A New Book Examines Japan’s Alcohol Industry and Its Storied History

Joe Udell
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

While Japan is a relatively small country — roughly the size of the state of Montana — its 2,000 active breweries and distilleries are responsible for more than 20,000 unique products.

That staggering output reflects the breadth of Japan’s rich drinking culture, which goes back more than 2,000 years and was even documented in the country’s oldest writings, the “Kojiki” (712 AD) and the “Nihon Shoki” (720 AD).

Authors Stephen Lyman and Chris Bunting dive into that culture and trace its traditions into the modern era in their new book, “The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks: Sake, Shochu, Japanese Whiskey, Beer, Wine, Cocktails and Other Beverages.”

Divided into two parts — “Native Japanese Alcohol Traditions” and “Western Alcohol Traditions in Japan” — the book gives an in-depth look at the history of numerous alcoholic drinks as well as their production processes alongside hundreds of color photographs. It also spotlights drinking customs and trends, while acknowledging trailblazers like Tatsuro Yamazaki, who tended bar in Tōkyō and Sapporo until he passed away in 2016 at the age of 96.

Although neither Lyman nor Bunting is from Japan — Lyman is one of the leading American experts on shōchū, and Bunting is an English writer who previously lived in Tōkyō — they are carrying on a tradition in its own right when it comes to documenting Japanese culture.

Tatsuro Yamazaki tended bar in Tōkyō and Sapporo for more than 70 years until he died in 2016 at the age of 96. (Photo courtesy Tuttle Publishing)
Tatsuro Yamazaki tended bar in Tōkyō and Sapporo for more than 70 years until he died in 2016 at the age of 96. (Photo courtesy Tuttle Publishing)

“Why are an Englishman and an American writing a book about Japanese alcohol traditions?” Bunting asks in the preface of the book, which was released by Tuttle Publishing in late 2019. “Probably for the same reason that Lafcadio Hearn (aka Koizumi Yakumo), an Irishman born in Greece who lived in Chicago, was first to write down the oral traditions of Japanese fables. Westerners have been curious about Japan since we first encountered this inscrutable island whose fully formed civil society had developed completely without Western traditions.”

Bunting first explored Japanese drinking culture in his 2011 book, “Drinking Japan: A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments,” which also was published by Tuttle. That work served as a roadmap for visitors to Japan and included reviews of over 120 bars as well as tips for ordering drinks and navigating the country’s nightlife.

Lyman relied on “Drinking Japan” for his first trip to Kyūshū in 2012. Unfortunately, roughly half of the bars in Bunting’s book had closed down by then — a turnover rate that is not unsurprising given the plethora of bars in Japan.

When he returned home, Lyman got in touch with Bunting and implored him to put out an updated edition of “Drinking Japan.” Bunting, however, had already moved back to the United Kingdom and was no longer working as a full-time journalist. Instead, they communicated over the years and decided to collaborate on a new book, with Lyman serving as the primary writer.

Stephen Lyman and his friend in a shöchu distillery. (Photo by Joseph Overbey, courtesy of Stephen Lyman)
Stephen Lyman and his friend in a shöchu distillery. (Photo by Joseph Overbey, courtesy of Stephen Lyman)

“I was able to take Chris’ original source material, which was really intended for a travel guide, and try to reimagine it,” Lyman said in a phone interview. “I have 15 to 20 of his handwritten notebooks. He dug out his old harddrive, I downloaded his photos, then went home with my own ideas and ended up writing this book.”

One of Lyman’s goals for “The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks” is to counter preconceived notions about popular Japanese drinks like sake and whiskey, which he said are often “poorly understood or even misunderstood.” Likewise, he believes that some of the country’s lesser known drinks deserve more recognition internationally.

“Sake is often referred to as rice wine, but it’s closer to beer. Plum wine is not a wine, it’s a liqueur,” he said. “Of course, that’s for things that people have heard of. Then you have wonderful traditional drinks like shōchū and awamori — I wanted to demystify those drinks.”

The 49-year-old Lyman was an associate professor at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York when he started going to food and drink pairings around the city. Craft beer and wine, however, left him feeling heavy after a couple of drinks. And, he found distilled alcohol like whiskey to be too strong to pair with food.

Then, in 2008, he tried shōchū for the first time at a Chelsea restaurant called Izakaya Ten and was immediately hooked.

“That was really exciting for me, because that’s what I was seeking,” Lyman said. “You can try more dishes and I sort of fell in love with the izakaya (Japanese pub) style of eating. It’s similar to Spanish tapas, and shōchū was a great complement to that.”

Over the next year, Lyman drank shōchū at Izakaya Ten with his friends at least 35 out of 52 weeks. His love affair with the drink continued to blossom and, in 2012, he was profiled by Japan’s NHK broadcasting company as a New York shōchū expert.

In 2013, he started interning at Kagoshima’s Yamato Zakura distillery, which focuses on premium handmade shōchū, and has returned there every fall for the last seven years. He relied on that experience as he traveled to Japan more than 20 times in the last decade, visiting over a hundred shōchū distilleries, sake breweries and other alcohol-producing establishments as part of his research for “The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks.”

“It opened doors as I was visiting producers of other styles of drink,” Lyman said. “I was even introduced to a sake maker in Nara, who doesn’t normally take visitors, because he knew I worked at that shōchū distillery.”

For Lyman, it is “the singular attention to craftsmanship” that attracts him to Japanese drinks. But while that craftsmanship has been a mainstay of the production process, he notes that the country’s long-standing drinking traditions are evolving.

For example, nomikai, an afterwork party where colleagues of all ranks get together to bond over drinks, has been an important part of Japanese culture since the 14th century. But, as Lyman points out in the book, it has become more socially acceptable for people with alcohol sensitivities and non-drinkers to decline an invitation than in the past.

“You have this work drinking culture where you’re expected to keep up with the boss and that can be difficult for an inexperienced drinker,” he said. “For a lot of people, drinking is a bad experience, so I think that’s changed.”

Of course, there is no shortage of places to drink in Japan and the book includes a practical guide to bars and retailers organized by alcohol type, which should serve as a handy travel guide for visitors. It also highlights several bars and retailers in the United States, Europe, Australia and Asia that sell premium Japanese alcohol.

That cosmopolitan perspective is consistent with Lyman’s approach throughout the book. From French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s love of Japanese whiskey to Spaniard Frank Cisneros’ experience as the first foreigner to receive a work visa to bartend in the country, “The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks” takes a step back periodically and examines how Japan’s drinking culture interacted with the world.

According to Lyman, that interaction is increasingly important as demographic trends have the potential to seriously impact the Japanese alcohol industry. Based on a report from the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Japan’s historically low birth rates could result in its population dipping from roughly 127 million to under 100 million by 2049.

Stephen Lyman hard at work in a shöchü distillery in Japan. (Photo by Joseph Overbey, courtesy of Stephen Lyman)
Stephen Lyman hard at work in a shöchü distillery in Japan. (Photo by Joseph Overbey, courtesy of Stephen Lyman)

“These circumstances mean there is a dire need for Japanese alcohol products to become a robust export community,” Lyman writes in the book. “Otherwise, many — perhaps most — of those 2,000-plus breweries and distilleries will simply cease to exist, and an incredibly rich drinking tradition will be in danger of disappearing.”

While he notes that there is cause for concern, Lyman is, overall, optimistic about the future of Japanese alcohol and hopes that his book can have a positive impact on the industry.

“Japanese bartending is very well-respected worldwide — some of the best bartenders are Japanese bartenders working overseas,” he said. “Sake and Japanese whiskey already have a strong foothold and I think there’s definitely an appetite for it. For shōchū and awamori, there isn’t an awareness and I’m hoping that’s something that the book will change, because they’re great in their own right.”


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