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Post-holiday headaches?

Hangovers can be just too painful to discuss

For some people, the hangover season should now be at an end. For the likes of myself, it never ceases. When I ponder hangovers, bear in mind that you are speaking with a man who has devoted his life to experiencing them. That was not my objective, but the occupational hazard cannot be dodged.

My worst hangover? The world champion? A broad-shouldered, frightening, contender was The Chicago Hangover, acquired with the help of my Editor at Playboy. Then there was The Grand Hangover of Venice, Italy, which involved the publisher of a magazine called Il Vino. One day, I will find the strength to describe the suffering, but not yet. Another decade or so will have to pass before the pain has faded sufficiently for me to talk about it. For the moment, I shall merely caution you as to how such conditions arise.

The Chicago and Venice hangovers were runners up. The winner had its roots in water, in a rice paddy, but that is just because I was drinking sake. Why? First, because I was in Japan. Second, because sake is, more on less, on my territory. Despite the tag "rice wine", it is - being fermented from grain - really a beer.

Western-style beers have been made in Japan since the mid-to-late 1800s, and whiskies since the 1920s, both to a very high standard. Sake, beer, whisky? My friend Tetsuya wanted to drink them all -- and some.

In a genuinely 1930s bar in the Ginza, we began with the control sample: real Czech Pilsner. In The Lion, a coolly smart beer cellar that is another Ginza institution, we enjoyed Yebisu, named after a Shinto deity. Yebisu is an old-established lager, made by Sapporo, in the Dortmunder style.


Every year, the big brewers introduce some such new notion, as though beer were a fashion item: beer made from the "first squeeze" of the barley-malt (the phrase played well with the young lovers, hand-in-hand on the promenades by the Rainbow Bridge); beer made from huskless barley; beer guaranteed to have left the brewery only hours ago; beer that smells of a bath-house...


In a beer-bar owned by Kirin, we were offered a super-strong lager that could be diluted to the customer's taste, with sparkling water. Every year, the big brewers introduce some such new notion, as though beer were a fashion item: beer made from the "first squeeze" of the barley-malt (the phrase played well with the young lovers, hand-in-hand on the promenades by the Rainbow Bridge); beer made from huskless barley; beer guaranteed to have left the brewery only hours ago; beer that smells of a bath-house...

In a younger cellar, more of a beer theme-park, near Yebisu railway station, we found ourselves in a younger crowd, drinking a Vienna-style lager served from huge, visible, tanks. "Why the tanks?" I asked Tetsuya. "They want us to think they make the beer here -- though they don't". In another three places, they did. Until four or five years ago, giants like Sapporo, Kirin, Asahi and Suntory were the only brewers. Now, there are about 200, making ji-biru ("local beer"), often in gleaming coppers in the middle of pubs.

By far the best place in Tokyo to sample a range of ji-biru is cosy bar called Popeye, near the sumo stadium. That night, my eyes duly popped at the eclecticism of the selection. We sampled fruity golden ales made untraditionally with sake yeasts, and credible Japanese versions of the world's great beer-styles: a licorice-ish Prague dark lager, a Munich golden one, a Belgian abbey beer, a malty Scottish ale.

Tetsuya was worried that we might get drunk. I had thought that was his intention. His proposed stomach-liner was hardly substantial: a saucer of green soybeans, squeezed straight from the pod into my mouth. Soybeans are the beer-snack in Japan the way black radishes are in Munich. A Japanese would scarcely countenance drink without at least some food, while in Britain the pork scratchings are a mercifully optional extra. In the U.S., I guess it would have been Buffalo wings.

Outside, night had fallen. A street of neon-lit caverns winkingly beckoned beer-drinkers. I needed some fresh air. We walked, and the streets became more alive with the smells of food and drink, and the human offloading of excess, until we reached an area of what looked market stalls. Tetsuya took me from one stall to the next, sampling shochu. As the indigenous spirit, it is typically distilled from rice, so we were still on my territory. As the drink took its effect, we became more liberal, and sampled versions made from molasses, buckwheat and sweet potato, the flavours as stinging as the alcohol.

This was no farmers' market or jolly beer-garden in Bavaria, full of Catholic families. I felt more like a Protestant, seeking dark refuge. At each stall, we ducked behind a half-curtain, like the kepi of a Foreign Legionnaire. It is no sin to be publicly drunk in Japan, and this condition's indiscretions are excused, but that half-curtain offered token anonymity, like the ground-glass windows in an English gin palace. The drinking stalls were under a viaduct, and the bullet train kept whistling overhead. Was this how country folk felt a century earlier, when they came to work in the burgeoning industrial London of Dickens and Mayhew, and sought comfort in those gin-palaces - or in "penny gaffs"?

Tetsuya, disturbed my reverie. It was time to leave the ground. Pub crawls in Tokyo proceed by lift, in one building. I first saw karaoke on one of these upwardly mobile crawls, back in the early 1980s.

We were back among the cedar and polished mahogany, the dovetailed, veneered elegance of an endless Rainbow Room. Surely, the night must end soon, or Tetsuya's credit card max-out? On no floor was our bill less than $150 and he, bless him, had insisted that I was his guest.

There were many more floors. I had thought it was against the laws of gravity to ascend toward the suggestion of sin, but the hostess bar was on the top floor. Sexist? By now, I was just relieved to have a beautiful young woman of poise and attentiveness look after me, even though that did mean her pouring me more drinks. Would she respect me in the morning? Would there be hot towels and bathrobes with the miso soup? As Tetsuya explained, it was not that kind of arrangement...

Parts of this article have appeared in different forms in The Independent and Class Magazine.


Published: JAN 2, 2002
In: Beer Hunter Online

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