I'm gonna miss my housemates.
It's official, I'm moving out of my place by the end of the month, to a single apartment on the other, cooler side of the station where hole-in-the-wall noodle shops vie for space with national chain izakaya bars and the exciting world of shopping takes place. My current neighborhood mostly involves men making houses for people to sleep in and people who stumble back from Tokyo at 11 at night to enjoy the wonderful world of sleeping. I haven't smelled much fish or curry wafting out of kitchen fans in my neighborhood so I figure most people go out to eat. The doorway of my old-old place in rural Saitama was placed right next to the kitchen exhaust of the place next door, giving me an olfactory preview of their nightly meal. They really liked grilled mackerel.
I'm not gonna drag my housemates into this blog any farther than to say that one of them has introduced me to the wonderful world of Japan's hot new liquor shochu. All of you stateside will have to tell me if this has seeped over to the US at all. (I doubt it.) Distilled from barley, rice, sweet potatoes or just about anything, shochu is going through a bit of a boom in Japan right , leaving fermented sake in the dust as a drink for smelly old men and weird foreigners who wanna experience "Japanese culture." Shochu bars which specialize in the finer brands from Kyushu and Chugoku in the muggy climes of South-Western Japan are popping up in Tokyo's chicest neighborhoods and as the watering holes of characters in TV dramas.
I'll admit, it took me a while to get used to the stuff. It's the first hard liquor I've ever developed a taste for; up till now beer and wine were the only types of alcohol that enlightened my mouth as well as my brain. The first time I had it was at an enkai (drinking party) during my first year here as an English teacher. The town's superintendant of schools, a remarkably dapper man who was pushing 60, unmarried, and read obsessively until the wee hours, subsisting on 3 to 4 hours of sleep a night, offered me a cup towards the end of one night of epic silliness. Japanese drinking parties seem designed to make you sick: you have to drink a few glasses of beer first, then everyone branches off into their own personal faves, with people sampling just about everything on the menu while Mitsuda from accounting does magic tricks. The superintedant is just pressing for you to try his favorite shochu, right after you've tried Matsuda's whiskey, Hashimoto's warm sake and Yamada's homemade plum liquor. I learned to just politely refuse and stick to the bottles of Japanese domestic beer.
The other times I had shochu it was cut with something else, like coke or tea. It also forms the alcoholic base for chu-hi, these canned shochu-hiballs flavored with lemon, plum or something else fruity and sweet. Hey man, when I wanna drink soda, I'll drink soda, what's up with a liquor that can't hold it's own?
But in these windy winter nights my housemate has convinced me of the joys of 4 parts cheap-but-decent shochu, cut with 6 parts hot water, fragrance rising up out of your mug; one cup a nightcap, two a shitty day at work and three a real party. As I sit here flying on number three (or four?), housemate at the computer next to me surfing god-knows-what on the internet, the mellow drink leaving me both relaxed and giddy, I'm comforted by one of shochu's legendary properties:
The closest thing I've got to a digital camera is this little thing on my cell phone which renders all photos in a pixellated digital haze.