It was going to be such a celebration. I mean, it’s not every day that you are among a group of people turning heads in Roppongi. Heads rarely turn in Roppongi – there’s too much weirdness on show for anything new to make much of an impression. But if you mix together a Japanese punk with a blue mohican playing the bagpipes and a bunch of be-kilted whisky folk marching down the street then people do tend to look.
The punk piper parade was the culmination of a hugely successful Whisky Live in Tokyo, the 11th and the biggest and most varied yet. The two days had passed in a blur: was my co-presenter really Miss Universe Japan? Were the two London DJs bringing rave culture to a whisky show? The classes were all sold out, there was beer and some rum as well as whisky, and even a snoozing corridor for those who needed a wee nap. A rip-roaring success and proof that a new whisky culture is taking root in Japan and that a bridge between the HiBall generation and the whisky world is being built (see our interview with Tetsu Mizutani for more).
I headed north to Hokkaido the day after to find a new set of great bars in Sapporo, dined on the best sushi in the world in Otaru (which also, bizarrely has a German brewery, with German master brewer in its centre) and a visit to Yoichi distillery, swaddled under five feet of snow drifts. We chatted of Taketsuru and Rita, the white landscape tinted pink by the setting sun. Earlier I’d been told that ‘Take-tsuru’ means ‘crane’ ‘bamboo’. As we looked over the warehouse, two cranes descended out of the dimming sky and perched in the top of two trees through which could be seen the spot where Massan and Rita are buried. It was like a blessing, the guardian spirits coming to watch over the place.
All seemed well. More than well in fact. And then it happened.
From this distance it is hard, no, impossible to comprehend how a world can change so quickly, how the apparently benign sea can become a devastating force, how every surety of life can be shaken. Frantic mails and phone calls, checking if friends were well, and with every slow reply, fears for the worst. But all were well, “shaken and a little stirred” as one put it.
The distilleries were fine and more importantly so were the people who worked there; but the images kept coming, of communities wiped out, of homes – that anchor of self – being picked up by the wave and smashed like matchwood, of lives and livelihoods lost, of smoke from the Fukushima nuclear facility.
Sadly, with it came the hysterical western reaction: of shops in Germany de-stocking Japanese whisky, of uninformed bloggers casually writing off the Japanese whisky industry ‘for all time’, of Tokyo residents cowering in darkness, of expats fleeing the country. All untrue. “We were just telling it how we see it” was the blunt reply when any criticism was levelled. The lust for immediate comment and the subsequent growth of self-proclaimed experts supplying it to naive readers in this case crossed into the unthinking and callous. As people should have been finding ways to help, some simply turned their backs to the disaster and hunched over their keyboards making stories up.
Meanwhile, the people of Japan have started to piece their world back together. They have a level of stoicism, or maybe an acceptance of the sometimes brutal impermanence of life. This, combined with an ability to work together, to rise above tragedy – war, atomic bombs, earthquakes, tsunami – is what they will draw upon in the coming months and years. The mails I get now, from friends talk of rebuilding, of growth, of moving forward, of finding new solutions. This is not a time to dismiss or to make knee-jerk reactions. It is a time for thought and reflection, and offering help.
As I write the picture remains unclear about Fukushima, but I know that next year I’ll be walking with the punk piper once more.