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),



   Santa, I realize it's a bit early, but I already know what I want for Christmas. Keep the Jagermeister for yourself, though.


Iichiko Hita Zenkoji

   It happened again, that useless intuition of mine.

   For no particular reason, I started thinking about my friend Mika. I hadn’t seen in well over a year and wondered aloud one evening whether she was still running her children’s clothing boutique. She had given birth to a second child—a boy—about a year earlier, so I had my doubts. I decided then that I would try and take my son there after visiting Ajibi[1] and told my wife so. Well, as luck would have it, Mika called me up the very next day. She was in the neighborhood and wanted to drop by.

   “By all means, do come over!”

   Mika and I used to be drinking buddies, and for a few years there we were getting together about once or twice a week. She was part of a nebulous group of boozers and diners, mostly women, with whom I would go out for dinner or drinks or parties. But, as is so often the case, the dynamic spark of any particular group never quite manages to burn for very long. Transfers, marriages, pregnancies, all have a way of chipping away at the cohesion. In the case of that group, two of the women in the group were transferred away, Mika got knocked-up and married, and when I turned forty I started spending less time in clubs and bars and more time sitting in cafés writing.

   “I’ve gotten divorced,” Mika told me as soon as she entered my front door. She had both children with her.

   “Um, congratulations?”

   I wasn’t surprised. The only reason my friend had gotten married in the first place was the first pregnancy; the only reason she hadn’t already divorced was the second.

   “We’re still together. Living together, that is.”


   “Until I can save up enough money for a deposit on an apartment.”[2]

   “I see.”

   Mika put her ten-month-old son down on the floor. The kid looked like he would one day have a promising career in the sport of sumô wrestling. “I still control all of his money,” she said.

   “How about your shop?”

   “I closed it after I got pregnant with him.” Her son sat up and smiled at me, flashing me four new teeth. “He was a ‘mistake’.”

   “Cute ‘mistake’,” I said, picking him up. “Heavy, too!”


   Mika went into my kitchen and started to fix her son a large bottle of formula. As she was heating up some water, she told me that her son had been easy to bring up, much easier than her daughter.

   “It’s often the opposite,” I said. My poor wife has had to contend with raising two very active boys.

   We would mind also having a daughter, but the odds that my testicles end up producing another lad are, well . . . why play with fire, right?


   About two months ago in one of my writing classes, a student wrote in her diary that she had recently “found” her father on Facebook. When I asked her about it, she told me that her parents had divorced when she was just a toddler. She had never met her father since then. Thanks to Facebook, however, she and her father not only “friended” each other, but were going to be reunited in a few days. I asked her if she had told her mother and she answered, no, it was a secret. Her mother had apparently remarried while she was still very young.

   It’s not unusual in Japan for couples who divorce to completely sever ties with each other after breaking up. I even know of one couple who had two children—a boy and a girl. When they divorced, they decided that it would be “best” if their daughter stayed with her mother, and the son go on to live with his father.

   “And the two have never met since they were young children?” I asked.

   “No, never. Not even once.”

   Never mind the possibilities for an intriguing Oedipal tale of siblings reuniting by chance and having an incestuous relationship, this struck me as just plain wrong on so many levels.

   My own children keep me up most nights, crying and screaming and kicking and even pinching me. The apartment, which I prefer to keep neat and tidy, is usually a mess now, toys and picture books and used diapers are all over the place. Laundry and dishes pile up. More and more money is being spent on the kids; my allowance is getting smaller and smaller. And in spite of all the giving and compromising that is part and parcel of being a parent, I could never imagine those two boys not being in my life. I adore them too much. So, it seems to me like a lot of unnecessary grief to cut a parent or child out of your life like that.

   Expert in Japanese psychology and society will tell you that the Japanese tend to avoid “complicated relationships”. This is one reason why it is so uncommon for the Japanese, even college students, to have roommates. Try as I might to sell them on the idea of living in a much bigger apartment for far less rent if only they shared the place with a friend, but they invariably grimace or suck air through their teeth and make vague allusions to a need for privacy.[3] It is also the reason why after divorce the Japanese will break off all ties with their former spouse, even if that means no longer seeing a child.

   I asked the twelve students in that writing class of mine how many of their parents were divorced and was surprised to learn that almost half of them were. All of them—it’s a woman’s college—lived with their mothers, and very few of them had any contact with their fathers. Only one actively maintained a relationship with her father. The others hated their old man, no doubt influenced by the opinions of their mothers. As an “old man” myself I couldn’t help but feel for these estranged fathers.[4]


   After an hour or so, Mika’s husband called. He was in the neighborhood and ready to take their kids home. All of us—Mika, her kids, my wife, our kids, and I—went downstairs and waited for him to show up. When he did, he stepped out of the car, walked towards me and shook my hand. It was our first time to meet (and, probably our last as well).

   I was struck by how good-looking the guy was (Mika's not bad-looking herself) and I said so after he had left with the kids.

   “His looks are the only thing that’s good about him,” Mika said.

   Mika then said she had to be going herself, adding as she turned to leave that she would contact me once she had found a new place to live.

   (This is normally where Americans would hug each other tightly, but we just waved and said good-bye.)


   Mika had brought a bottle of shôchû with her when she came, asking the silly question: “You still drink, don’t you?”

   “Does the pope shit in the woods?”

   After Mika left, I went back upstairs and opened the bottle. It was Iichiko’s Hita Zenkôji. I’m not a big fan of Iichiko, as I have mentioned earlier, but with my first sip of Hita Zenkôji the scales fell from my eyes. Just as Ron Zacapa Centenario had reacquainted me with rum, an alcohol I once avoided at all cost, Hita Zenkôji was now introducing me to the potential of mugi (barley) shôchu.

   After several glasses of Hita Zenkôji, a warm sentimentality came over me.

   For your kids’ sake, Mika, I do hope you can keep your ex-husband in their lives even after you move out. And I don’t mean for some banal crap like “sons need their fathers”, but rather, so that your children can grow up learning that even when people disagree or fall out of love, they can still show civility and respect to each other, that even “complicated relationships” can have their merits.



いいちこ日田全麹 (Iichiko Hita Zenkôji)

Produced by Sanwa Shurui located in Usa, Ôita prefecture

25% Alc/Vol

Made from barley and only malted barely, hence the name Zenkôji.

Nose: ★★★

For a mugi (barley) shôchû, Hita Zenkôji has a rather strong, but pleasant fragrance. Pleasant, I should caution, if only you’re into that kind of thing. For those who prefer their shôchû to be odorless, Hita Zenkôji probably won’t be your cup of tea.

Palate: ★★★

Same goes for the flavor. Very strong, reminiscent of the sweeter varieties of imo shôchû. This is the first mugi shôchû I wouldn’t mind stocking my bar with.

Overall: ★★★


Incidentally, I would rate my current marriage life as ★★★★★. My previous attempt to achieve conjugal bliss, however, rated between zero and three stars.


[1] Ajibi is nickname of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (福岡アジアン美術館), located in Fukuoka’s Hakata-ku. It is, in their own words, “the only museum in the world that systematically collects and exhibits Asian modern and contemporary art”.

[2] Unlike the States where you typically only have to pay the first and last month’s rent plus a cleaning deposit when moving into a new apartment, in Japan, you can sometimes find yourself set back as much as five to ten thousand dollars in deposits and fees and gifts to the realtor.

[3] So lock the door when you look at Internet porn.

[4] “Estranged” as is meant in the original sense of the Latin extraneare which means to ‘treat as a stranger’.


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.





   Several years ago, there was a television drama called Doctor Kotô’s Clinic.[1] Although I never watched the program myself, its popularity ensured that even people like me who never saw a single episode would still be familiar with the story.

   In Doctor Kotô’s Clinic, Dr. Gotô, a surgeon from the prestigious Tôkyô University Hospital moves to the remote island of Shikina-jima[2] to work as a doctor. The island, which is a six-hour trip by boat from the Okinawan mainland (undertones of Gilligan's Island), has been searching for many years for a doctor who would be willing to live and work on the small island and treat the islanders.

   As an outsider, Dr. Gotô is not trusted and no one visits his clinic at first. But, as might be expected from a TV drama, within a few episodes a young boy comes to the clinic because of some ailment and is cured. Out of appreciation for what the doctor has done for him, the boy makes a flag for the clinic, mistaking the doctor’s family name for Kotô, hence the name of the drama. Little by little, Gotô gains the trust and confidence of the islanders and you can probably imagine the rest.

   So popular was this drama that many idealistic doctors longed to move to a southern island where life was simple. This includes my wife’s OB/GYN who relocated his family to the island of Ishigaki. Things didn’t go as well for them as it did for Dr. Gotô, unfortunately. Island people can be so . . . well, insular. Their children, all of whom were exceptionally bright—the oldest is a former student of mine who was accepted by both Harvard and Yale universities two years ago—were not accepted by their classmates and even suffered from bullying. They returned a year later to their hometown of Fukuoka, tails between their legs, and resumed the lives they had been for the most part been living rather happily, if not idealistically. Oh well.

   Another doctor, a friend of the psychiatrist about whom I have written before, took his medical degree to the island of Tsushima[3], which is situated halfway between the Korean peninsula and Kyûshû. He has been living there for well over a decade now and seems to be quite content with the life he leads as a rural doctor on the distant island.

   No matter how idyllic the setting, however, reality will inevitably intrude, posing practical questions such as what schools you will send your children to, and so on.

   As might be suspected, the options on an island like Tsushima are limited, so it was not surprising to learn that the doctor sent his son to La Salle, a famous boarding school run by the Christian Brothers in the city of Kagoshima.

   It seems that every region of Japan has a number of schools that are well known throughout the country. In Kyûshû, these include La Salle and Kurume Fusetsu, in Fukuoka prefecture. In Shikoku, Ehime's Aikô is renowned. And then there's Hyôgo's Nada, which is consistently ranked number one among the nation's high schools. Nada, which has in recent years been sending more and more of its graduates to the world's best universities, is the alma mater of my former student whom I mentioned above.

   High schools in Japan are ranked according to their hensachi, or their adjusted deviation score. Their w-what?

   Having studied statistics in college, I am familiar with standard deviations and the like, but this hensachi has long confused me. he hensachi is a measure of how far one's test results deviate from the average student's score, which is set at fifty. Suppose the average score on a given test were sixty points. A student getting a score of sixty on the test will then have a hensachi of fifty. The better than average a student's score on a test is, the higher his hensachi will be. Think of it as a kind of percentile rank, but not nearly as straight-forward.

   A student with a hensachi of, say sixty points, will then be advised to apply to schools with hensachi that are within his range, school's which have entrance exams he stands to pass. There are many exceptions today, but this still system is still widely used.

   High schools are ranked according to their hensachi and complete lists are available online. The top five schools in 2012 were: Nada (Hyôgo, 78); Kaisei (Tôkyô, 77); Tsukuba (Tôkyô, 77); O-cha no Mizu (Tôkyô, 76); and Keiô Gijuku (Tôkyô, 76). La Salle has a hensachi of 75. The best public school west of Ôsaka is Fukuoka's Shûyûkan and has a hensachi of 72.

   Sending his son to La Salle seems to have paid off for the doctor from Tsushima: his son was admitted to Tôkyô University's medical school earlier this year.

   Why am I writing about this doctor, you ask? Because he recently visited my student, the psychiatrist, and gave him a rare bottle of Itô, a imo shôchû from Tsushima, an island more famous for its shôchû made from rice and barley.



伊藤 (Itô)

Produced by Kawauchi Shuzô Gômei Gaisha, located in Tsushima City, Nagasaki prefecuture

25% Alc/Vol

Made from Satsuma sweet potato and kuro kôji.

Nose: ★★

There isn’t much of the typical potato smell you’d expect from an imo shôchû. Very subtle. Only when you swallow does some of the fragrance come out, lingering in your mouth and nasal passages.

Palate: ★★★

Somewhat disappointing really, not that it tastes bad, but rather because it’s so unusual to get an imo shôchû from Tsushima, you’d expect the flavor to be equally rare. It’s not. The flavor is rather forgettable. The doctor even apologized.

Novelty factor: ★★★★

Overall: ★★☆

Hensachi: 40 points


[1] Originally a manga (comic book) series of the same name, Doctor Kotô Shindansho (Dr.コトー診断所) aired on Fuji TV from July to September of 2003. Japanese television dramas usually air for three months and more closely resemble American miniseries in terms of their length and scope. Doctor Kotô initial run was eleven episodes long.

[2] Shikinajima (志木那島), the fictional island that is the backdrop of the TV series, is modeled on the island of Yonaguni where the drama was filmed.

Yonaguni (与那国) is one of 32 islands that makes up the Yaeyama Archipelago, a collection of islands that also includes Ishigaki-jima, Taketomi-jima, Kohama-jima, Kuro-jima, Aragusuku-jima, Iriomote-jima, Yubu-jima, Hatoma-jima, Hateruma-jima, and the Sesaseishôko Atoll. Only ten of these are populated and together have a combined population of around fifty thousand people. Only a hundred kilometers from Taiwan, Yonaguni has a population of about sixteen hundred people, including a friend of mine. Yonaguni’s three distilleries (Donan, Yonaguni and Maifuna) produce a variant of awamori known as hanazake (花酒, lit. "flower liquor") which has an alcohol content of 60%. Originally intended for religious ceremonies, hanazake is traditionally consumed straight. Good stuff.

[3] Despite its size—about the same as Maui—Tsushima has a population of only forty thousand people.