

   "An outrage!" I replied. "When's your next day off?"


   "Let's go to the beach, then."


   "Yes, really!"

   So, when Tuesday came, Shûsuke popped by my place and the two of us went to Momochi Hama. It isn't my favorite beach, but it's close (I can walk there in 20 minutes) and there's a decent restaurant call Mama Mia, of all things, which has awamori and fairly decent cocktails, including el mojito. 

   Incidentally, it was the very mojito that was on my mind when I extended the invitation to Shûsuke. I was Johnsing for one ever since I had been to Mama Mia a week earlier and had drunk the restaurant dry of spearmint.

   Well, when we got to Momochi, Mama Mia was closed. Naturally. The slackers that run the place have got the worst work ethic. Across the boardwalk, another restaurant called The Beach was open for business. It's a smart operation with nice tables and parasols on the terrace, cute college co-eds waiting on tables, and truly awful food.

    Shûsuke and I sat down at a table on the terrace and ordered our drinks, two unremarkable G&Ts. No sooner than our drinks were served than a boat that crosses Hakata Bay once every hour or so arrived.

   I suggested jumping on the boat and going to Luigans, a resort hotel on Umi-no-naka-Michi, a narrow isthmus that stretches from the eastern suburbs of Fukuoka to an island called Shikanoshima. He was up for it, so we downed the drinks and skedaddled.

   The trip from Momochi Hama to Umi-no-naka-Michi took about twenty minutes and dropped us off just a short walk from Luigans where we found seats at a poolside bar. 

   Looking over the menu, I was heartened to find "Mojito Original" and ordered one for the each of us. Unfortunately, what came was a far cry from the mojito I had been hoping for. The VK Mojito Original, produced by the UK-based Global Brands, is a ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktail. According to the company, the "VK Mojito is an award-winning brand, and was recognised by the Drinks International Pre Mixed Drinks Challenge." Well, it wasn't a winner with me. 

VK Mojito Original

4% Alc/Vol

Rate: ★★ (I'm feeling generous, today)

   Frustrated, I asked the waiter whether the bar was open. Hearing that it was, I asked if they could make a proper mojito. The waiter said he'd go and ask. When he returned a few minutes, he replied in the affirmative, so Shûsuke and I ordered two. 

   As I suspected, the bartender knew how to make a cocktail. Not only did it look great, but it tasted pretty damn good, too. 

   Next, I ordered a Mai Tai, another drink which I had been Johnsing for ever since Hau Nalu, a Hawaiian restaurant and bar in my neighborhood, closed a few months earlier.

   Another winner.

   All in all, I was impressed with Luigans and come next summer I will be making the trip more often. In addition to great drinks, they've also got barbecues for rent, as well as movies shown on an outdoor screen. Depending on availability, rooms can sometimes be rented for six hours during the day, providing a place to relax and clean up after sunning on the beach or next to the pool.


Luigans Resort & Spa

Rate: ★★★★

   After Luigans, Shûsuke and I caught a train and traveled to JR Hakata City, where we had a light dinner and more drinks at Mexican Cantina El Borracho, easily Japan's best place for authentic Mexican food and drinks. All in all, it was a great day. Thanks, Shûsuke!


El Borracho/La Borracha (three locations in Fukuoka city)

Rate: ★★★★★


Aki Aji

   I love a good beer so much so that I once toyed with the idea of becoming a professional brewer. That was back when I was in college, studying pre-med and putting my education to good use by making a batch of beer every few months in my mother’s kitchen.

   While the new microbrew craze was about to take Portland by storm--the Widmer Brothers and McMenamins had only been in business a few years by then--home-brewing was still a novelty. And, the beer-making kits that would take a lot of the guesswork (not to mention the exploding bottles) out of brewing were not yet available. Let me tell you, it was a helluva lot of fun.

   My good friend and fellow gourmand Paul--a law student at the time and successful environmental lawyer today--and I would go to a supplier called F.H. Steinbart located on the east side of Portland to stock up on malt, hops, roasted barley, yeast, and so on. If we had extra money, which was rare, we’d also pick up a new piece of equipment, such as a bottle capper, to make the brewing process easier.

   We’d get together on a Friday or Saturday evening and spend the next several hours listening to music, knocking back beers, and bullshitting as we mixed the malted barley, grains, and hops that would make our wort, the liquid to which yeast is added to produce alcohol. After a lot of trial and error, and I mean a lot, we started to produce some pretty good beers.

   Now that I look back on those days, I realize that it was one of the few times during my “Oregon Period” that I was truly happy. After struggling for a year and a half, school had become fun and stimulating. More focused on my studies than ever in my life, I was at the top or a close second in all of my classes, breezing through subjects like physics, organic chemistry, and anatomy that half the class struggled to earn only a passing grade in. A few years later, everything would unravel and, by and by, I’d end up in Japan, but I’ll save that story for another day.

   As I wrote earlier in the Alsterwasser post, I was exposed to beer at a  rather tender age while an exchange student in Germany. One of the highlights of that year abroad was working for a month at the Göttinger Brauerei. Regrettably, the brewery no longer exists; the memories of my internship there, however, remain fresh thirty years later.

   With so many happy memories associated with beer, it was hard for me to accept my doctor’s advice to give the drink up. For the past two years, I have been struggling to get my uric acid level down. Elevated levels of the compound in the blood lead to gout, a painful form of arthritis in the smaller bones of the feet.

   Tell anyone in Japan that you’ve got the gout and they’ll laugh. In Japanese the disease--if you can call really it one, seems more like an inconvenience--is called tsûfû (痛風, literally “painful wind”). They consider it a zeitaku byô (贅沢病), that is, a disease caused by extravagant, luxurious living. While beer isn’t the only culprit in your typical gout case, it certainly is in mine: all the other foods, such as liver, which are high in purines, the crystalline compound which forms uric acid upon oxidation, seldom, if ever, pass my mouth.

   And so, tonight I say good-bye to my dear friend, beer. Not forever, mind you--I could never go completely without the occasional pint--but, I will refrain from having even one brewski until the end of the year at which time I’ll get my blood checked again to see if I have been too rash in maligning my friend. (God give me the strength to get through Oktoberfest.)

   It was tempting to go out in style, to, say, get a nice pint of Guinness at the neighborhood Irish pub, Half Penny, but then this blog would have little meaning. So, I opened up the last can of beer in my fridge: KIRIN’s Aki Aji (秋味).

   When I first came to Japan, most large-scale brewers came out with seasonal beers. They weren’t anything like the bockbiers or doppelbocks that you can find in Germany--heavy beers with extra malt and higher alcohol contents that are brewed for holidays such as Christmas or Father’s Day--but they were still nice.

   I first tried Aki Aji late in the summer of ’92. My girlfriend at the time, a real boozer, had brought a couple bottles of the stuff to my apartment and I remember looking at the label and asking what the kanji meant. (Parents and kids, never overlook an opportunity to learn something new! Even when you’re knocking back suds.) She translated Aki Aji as “Autumn Taste” and I’ll never forget how awkward that translation sounded. I suggested “The Flavor of Autumn” as a better rendering and took a drink of the beer.

   To this day, Aki Aji is still one of my favorite Japanese beers. Darker than most of the lagers and pilsners available in Japan, it is not as bitter as many of the “premium” beers, such as Ebisu and Suntory Premium Malts, tend to be. Brewed with 1.3 times more malt than ordinary beers and containing slightly more alcohol, Aki Aji is available from late August. The funny thing about this beer, and other autumn seasonal brew, is that it often sells out long before autumn has actually started.



KIRIN 秋味 (Kirin Aki Aji)

6% Alc/Vol

Rate: ★★★★



   My previous post on last year’s disappointing shôchû sales piqued my interest anew in Iichiko, Japan’s largest shôchû distillery in terms of revenue and producer of the best-selling Iichiko mugi (barley) shôchû. As I mentioned before, I had never tried their mugi shôchû, but was familiar with the Ichiko brand as the company has for many, many years ran an advertising campaign with large posters featuring a bottle of their shôchû, sometimes hidden like Waldo, in a variety of outdoor settings.

   I’m not sure what the message of the ads is supposed to be, but I’ll admit they do make an impression. Mind you, I have never once looked at the poster and thought, “I’d like to try that stuff.” 

   The article in the Keizai Shimbun, however, changed all that. "Best-selling mugi shôchû? A million-plus consumers can't be wrong."

   Last ween when I was barhopping (梯子酒, hashigo zake) with some friends I got sozzled enough to finally give Iichiko a try. I'd drunk just about everything else on the menu, what the Japanese call champon-ing (ちゃんぽん, champon) and figured a glass of mugi shôchû wouldn't kill me.

   Boy, I wish I hadn’t. Iichiko’s catch phrase, the Napoleon (as in the brandy) of the Working Class Neighborhood (下町のナポレオン Shitamachi no Naporeon), had been fair enough warning.

My first sip of the shôchû evoked an unusual reaction from me, one that I often see in others when they try whatever firewater I happen to be drinking at the moment: “Wah!”

   Mugi shôchû is supposed to be one of the more drinkable varieties of shôchû, but Iichiko had the zingy palate of paint thinner. A million-plus consumers didn’t know shit from Shinola.


いいちこむぎ焼酎 (Iichiko Mugi Shôchû)

25% Alc/Vol

Rate: ★