Non-Cocktail Geeks Can Skip This

Wednesday was my first day at the Roppongi Hills Club. It was intense. It's all in Japanese, for one thing. I'm the only white person in the place, except for two executive managers that I never see. That is a challenge, but not as big as I expected. It's simply a matter of acquiring the necessary vocabulary and phrases used in restaurants.

It's priceless, in terms of Japanese practice. For instance, Berlitz has a theory of "task-based learning" that they apply to their English lesson plans. The idea is that forcing the learner to accomplish something in the target language, like getting from point A to B on a map, will teach them far more than, for instance, rote repetition of common phrases. Task-based learning? Try learning how to work in a Japanese bar. Every few sentences is a new word acquired, whether they're showing me where to put polished glasses or how to mix a cosmo.

Yeah, mix a cosmo. I had to "learn" how to mix a cosmopolitan yesterday. Because I don't know how, not Japanese-style, anyway. In fact, I have to relearn almost every drink in the book, from gin and tonic onwards. Often the ingredients are the same but the proportions are quite different. Smaller, for one thing: the cosmopolitans came about halfway up the nine-ounce martini glass, mostly because the recipe skimped on vodka.

And they jigger everything. For those who didn't know, a jigger is a double-sided bar measuring cup. In Minneapolis I mostly saw bartenders free-pour (though jiggers aren't uncommon). It's an intangible art, free-pouring, all about feel. You have to use the Force, sensing quantities by the weight of the shaker, the smell of the mix, the rising pitch of the ice rattling in the shaker. It's all very inexact and I daresay that bartenders' pours are frequently off, myself included. The consistency isn't perfect but I usually think that's OK.

In Roppongi Hills it is decidedly not OK. Not only do they measure absolutely everything to the milligram, they serve some miserly drinks. A shot of whiskey is 30 milliliters. Gin and vodka are 40 ml. 30 ml. of Jameson--barely an ounce--is ¥1680, or about $16. No one gets a heavy pour. No one gets anything for free. I think that's partly due to a non-tipping culture: no one tries to give hookups for a better tip. And I applaud that, in a way. With alcohol pours so rigidly measured and adhered to they can track costs to a daunting degree. I'm sure they can tell to within a few ounces how much alcohol was wasted on a given night.

They track glassware fanatically, too. I found a pilsner glass with a chip on the rim when it came out of the washer. I just shrugged. But when I mentioned it to Teranaka, the bartender who was training me, he immediately produced a "Breakage Report Form" and I had to fill out my name, the item, and how it was broken. I wrote, "Rim chipped during washing." He looked my form over and then suggested I write a more detailed explanation so I added, "Item in question was knocked over by the jets of the steam washer, causing the rim to chip slightly." He nodded and brought it to a manager for a signature. The manager looked at the form, read it thoroughly, thought it over for a moment, and, as I started to sweat a little bit, signed it. (Imagine my consternation later that night when I snapped off the thin rim of a water glass while polishing it.)

Attention to detail is the rule here. Fifty-One, the bar where I'm working, is the cleanest bar I've ever seen, perhaps the cleanest bar on the planet. Spotless. Everything has a place and nothing is ever out of place. There is no clutter. This is a country that knows how to use space.

Even the lemons and limes. Tera cuts them into perfect segments and then carefully arranges them in a little tin box so the wedges nestle between each other as perfectly as cogs' teeth. In Minneapolis I would first lop off the ends off a lemon (the north and south poles, the "nipples") then cut it into eighths. Tera does the opposite. He cuts it into eighths then trims the ends off of each segment individually, finally eviscerating the pith in the center. This method takes exactly eight times as long as the method I used in Minneapolis, but makes sure each segment gets trimmed perfectly. When I mentioned the difference in approach he merely said, "Yeah, your way is easier, huh?" But I thought I detected a smile.

It almost seems like the process is more important than the product. The process is about intangibles, tiny subtle details carefully observed. Teranaka squeezes limes between a tiny pair of bird-footed tongs rather than using his fingers. When he stirs a drink he always daubs the tip of the bar spoon dry on a little white cloth first, then gives the drink three quick stirs, lifting the ice with the spoon after each stir to shift the contents of the glass. Every methodical step is quick, smooth and unconscious. It's ingrained in him to work carefully and he rarely spills. He works quickly despite all the extra steps.

Ice is a perfect example. Ice is incredible in good Japanese bars. They buy it in bags of big clear glaciers so cold they stick to your fingers, and bartenders painstakingly arrange them in the glass. You know you're going to get a good drink when you see the bartender picking through big rocks of ice with a pair of tongs, searching for the perfect chunk rather than just scooping them into a glass indiscriminately.

Yet as admirable as the process is, I cannot admire the product to the same extent. Roppongi Hills's recipes are surprisingly poor, to my eye. Gin and tonics are 1/4 or 1/5 gin. Cosmopolitans are 1/3 vodka and 2/3 cranberry, lime and Cointreau. Mojitos are hardly muddled at all, and use a paucity of mind leaves. Garnishes are uninspired. These are, of course, matters of personal taste and regional variation and since I'm working in their bar I will try to learn their way.

It was a lot to swallow when they told me to shake drinks differently, though. Shaking a cocktail is something I've always done in a sort of side-arm whipping motion. I had my reasons for feeling it is a superior shake, which I will spare my gentle readers. Japanese bartenders, needless to say, shake a cocktail completely differently. I guess I'm a bit of a glutton for punishment, because when the first cosmopolitan of the night came up I felt compelled to shake it my way. I knew they would correct me immediately but I did it anyway (partly because I can't shake their way very well).

Sure enough, after I had sent out the cosmo a manager immediately came over and asked me to shake drinks like Japanese bartenders. I surprised myself by swallowing my argument and agreeing without hesitation, but inside I was frustrated. I had brought it upon myself, though. Tera seemed to think I was completely clueless about shaking drinks. By his standards, I suppose I am. He was a bit cocky about it--as cocky as they ever get, which is to say still pretty polite. "Watch my shake," he said, and demonstrated the Japanese way.

The Japanese cocktail shake is an impressive thing, I will admit. After Wednesday night I decided I was going to damn well learn it, so I asked a few bartenders to show it to me. I must say--I'm almost a convert. The method I've seen here is the "hard shake," a semi-legendary method highly regarded by Japanese bartenders and more or less unheard of anywhere else. In Japan, devotion to the hard shake seems almost religious. Shaking is the very essence of mixing a drink, the fundamental art, so correct execution separates the master bartender from the peons.

The hard shake method excels, supposedly, at mixing ingredients of different weights, like cream or egg white, with liquor. Drinks made with the hard shake are very frothy. In addition it's supposed to simply make drinks taste better by adding better bubbles to the mix. So say the Japanese, anyway, and they're the ones paying me.

The basic idea is this. The bartender holds a cobbler shaker with only five fingertips to minimize skin contact with the shaker. This transfers as little heat as possible through the metal and thus melts the ice only minimally. This is very important. Cradling the shaker gingerly but firmly the bartender starts to rock it back and forth by snapping the wrists up and down. In capable hands it is like watching a percussionist play. The bartender starts slowly but soon the shaker is a little furious blur in their hands. Japanese bartenders flap their arms a little bit, too, which looks silly.

The shaker hardly moves--it shouldn't travel farther than about six inches in any direction--and this allows bartenders to get it up to impressive speeds. The shaker isn't moving much but the ice inside is slamming against the sides like crazy. The hard shake method creates a distinctive metallic "crack" sound which has a very musical quality. I think this happens when the method is so cleanly executed that the contents hit the ends of the shaker as a single piece, rather than as a collection of loose fragments. Finally there is the post-coital deceleration and then the pour. After pouring his drink, Teranaka snapped the shaker to the side with a flourish equivalent to a gymnast's bow.

Yet even the admirable Teranaka had his flaws. When he pulled the shaker to the side he splashed me with liquor. I was surprised by the sloppiness because everything else was perfect. Perhaps it was a case of overconfidence. But he also did some things that were simply wrong. Moscow Mules are supposed to be made with ginger ale, for instance, not soda water. It's been that way since the drink was invented for Smirnoff in the Forties. Yet Tera made Moscow Mules with soda, for some reason. And a proper cosmopolitan is made with lemon vodka (or very occasionally normal vodka), yet Tera had me make cosmos with blackcurrant vodka because we had a lot of it in the liquor room. I later looked these up in the Japan Bartender's Association book (a volume found in every bar in Japan) to make sure--he was just plain wrong. Even Roppongi Hills Club's own official recipes didn't agree with him on these.

This just proves to me that Japanese bars aren't intimidatingly perfect, just different. I'm not sure how much I buy into the fetishization of the hard shake, for instance, but it's worth learning since I'm here. And although the technique is mostly flawless, I'm not convinced that the originality or overall quality of cocktails here rival what they're doing in, for instance, New York or London. Japanese bartenders are technicians, surgeons and chemists first, artists second. I've been searching for some kind of cultural metaphor in all this but I'm not coming up with anything. Until I do, let's leave it at: wax on, wax off.


In the Heart of the Great Nanpou Tree

I am inspired by the Japanese version of Excellence. I see people completely devoted to their craft, singlemindedly striving to do it the best they can no matter how humble the pursuit. Like anywhere, of course, there are plenty of examples of mediocrity in Japan. But sometimes I will see someone--bartender, soba maker, sushi chef--who is very, very good at what they do. Devotion and humility are writ large in their posture and demeanor. Those two attributes are about as good a definition of excellence as I can think of.

Shimokitazawa is a cool neighborhood to live in because I see lots of people doing things they seem to enjoy and getting by modestly but, conceivably, happily. There's a fashion-design boutique down the street called Meme. It's a spare studio with a big mirror, a rack of clothes hanging from the ceiling by wires, a mannequin with various half-finished bits of clothing pinned to it, and a drafting table.

There are usually Japanese hipsters standing inside discussing mannequins while one of them slouches in front of a MacBook, working. When they're not inside they're drinking wine on their front step. I get the impression it's a husband and wife who design the clothes and every evening one or another of their friends drops by to hang out. Whether or not their label ever makes it to a storefront on a major street in Harajuku remains to be seen. It's possible, but they seem more concerned with enjoying life and trying to do something well--make clothes, in this case.

A little further down there's a little workshop where two young guys are constantly working with tiny tools and bits of wire and magnifying lenses. I still have no idea what they do but it looks like they're repairing eighteenth-century watches or something. And every so often I'll walk past and they'll be sitting outside with a pizza, chuckling about something. Japan is so dense that only those who have really made it can afford an arty, minimalist Ginza boutique with polished wood floors and a zen garden in the courtyard. The eighteenth-century watch guys work in a steampunk laboratory the size of an American walk-in closet. But they probably are experts at whatever they do and I think that is its own kind of success.

The other day I had coffee with a friend in a very cool coffeeshop. It was a cozy, eccentric place with lots of dark wood; I felt like we were nestled into the roots of a huge tree. The owner, an old man with smeared bifocals, had a cool coffee setup: a rack of bunsen burners with glass percolating tubes, a coffee lab. He made each cup individually and in his movements I got the sense that this man had spent years learning how to perfect his coffee. It was good coffee, of course, but what impressed me the most was his air of dedication.

On the walls were were African masks, random scraps of paper, Miles Davis posters, pictures of cats. Books and magazines were stacked everywhere. It was very peaceful. My friend observed that time flows differently in places like this and I realized that he was right. Tokyo is Tokyo: bustling, artificial, noisy, hectic. But then you open the door and walk in and almost instantly relax. You're no longer in Tokyo. You're in the Heart of the Great Nanpou Tree.

There is something noble about the pursuit of excellence, something rewarding in a way that being a mediocre rich guy can never really compensate for. Of course, the real challenge is to figure out how to get rich while pursuing excellence. But I suppose that misses the point a bit, doesn't it?


Urban White Noise

I've been here a month and a day and I can hardly begin to grasp Tokyo.

To get to Kamasuzaka onsen took about two and a half hours out of downtown by rapid-express train, and it was only after the first hour that I saw anything remotely like countryside. It was nice to get out of Tokyo last weekend, although I was probably technically still in Tokyo. Tokyo is so large it is both city and prefecture. Nevertheless, two and a half hours out of the metropolis I was finally surrounded by greenery.

It was almost suspiciously picturesque. I saw rice fields and bamboo forests and tiny, furry mountains. Japan is about 70% mountainous, but I was in a surprisingly flat region. Across miles of level fields I could see the occasional bamboo-feathered hill jutting out of the mist. In the midst of this countryside I passed little Japanese townships with populations larger than St. Paul.

Most of these remote towns were ancient. In the city it is easy to overlook Japan's history because they've covered the old wood and stone in shiny chrome--what little remained after the war. But in the rural neighborhoods, where tiny wooden houses like bonsai fortresses outnumber the convenience stores and pachinko parlors, it's a different country.

These neighborhoods are Old Japan, built to the specs of centuries past. Houses stand so close to the high stone walls that their tiled eaves overhang. Their gardens are smooth white gravel, craggy boulders and trees pruned like puffs of smoke. Maybe, hidden away, a shrine with an alcove for incense. They are small and well tended, intended for private enjoyment rather than public display. Of course, the well-preserved, quaint neighborhoods were probably built by wealthy families. The less desirable neighborhoods are ramshackle labyrinths built from a patchwork of rusted corrugated metal and scrap wood covered in peeling paint. Some of the poorer houses would fall over if I leaned on them hard.

Between these villages and the city there's a vast expanse of urban white noise. I passed through drab factory towns, miles of stained concrete with utilitarian signs ("Iwata Compressor") and a mind-boggling canopy of power lines overhead. Tiny cars filled huge parking lots on a Saturday evening. Tokyo is so large that when a certain area is devoted to a specific industry there's a lot of that industry. The areas of concentration in Tokyo are intriguing because they bespeak the size of the city that could demand so much of anything.

I changed trains at a station called Utsunomiya, a city of metal and dust that seemed to exist only because several major rail lines converged there. I've never seen anything so simultaneously barren and bustling as those five platforms teeming with people waiting for trains to somewhere else. Utter desolation was close at hand. I was sure I would find tumbleweeds and stray dogs outside the station. Surrounding Utsunomiya were acres of train hangars, dead-end tracks and switchbacks for maneuvering locomotives. Webs of powerlines met webs of rails at the horizon. When I finally pulled out of Utsunomiya I saw, beyond Japan Rail's bunkers, sunset on a hazy gray city whose lights still hadn't come on.

I passed through proletariat bedroom communities of tenements housing at least a thousand people each. In this quintessentially Asian suburbia, clusters of off-white hives almost thirty stories tall loom large as skyscrapers. Each hive is a double-sided coin locker of narrow apartments. The apartments have a single door and window which open onto communal balconies that serve as an entire floor's hallway. From afar, the door and windows across the faces of these vertical villages blend into dense, uniform patterns.

Tokyo is a city struggling with its own mass. It's an obese man whose bulk is crushing his own arteries. Japanese people rarely so much as hug, yet their subways are civilized moshpits where frantic citizens stuff themselves into already-stifling trains as the doors shut on them. There's a very specific technique to it. They approach the door, which is already bristling with arms and umbrellas, and turn around. Then they back into the train, compacting the mass of people behind them. They will brace against the doorframe and force themselves in when it's really crowded.

Against all expectation I find myself wishing I was living in the coutryside I saw last weekend, amidst rice and trees and mountains. This city has me craving organica: blues, folk, jazz, soul. The acclimation process continues...