By Michael Jackson

The Buddha of Bourbon

Michael Jackson has a vision, and learns why the Japanese sit on the floor to eat dinner
Through the windows of the cab, the neons of Tokyo flashing light Jimmy Russell’s face. I keep expecting him to say; “I couldda been a contender,” but why would he? Jimmy Russell is a champ.He has just flown in from Cincinnati, and I think he looks tired as his head turns away and rests on the anti-antimacassar. Then I realise it is just the yellows and greens of the neons casting their ghostly glow.We reach the restaurant. The driver pulls the control that opens the nearside doors of the taxi. It’s a system of levers and curiously low-tech for Japan.After years of visiting the country, I still forget the door opener, and attempt to do the job myself. The driver looks at me as if I am a vandal. Jimmy sleepwalks out of the cab in perfect sync with the door-opener.We take the elevator, which despatches us into a phalanx of bowing greeters. My heart sinks as low as their heads. Our host has booked one of those rooms where you are obliged to sit on the floor. It is to be the full torture, not the compromise type where you sit at floor level: with your legs and feet in a “well”.This is the type where there are no concessions or adaptations, save perhaps a minimalist cushion.I have always believed it right in Rome to do what the Romans do, but there are limits – and this was Tokyo.Can’t the reservation be changed? No. Back at street level, another half-dozen taxis are bringing further victims, whose sole crime is to be American and have some connection with whisky. We will be forced to surrender our dignity and be humiliated by a public display of geijin gracelessness.I try to kneel but my knees hurt. I slip my legs to one side and they hurt. I sit up and my buttocks hurt. I switch from one buttock to the other.I consider writing a Captain Oates letter: “I am going to sit down. It may be some time.” Before what? Before I die from aching buttocks. I wonder what sort of death that is?Knowing that I cannot survive, I order a large Hibiki to ensure a pleasant oblivion. Emboldened, I try a joke with a Japanese guest twisting and shuffling next to me.“Japan is the world’s most technologically advanced nation. When are you going to develop chairs and discover table legs?” I demand.“We don’t like it either,” he sighs, beginning to writhe. “So why do you do it?,” I persevere.“Tradition,” he moans.“Is it necessary to suffer for tradition?” I wonder.Close to fainting, I have a vision. I see the Lord Buddha at the head of the table. As the figure comes into focus, I realise it is the Buddha of Bourbon… Jimmy Russell. He looks serene, amiable: a man who can be good company without being overbearing.A year later, we are together in Tokyo again, for Whisky Magazine Live. We have dinner at the trendy restaurant Nobu, with proper seats.“What do you think?” I ask.“The food would taste better if we were sitting on the floor,” he jokes.Perhaps I am making a meal of those two dinners. There are fates more painful than subtabular dining.During the Bangladesh crisis, I was kidnapped for several hours in an area where random murders of Westerners were a daily occurrence. I lived to drink an Indian whisky without taking a tasting note. That’s how shaken I was.It could have been worse. They could have been a gang of Empty Suits. I wonder how many of those Jimmy has eaten for breakfast, with well-buttered grits.Through bad times and good, people like Jimmy have protected big bourbons against the wisdom of the day. To achieve that status, you have to be able to cope with a pain in the butt. Many such pains, in fact. That’s why the Japanese like to dine without chairs.