If you look very carefully at this photo of me at work in Osaka in 1992, you might see the trusty boom box that was exclusively tuned to Funky 802 accompanying us in our busy recruitment consulting work.
Funky 802 was – and possibly still is – Osaka’s hot radio station amongst twenty-somethings.
Funky 802’s corporate philosophy privileged consistency over diversity, evidenced in their playing Vanessa Williams’ “Saved the best for last” approximately hourly for the six months I worked in the office.
The other thing you might notice by all this close looking is that there’s nothing on my desk that would indicate I did much in the way of work.
But look, let’s not get distracted by that.
I lived on the Hankyu line, shuttling back and forth between my homestay and my various jobs around the Kansai region – Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto.
There was the Funky 802 listening job (and at the head of the table you’ll see my old boss who did even less than I did, and once brought his guitar to work, something I didn’t see
again until David Brent did it in The Office), a couple of English teaching gigs and the odd trade fair where I was required to wrap myself in clichés and display my sunny-as-Surfers Aussie disposition. Cobber.
The Canadians suffered similar indignities though.
I was 22, single, straight out of University.
(These combined facts were alarming to many Japanese men who expressed concern about my unfortunate marital state at my advancing years. Just to recap, I was 22).
In spite of this social peril, I blithely travelled the Hankyu line and relished my freedom.
In doing so, the Hankyu line put me near two other points of interest, Takarazuka Revue and Yamazaki.
The education I’d received in 4 years of University studying Japanese language and politics was nearly eclipsed in a single afternoon when one of my students invited me to some Japanese theatre.
Expecting Kabuki, I got something I still can’t get my head around.
The Takarazuka Revue.
Takarazuka Revue encapsulates a lot of the head-fuckery that goes on when you’re a gaijin – foreigner – in Japan.
This all-female musical theatre group was established by the Founder of Hankyu Rail in 1913.
More than 100 years later it is, in the words of someone I expect was another Funky 802 favourite – Shania Twain – still the one, still going strong, with massive fan clubs and sell-out seasons.
If you could extract DNA from My Little Pony and the Rockettes, get David Gest to produce with a massive budget and no need to worry about critical reviews, simultaneously messing with Japan’s very rigid conceptions of gender roles, you might be coming close.
But you’d still be scratching your head.
Like I was, when I saw the all-singing, all-dancing, all-ostrich feather version of Spartacus.
If you haven’t been to Japan, you must go. Go now. And go to Takarazuka.
And when you’re done, the Hankyu Line can take you to Yamazaki, where the Japanese whisky industry was born.
Much easier to understand.
In 1854, as Japan was forced open for trade with the USA, Matthew Perry (no, not that one), a Commodore in the US Navy, presented the Emperor with 110 gallons of whiskey – you’ll note the whiskey having an “e” because it came from the USA.
While attempts were made to replicate a distilled liquor in Japan, it wasn’t until Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery started commercial production in 1924 that things took off.
And in Japan it’s definitely whisky. No e.
That’s likely because one of the earliest influencers in Japanese whisky, Masataka Taketsuru from a sake brewing family, travelled to Scotland to study his craft.
To be clear, Suntory does not make Scotch.
It makes Japanese whisky.
Suntory’s whisky is designed specifically for the Japanese palate, and occupies a different place on the taste spectrum.
The signature Yamazaki 12 Year Old would be a great place to start drinking single malt whisky. It’s very smooth and you won’t find the heavy smoke or peat that many new whisky drinkers find tough going with Scotch whiskies.
It’s delicious, but if you’re like me and prefer something peatier like Laphroaig (now a stablemate of Suntory’s under the Beam Suntory company banner), it may not be for you.
But I recommend Scotch drinkers try Japanese whisky, especially if you favour a Speyside or Lowlands Scotch.
And in true Japanese form, you’ll also find there is artistry in the presentation of your whisky.
Another of my lovely students took me to a bar where I ordered the only Scotch I knew – Glenfiddich (still a favourite) – and the bartender set about chilling my glass with a perfectly formed sphere of ice and water, before discarding the water and pouring over the whisky, gently rotating the ice ball until the temperature was uniform.
Then he handed it over.
I haven’t seen this level of care in delivery a drink since.
If you get one like this, you should savour it like Nick Offerman savours his preferred Lagavulin.
In Japan, you’ll also find that drinking whisky with a meal is much more commonplace.
Back in the 1950s, Suntory opened a string of bars – Suntory Whisky Bars – to try to make the consumption of whisky more commonplace. Enter the Highball.
Anywhere else and a highball refers to a tall glass with a spirit accompanied by one other ingredient and a garnish. Think G&T. Not Cuba Libre, because as we’ve already discussed, the lime is not a garnish, its juice is a key second ingredient added to the rum.
In Japan, in large part due to canny Suntory marketing and advertising, the Highball has become synonymous with a whisky and soda mix of about 1:3. This makes it about as potent as beer and repotedly sits lighter in the belly, making it better for consuming with meals.
The Highball is apparently the preferred way of drinking of Suntory’s Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo.
There’s a couple of ways of getting your Highball.
There’s hand-crafted method, characterised by Japanese kodawari – the fastidiousness and attention to detail typically associated with Japanese cuisine.
Like this video which will show married women how to make omurice – rice and omelette – into cute dog shapes for their children. The video is 9 minutes long, which is about 8 minutes longer than I am prepared to spend on plating up rice and eggs for my children.
Please don’t ever show them this video, I am flat out keeping up with Tooth Fairy duties in a timely manner.
In the whisky world, kodawari is showcased much more constructively, although no less painstakingly. Firstly, by adding hand-cut ice to a glass and chilling it before pouring in the whisky and gently stirring it – clockwise – precisely 13.5 times before gently adding the soda water and gently stirring it clockwise precisely 3.5 times. Then you gently remove the spoon.
This is a mizuwari.
It is made gently and precisely and should be enjoyed accordingly.
Perhaps a couple of cans of Suntory highball in my bag back in 1992 would have helped me understand Takarazuka Revue better.
Or shaken that Vanessa Williams Funky 802 ear-worm.
Even so Suntory, this will be hard to forgive…
PS Looks like I saved the best for last hey?