The enkai, the formal party, lasts two hours. It always lasts two hours, regardless of how long the toasts and the speeches last. Attendance at an enkai is all but mandatory — it’ll usually be to mark a significant event. But the real drinking starts after the two hours are up. As the waitresses clear away the wreckage of an hour and three quarters of drinking, the countless empty Asahi and Kirin and Sapporo bottles, groups start to splinter off and make plans for their nijikai, their second parties.
In Tokyo, the enkai would usually take place at a hotel in Shinjuku or Ikebukuro, but if you were really lucky, if your university or your company were really flash, you might find yourself in the New Otani or the Prince.
But afterward, someone in your group would recommend his favourite hostess bar, and that’s where you’d head for dodgy whiskey or absurdly expensive nihonshu and bad karaoke. Or you’d go to a nearby izakaya. Either way, that’s where you’d be doing your serious drinking — and that’s where you’d relax. At the enkai, everyone’s there, and, for the most part, everyone’s on their best behaviour. But at the nijikai, you can go off and drink with your mates, and the lightweights can catch an early train home.
Japan’s jidohanbaiki, its vending machines, are the stuff of legend. They really do sell everything — you can, should the mood take you, buy cold coffee, warm sake, hot soup, rice, potted plants, pornographic videos. I’m led to believe that the stories of machines selling schoolgirls’ used knickers are — I’ve not done the research myself — are naught but a myth.
But the most wonderful of all were the beer machines. Owada Liquor Store, round the corner from my home, had a row of machines selling all the best beers, as well as Suntory. But, like all beer machines, it was turned off every evening at eleven. This, apparently, was the Japanese solution to juvenile alcoholism and delinquency, but, since the machines were all switched back on again seven hours later, one has to wonder how it was meant to work — you can’t buy beer to eat with your midnight pizza, but you can buy some to pour on your cornflakes in the morning. But you knew you’d arrived, that you’d been truly accepted and welcomed into the local gaijin community, when someone showed you where the local 24-hour beer machines were.
Izakaya — the wonderful Japanese drinking shops that are somewhere between an English pub and a Spanish tapas bar — can be found in any city in the country. You’ll find the same chains, the Tsubohachi and the Yoronotaki and the Daikanyashiki, across the land, although you’ll want to read the menu carefully at a Daikanyashiki to make sure you don’t order pizza with natto, as my mate Chris did one evening in Ota. They’re cheap, they’re fun, they’re very friendly. But they’re a bit anonymous — the Starbucks of Japanese drinking. If you can find a local izakaya, you’ve got it made. Nick and Bob and Tim introduced me to Ikkyu, in Ota, the most welcoming and friendly bar in Japan, where the beer was cold and the yakitori was delicious. Simon took me to Hamaya in Omiya, where the master, the owner of the place, didn’t even seem to notice that we were gaijin and even invited us to his bonenkai, his end-of-year party. But I didn’t just wander into these places — I waited to be invited, to be introduced by a regular.
Hostess bars — the places where men who are old enough to know better pay good money to be pampered and flattered by women who aren’t their wives, where the whiskey tastes like heating oil and the ice cubes cost — litter the suburbs of Tokyo. Simon and I made the mistake, one evening, of visiting Arrows, the hostess bar on the backstreet round the corner from Owada, after we’d had a few in Hamaya. The mama-san made it quite clear that, while she was polite enough not to ask us to leave, we weren’t especially welcome. We never went back.
It doesn’t matter what time “now” is. Drinking, even at breakfast, if there’s a group of you doing it, is perfectly ok. I have memories — vague, hazy memories — of a bus trip to Fukui with the PTA of the school where I taught, which saw the beer cans opening not long after six in the morning, and the whiskey and the brandy following shortly after. Drinking’s just something folks do; there’s no shame in it.
Drinking, like so much else in Japan, is a ritualized affair. I learned, early on, not to raise my glass, not even to fill it, until the guest of honour had made his — and it was invariably a he — speech. More than once I stood for fifteen, or even twenty, minutes, listening to rambling, tedious and tiresome speeches, variously exhorting and haranguing the increasingly thirsty drinkers as the condensation beaded up on the icy-cold bottles and the sushi started to get warm, but I knew better than to touch the ale until I heard kampai. But once the toast was made, the beer would flow.
Nomihodai — “all you can drink” — is less a price, more a challenge. The Takashimaya department store in Omiya would open its rooftop bar at the start of summer, and for two or three months we’d be up there, on the roof, enjoying the fresh breezes and the pitchers of beer. Two hours for three or four thousand yen was the typical deal, but they’d expect us to buy food, too, so there’d be a plate or two of potato wedges served with sweet ketchup and very sweet mayonnaise.
Word would sometimes get out of a new nomihodai deal, and we’d phone round and make sure that all the lads knew to meet at the latest bar. And then we’d show up, and the owner’s heart would sink when he saw half a dozen really thirsty gaijin ready to make the most of an absurdly generous price.
And there’s one in every town. Nick showed me where the one in Ota was, down by the electric pylons near Pia-Town supermarket. But I’ll not tell you where exactly it is — we’ve not been drinking together long enough yet.