Cracked Goes To Japan: 4 Ways Japan Does Drinking On Another Level
You did it. You finally made it to Japan and immediately head to the nearest supermarket to buy some authentic Japanese sake because it’s not alcoholism if it’s on holiday. After asking for directions to the sake aisle, first by saying “Sake to me,” then later, like a normal person, you arrive at your destination, and it is a sight to behold. You had no idea that sake came in so many different varieties! Some of these names sound weirdly familiar, though. Guinness sake, Heineken sake, Corona sake, Blue Moon sake, Maker's Mark sake, Jack Daniel's sake… Jim Beam sake? That’s when you start to suspect that …
“Sake” Doesn’t Mean What You Think
So, yeah, “sake” literally just means “alcohol” in Japan. When someone, say, asks you in Japanese if you drink “sake,” they’re just generally inquiring if you consume diluted poison to numb the existential pain of this cosmic farce that we call life.
Any kind of alcoholic beverage is technically “sake”: beer, whiskey, gin, Big Jim’s toilet wine made from orange peels and ketchup packets. (Surprisingly smooth, with a pleasant finish.) That’s why you’ll find the character for “sake” (酒) on any brain-slowmo concoction commercially available in Japan, up to and including Budweiser. Further complicating things is the fact that the drink you actually want, the one made from rice, is called nihonshu, which just means “Japanese alcohol” and includes everything from crystal-clear booze to Ridley Scott’s android milk-blood.
Then you also have to decide whether you want “Japanese alcohol” with added alcohol or not, and this is probably already making your head hurt. Which is how your booze quest was always going to end, but we’ve skipped right past “ironically” singing Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” and phoning up Big Jim at 3 am to tell him how his toilet wine was the only thing that made prison bearable. (Again, surprisingly smooth.) And you know how much he enjoys your talks. So let’s take a step back and keep things simple. First, let’s agree to use the Western meaning of “sake,” which, super quick, is what exactly?
Aaaand we’re already breaking our promise to keep things simple. Although often referred to as “rice wine,” gun to your head, a glass of mysterious white stuff in Ridley Scott’s other hand, and the implied threat of making you drink the latter in his eyes, it’d probably be more accurate to compare sake to beer. 10-20% beer, but still. The four most basic ingredients of sake are milled rice, water, koji mold, and yeast. The mold turns the rice’s starch into glucose, which is then turned by the yeast into a liquid way of calling the cops without picking up the phone. That’s… kinda beer-ish.
However, both of those processes happen simultaneously in the same vat, and then there comes the filtration (though not always) and maturation that can last up to a year and… Yeah, this is now sounding about as far away from beer as Natural Light, appropriately leaving us with a watered-down, piss-poor conclusion: sake is… sake. It’s similar to other kinds of brain-tickle tincture, but it’s ultimately its own thing.
There are different types of sake depending on how much of its rice is milled, whether it’s filtered, or whether it has added brewer’s alcohol. As to which type of sake is best or how you should drink it, well, that’s up to the individual. Sake can be enjoyed in the company of geishas in some of the priciest restaurants in Japan OR from cardboard juice boxes.
You can also find tiny 180ml/6oz individual glasses of sake like One Cup Ozeki for sale in Japan for about $1.20 a shot. That’s so dirt cheap, some people say that if your local convenience store is really well stocked with One Cup Ozeki, it might mean that your neighborhood isn’t the safest place around. I like to think it means that it’s the best place to party. As Big Jim always used to say: “Life is all about perspective. Now lay off the hooch because the Aryans will probably attack tonight.”
Japan Is More into Beer (And Near Beer) Anyway
Sake may be Japan’s national alcohol, but it’s not their favorite one. It’s near the top of the list for sure, but Japan’s bestselling wet hype man—who’ll always tell you that you CAN make that jump or punch out that guy—has long been beer. Hell, Japan loves beer so much that they’ve actually produced and consumed oceans of a faux-beer called happoshu, made from the almost-finest ingredients grown in the Uncanny Valley, simply because it tastes close to the real thing but is slightly cheaper.
Happoshu translates to something like “foaming alcohol,” and its origin lies in Japan’s 1901 Beer Tax Law, which codified “beer” as Daddy’s Golden Cry Drink with a malt content of at least 67% (would have been nicer if it was 69% but whatever.) But then someone reckoned: “Sooo, if this alcoholic drink had a malt content of, let’s say, 66%, then it legally wouldn’t be beer, and you couldn’t tax it as such AND it’d be okay to drink it at my daughter’s recital because nothing in the rules says anything about ‘No almost-beer on the premises,’ yeah?” They were half right.
Happoshu tastes almost exactly like regular beer (though some people may have trouble getting over the eerily subtle taste difference) and gets you drunk the same way. But due to its reduced malt content, it’s taxed at a lower rate. There’s also something called “New Genre Beer” or “Third Beer” that’s made with no malt at all, which has been replaced by soy or pea protein to lower the price even further. And coming soon: minus malt beer, where you have to give the guy at the booze store a bit of malted grain before you can buy it.
Still, for a culture that loves beer so much they invented its Abibas knockoff, Japan has just a whole bunch of rules about it. At a typical Japanese company drinking party, which is practically mandatory, you may have to pour beer into glasses for your bosses, making sure that the bottle’s label faces UP while you’re doing it. There are legends out there about people losing their mind over the label facing down as if they were drinking Ben Franklin’s private reserve instead of the Soon-Urine they’ll later blame their erectile dysfunction on. Also, the beer glasses at these parties can be tiny, clocking in at something like 300-400ml/10-13oz big.
Beer mugs are, of course, available everywhere here, but the smaller glasses are offered as an option for older people (of whom Japan has a surplus) trying to limit their alcohol consumption. Which is totally understandable. And, hey, thanks to seniors, Japanese supermarkets have also started putting out the Smurf-sized 135ml/4.5oz and 250ml/8.4oz beer cans, which you can hold in your hand to feel like a giant. Or stick them on a belt and strap it across your chest like a booze-bandolier because, again, nothing in the recital rulebook expressly forbids it!
Chuhai and Japan’s Other National Alcohol
So what is chuhai (also spelled “chu-hi” or “chu-hai”) all about? Oh, about 3-10% ABV, depending on the flavor. It’s a usually canned mixed drink made from shochu alcohol and flavored carbonated water, or a shochu highball, if you will. That’s actually where its name comes from -- shoCHU HIghball (spelled “HAIbooru in Japanese) because, hell yeah, that’s how you do acronyms. Screw using just initial letters. Just cut stuff out from the middle of two-word combos like a goddamn maniac. That’s why from now on, I will only refer to Stranger Things as Gerthi as in: “I enjoy watching Gerthi while snacking on opco (pop-corn) and washing it down with geral (ginger ale).”
But what is shochu then? It’s Japan’s other national drink: a spirit distilled from a mix of rice and anything from barley to sweet potatoes, chestnuts, sesame seeds, buckwheat, or carrots. It’s actually been enjoying somewhat of a renaissance for the past few years, with more upscale versions of it hitting the market and people coming to appreciate its unique flavor range. But at its heart, shochu is a blue-collar drink, not just because it’s favored by the working man, but because it comes in, does the job (of beating up your brain into momentary happiness), and gets severely underpaid for the trouble. That’s why shochu is sometimes called amazing names like “Mr. Gulp-Gulp” or “Big Man” and comes in huge 5-liter/1.3-gallon plastic bottles for like $15.
You take that, mix it with some angry (carbonated) water, flavor it with anything you damn please, like lemon, grape, orange, pineapple, kiwi, or strawberry, and you have yourself a chuhai, which today is mainly sold in cans. Its alcohol content can vary wildly because sour mixers pair better with stronger booze, while sweet additives work best with 3-5% stuff.
The drink originated after WW2 when shochu was the most easily available alcohol around. However, because it reportedly tasted like aviation fuel siphoned from a plane that had been sick for a long time, people started mixing it with whatever they had on hand. The makeshift origin of chuhai is also why it doesn’t have to be made with shochu. There are currently no laws in Japan dictating what kind of booze has to go into chuhai. That’s why some use vodka, even though that would technically make them… kahai? Or just hard seltzer, I guess.
Anyway, chuhai drinks are so popular in Japan that when Coca-Cola decided to test out an alcoholic drink on the Japanese market, they went with a lemon-flavored chuhai. It tasted fine, and there are apparently plans to introduce it to the US, but not to introduce cocaine back into Coca-Cola’s flagship product because Coca-Cola are a bunch of coca-cowards.
Japan Takes Its Booze Seriously
The Japanese drinking scene is so much bigger than sake, shochu, beer, and PS2-era graphics equivalent of beer. You probably already know about Japanese whiskey and how it Karate Kid-ed its way to the whiskey world, just showing up out of nowhere, total underdog, and then kicking everyone in the face with its superior technique/flavor. But the country has actually been training for this moment for close to a century.
The history of the drink in Japan goes back to Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka, who studied distilling in Scotland over 100 years ago, then came back home to build the country’s whiskey industry from the ground up. And, yes, I know that since he studied in Scotland, it should technically be “whisky,” so let’s compromise and call it “Spicy Scottish Sauce.” Besides SSS-distilling techniques, Masataka also returned from Scotland with a Scottish wife, one Jessie Roberta “Rita” Cowan. You might not be surprised to learn that an interracial marriage in 1920 did not get them a lot of wedding presents, and there’s actually a fictionalized TV version of their story that you can check out.
There are a lot of theories as to how Japan got so good at making Spicy Scottish Sauce, with some crediting it to the country’s climate or the quality of the local lumber used for aging barrels. But what’s REALLY important here is that you can take the contents of those barrels and drink them out on the street, right next to a cop, all while telling him in excruciating detail about which Pokémon are okay to eat. Tepig is the obvious choice because you could lock him in a big pot, tell him to use a fire attack, and he would cook himself into instant BBQ, but eating Mr. Mime would have the added benefit of punishing him for the sin of cavorting with a human. This is a really long and really weird way of saying that there are no open-container laws in Japan and that you can drink whatever pretty much wherever over here.
Up till 2021, that “whatever” also included Zima. Except for a few promotional revivals, the alcopop that tasted like lemonade with depression has been discontinued in the US since 2008. But it held on in Japan for 13 years after that because the country really enjoys having a wide variety of inpo (brain poison) at its disposal. And yet they still refuse to issue Big Jim a visa so he can come over and teach them how to make real booze. Japan has also been getting into gin for the past few years.
There is a lot more to say about Japan’s drinking culture, which obviously has its dark side. But if you only drink socially and/or in moderation, Japan can be a really cool place to discover all new potable cures for pants.
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