They do almost everything differently in Tokyo, but while the hackneyed cliches about faultless trains and hilarious mis-translations shouldn’t surprise, the less known differences in Japanese culture are fascinating, and can be summed up with one word, in two different forms: Tonic.
The elevator doors slide open and an unmistakeable clinking floods the hallway. This Tokyo apartment block is home to a few dozen families, and like many in the Japanese capital, it is also packed with minuscule drinking dens.
One-room bars with low lighting and even lower music are sandwiched between front doors, with at least one occupying each floor of this four storey block. Inside, locals cram around the counter on stools, chatting and laughing. There is barely room for six people to huddle in front of the barman, but everyone is happy to squeeze in.
This is neighbourly conversation, not over the garden fence, but over a glass and rice-based bar snacks.
As I push on the door, half a dozen pairs of eyes swivel in my direction. The clientele seem surprised by the intrusion of a westerner. Their bar isn’t marked as such on the door. The only giveaway is the noise from within, but their response is even more unusual than their surroundings.
It’s a rare experience to be beckoned toward a bar stool by strangers cheering and waving, but in Tokyo it’s the sort of greeting a Gaijin should get used to. These private watering holes aren’t on any map or travel guide, but discovering them will give more satisfaction than ticking your way through any tourist to-do list. This is how the real Japan drinks.
Ordering is easy. The language barriers are immense, but the universal language of booze cuts through. “Gin tonic” dispenses with the redundant conjunction to get straight to the point and is greeted with nodding approval. Hefty measures are meted out and the bartender’s personal recommendations of a follow-up tipple are worthy of attention. These are serious drinkers, as well as seriously friendly.
For an even more intimate drinking experience, the twisting sake-soaked alleyways of the sprawling metropolis are the place to go. Dotted with rows of minuscule establishments, the shed-sized buildings in what the locals term ‘drunkard’s alley’ are beautifully kept, festooned with lanterns and the epitome of Japanese hospitality.
The tiny boozers struggle to host more than four drinkers at a time, with bar stools forced between the bar and bamboo-clad walls. And yet, it’s also possible to dine here.
An eye-widening selection of drinks and great conversation from locals with impressive English puts the western world’s most welcoming bars on notice: this is the stuff that tourists cherish. Not plastic smiles and ‘good customer service,’ but honesty and authenticity, preferably served with a chaser.
Don’t be fooled though. These boozy microcosms, like their apartment block brethren, aren’t tourist destinations. They are the usual preserve of locals and tricky to find amongst twisting alleyways, side passages and unmarked doors. For those willing to explore, a drink here is a tonic worth savouring. It’s one of the best ways to spend an evening in the Far Eastern capital, and unlike anything else on the globe.
In the harsh light of a Tokyo daybreak, there is only one way to shake off the sake and Shōchū fug: a dip in a traditional Japanese spa.
While the British are bashful about public bathing, the Japanese throw caution, not to mention their towels, to the wind. The prospect might produce more um-ing and ah-ing than a barbershop quartet rehearsal, but by the time I had been issued my pyjama-style bath wear, I was a flurry of nerves.
By contrast to the Japanese, the typical Englishman spends years perfecting the art of revealing one’s tallywhacker in a public changing room for the briefest of moments. We could, if not so shy about performing in front of a crowd, consider it a national sport.
In Japan, letting it all hang out is the norm. For a visiting Brit, it’s a reminder of our closeted cultural upbringing, and a lesson in bashful ceiling admiration.
But taking the plunge into temporary nudism has its upsides. Traditional Japanese baths are soul-cleansing, while simultaneously sloughing the skin of dead cells.
Once submerged in the saltwater, hot spring or icy plunge pools on offer, it’s almost impossible not to relax. Well, maybe not quite in the latter case. But the point remains: a Japanese ‘Healing Baden’ has the capacity to unwind the body and mind, even with physical embarrassment pecking away at the subconscious.
And the tonic-based lesson this time? It arrived just after my bath. As I was fumbling around the amply-equipped grooming stations available to every guest. Not being fluent in Japanese, and lacking my glasses, I had immediately attempted to moisturise my face with hair tonic.
I don’t even know what hair tonic is. That’s probably because, unlike Tokyo washrooms, it is a rare sight in Britain. Yet another hint that, in Japan, things are done properly or not at all.
Eyewear reinstated, the bashfulness might have been back, but it was joined by a dose of wisdom, relaxation and an ever-so-slightly reduced Britishness. I should try tonic, in all its forms, more often.
For more intelligent observations on Japan, try Joe Minihane’s On The Road Through Asia blog.