Travel

Out of the ordinary

Dave Broom gives us his guide to staying ,eating,drinking and visiting in Japan
By Dave Broom
Japan is disorienting, bewildering, exciting and, occasionally, a little alarming. No matter how many times you visit the country, no matter how much you think you can more or less understand how it works, you can be guaranteed that it will throw you some sort of cultural curveball.It could be food or a film, it could be a building, it could be the clothes which the teenage fashion victims are wearing – it could even be whisky.Japan has long been a whisky drinking and whisky making nation. Though the market has faced some tough times in recent years, the signs are that the spirit is once again finding favour with consumers, especially malt whiskies. As it does, so its use is changing. Old Japan-hands will recount tales of how business deals would always be sealed with a bottle of a Japanese blend. Whisky was the salaryman’s choice of tipple, it was what was given as a gift to friends, colleagues, clients and bosses.These days however things have changed.While the suits will still enjoy being served their own bottle by beautiful bar girls in their own (sometimes) select and (often) secret bars, there is a new, younger consumer who is drinking malt and some blends in clubs and top end bars – some of which are dedicated to the spirit. In many ways, Japan is reflecting what is happening across the world – there is a new, marketing savvy, premium-oriented consumer out there who wants quality.As a result of this, Japanese distillers are becoming increasingly proactive in encouraging their domestic consumers to learn about their own whiskies. Distilleries are packing in visitors, new brands are appearing. At the same time, gaijin businessmen continue to flock to the country and many of them fit this bill of the new malt-literate consumer. When you also factor in increased tourism then you can see why it’s only right to offer this very brief visitor’s guide.

WHERE TO DRINK
Before we give you a list, a word of warning.Japanese whisky bars tend to be small, intimate spaces, some can fit in no more than a handful of drinkers. They are also hard to find.I once was taken to a bar so chic that it had no name, no door and no bar, the bartender stood with his bottles behind a screen.See? Curve balls Knowing an address is, in many ways, pointless because of the, frankly, bizarre way that Japanese streets are numbered (another curve ball). Best bet is either to phone in advance and get the bar to fax across a map or visit its website and print one off yourself. The map can then be given to your taxi driver [another tip. DO NOT attempt to open the taxi door yourself. The driver does it automatically from his seat. Alternatively, get him to phone the bar who will often be happy to guide him in.The good news for the keen consumer is that Japan is one of the few countries where you can do vertical bar crawls. Often you can find little whisky nooks on each floor of a seven storey building. The good news is that there will also be a lift.Once you have found your bar, be prepared to a) pay a lot for your dram b) be totally bewildered by the choice on offer. There are whiskies here which have barely seen the light of day in Scotland or the US, there are rare bottles, old bottlings, collections. The choice can be overwhelming. My tip is to sit down, order a Japanese blend with soda water and sit and sip as you plan your course through the serried ranks of some of the greatest whiskies you are likely to ever come across.Bars open and close frequently, some relocate. Here’s a (very) small selection of some of Whisky Magazine’s top spots.TOKYO Speyside Way
+81 (0) 3-3723 7807
[Jiyugaoka]
How many whiskies? More than 800 at the last count and not all from Speyside either. There’s a mouth-watering selection of Talisker as well.Helmsdale
+81 (0) 3-3486-4220 [Nishi-Azabu].Much beloved by the Scottish whisky trade -- must be something to do with the haggis.More than 300 single malts.Hazelburn (Kabukicho)
+81 (0) 5285-1470.Pick from more than 200 malts and a similarly eclectic fusion of Japanese and Scottish cuisine.Mash Tun
+81 (0) 3-3449 3649.Run by Toru Suzuki formerly of Speyside Way and one of the great whisky bartenders of Japan. A must visit.KYOTO Bar K-ya
+81 (0) 75-241 0489.Aspectacular selection of old malts.OSAKA

Bar Leigh.
+81 (0) 6-6348 1007
Small selection (by Japanese standards) of whisky, but the cocktails are world class.There is now a shot bar branch called Bar Leigh Islay 06-6351-0508 Bar K.
+81 (0) 6-6343 1167
I know, another one, also with a stellar selection of whisky.The Harbour Inn
+81 (0) 6-6371 8009 Sound familiar?It will to those who have visited Islay. This is a faithful recreation of the public bar at Bowmore’s Harbour Inn. Range is large.. but heavy on the Islays and Bowmore in particular. Curve ball time again.YOKOHAMA

The Dufftown Pub
+81 (0) 45-663-7936 [close to Ishikawa-cho station] Small, relaxed, intimate with great selection of whiskies and bourbon.MATSUMOTO CITY Pub Mahorobi
+81 (0) 263-36-3799 www.mahorobi.com In the mountains, three hours from Tokyo. If you can’t make it at least visit the website lovingly compiled by owner Temei Horiuchi who specialises in the lost distilleries of Scotland. A must see.DISTILLERIES TO VISIT These days, all Japanese distilleries welcome visitors, though it is best to phone ahead to book a tour. Non-Japanese speakers would be advised to do so in order to ensure that a translator is available. Suntory and Nikka sites also have extensive tasting facilities as well as special bottlings only available at the distillery.YAMAZAKI
+81 (0) 75 961 1234
Free tour 10am - 3pm Japan’s first distillery was built in 1923 and is located 10 minutes from Yamazaki station which is easily reachable from Kyoto. Set in beautiful grounds this is a large plant whose stillhouse has recently been totally revamped [full details in a forthcoming Whisky Magazine exclusive]. There is a spectacular tasting bar and whisky library and a chance to join Suntory’s Owner’s Cask scheme. Visitors are requested to book a tour 24 hours before.HAKUSHU
+81 (0) 551 35 2212
Free Tour 10am - 3pm If working to full capacity, this is the largest malt distillery in the world, yet is is situated rather discreetly in thick forest at the foot of Mount Kaikomagatake in the southern Japanese Alps near the town of Hokuto in Yamanashi Prefecture. Suntory owns a large chunk of the forest and preserves it as a nature reserve. Inside, it rivals Yamazaki as having the most eclectic collection of shapes and sizes of still, all for the express intention of creating as many different flavours as possible. There is a museum on site.MIYAGIKYO
+81 (0) 22 395 2111 www.nikka.com
Free tour 08.45 - 4.40pm Nikka’s largest distillery occupies a site between two rivers close to the city of Sendai which lies a two and a bit hour train journey north east of Tokyo. It is situated in a tranquil hilly area noted for the quality of its hot springs – the perfect spot for a weekend break. The site is home to a grain distillery as well as a large malt plant.YOICHI
+81 (0) 135 23 313 www.nikka.com
Free tour 9am - 4.30pm Japan’s most northerly distillery lies on the western shores of Hokkaido in the fishing port of Yoichi. It was built here in 1934 by Masataka Taketsuru, the father of Japanese whisky who left Suntory (for whom he had built Yamazaki) to set up on his own. His journey ended here. Hokkaido, he felt, had a climate similar to that he had experienced in Scotland when he was studying distilling.The distillery still looks like a Japanese fantasy of Scotland. There is an extensive museum and shop selling a range of distillery exclusives. Amust for visitors to Hokkaido.KARUIZAWA
+81 (0) 267 32 2006
Free tour 10am- 4pm Close to the (active) volcano of Mount Asama, Japan’s smallest distillery (at the moment) was founded in 1955 by a wine firm Daikoku Budoushu on the site of an old vineyard. Ultra-traditional in approach, the distillery is a magnet for the crowds of people who visit the mountain town of Karuizawa and its surroundings throughout the year as a refuge during the humid summer months or as a skiing resort. It is easily reachable from Tokyo (closer still to Nagano).GOTEMBA
+81 (0) 550 89 4909
Free tour 9am - 4.30pm Somewhat alarmingly situated between Mount Fuji and an army firing range, this ultra-modern plant was built by Seagram in 1973 and in many ways is a miniature replica of its old Gimli distillery in Canada with three grain stills and a malt distillery on the one site. The water comes from Fuji-and the views from the distillery roof. Gotemba City is easily accessible from Tokyo by train.