The whale is an endangered species. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has banned whaling. But, sitting here in Fukuoka, on a cold winter night, shivering under the plastic sheets that cover a riverside yatai (food stall), it is difficult to remember that something called a WTO exists. A block of cold whale blubber is pushed along the table towards me. “Go ahead, says my host, it tastes excellent with Japanese mustard.” I look around. Can he be serious? The blank face of the flamboyant yatai chef doesn’t give away anything. He splashes a clear liquid into a glass and, at a barely perceptible nod from my host, a splash of hot water follows. “The kujira (whale) was caught for research. We don’t want it to go waste, do we? You are lucky to have it tonight.”
The shochu is mild and almost tasteless. By 2am, the slab of kujira has vanished, and we have had umpteen glasses of shochu. I didn’t know it then, but, in 2010, when I first tried shochu, it was a drink gaining in popularity with the young in Japan. Shochu is cheap alcohol that has lived long in the shadow of sake, Asahi beer and Suntory whisky. But, shochu came in handy during the economic downturn. Several izakaya (uncomplicated afterwork pubs) offered a free glass of shochu to pull in customers. Today, it has become a trendy drink. You can drink it with just about anything, even a slice of kiwi.
Shochu is a spirit from Kyushu, an island in southwest Japan. The Fukuoka prefecture in Kyushu is well-known for its barley and sesame shochu (gomajochu). By sheer providence, I was in the right place.
Over the past few years, I have visited Fukuoka several times and have learnt to drink shochu — made variously from potato (imojochu), buckwheat (sobajochu), black sugar (kokutojochu) and another 30 base ingredients — in a variety of ways. The simplest way to drink it is straight, popping some umiboshi (salted preserved plums) as you sip. Yes, whale on the side is good too, but that depends on which side of the cultural practices versus endangered species debate you are on. Shochu is also drunk on the rocks, with a splash of cold or hot water. Because it is a low-proof alcohol (about 25 percent), it can be mixed with practically anything, and you do tend to experiment with it quite a bit.
Shochu is best had with seafood. There are a variety of small fish that go well with it. On my list of favourites are the wild oceanic blue skin fish (salt-grilled), raw oysters and a slightly alarming-looking mix of salted almonds, wasabi-coated peas and dried iwashi (sardines), complete with dried brains and dried eyes staring out at you. It canget pretty hard core. But, you know this about drinking in Japan already: if you don’t go hard core, where do you go? And, here is the secret of drinking endless shochu: when mixed with water, its alcoholic strength drops dramatically to about 12 percent.
The Japanese can drink anything endlessly. They can swig straight from a fiery bottle of William Lawson’s, soak in a couple of bottles of lager and then round the session off with a tokkuri, or five, of sake. It has something to do with being blessed with a faster metabolism. But, I also think drinking helps them slip out for a while from the rigid social norms that form the fabric of life in Japan.
One evening, at Nakasu, a sliver of land between the Naka and the Hakata rivers, in Fukuoka, which has the dubious distinction of being Japan’s largest red light district, we ended up at a small karaoke bar. In a matter of minutes, alcohol from every corner of the world, including, of course, shochu, was flowing at our table.
It made the boisterous, rowdy singing louder. I think we variously sang, screeched and ripped our way through about 20 Beatles songs and another 20 assorted hits from the Eagles, Cliff Richards, the Beach Boys and Creedence Clearwater Revival. By 3am, we, the non-Japanese, were knackered. Many of us looked like we had been hit by a typhoon. But, the next morning, our Japanese friends turned up at work as if nothing had happened. It was another bright day in the land of the rising sun. One of them, elegant silk tie in place, came up and discussed the gritty nuances and spiritual depth of a Blind Faith (Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood) hit, In the Presence of the Lord. Did we really sing that too last night?