Tag Archives: Japan

Japanese Whisky – A new book worth reading by Paul Rest

While visiting Japan, I discovered that apartment store basements were combinations of mini-restaurants, islands where you could purchase an amazing variety of foods and liquor stores that sold beers (cans of Budweiser were the most popular), wine (mostly French and a very expensive American wines), Champagnes (French) and, of course, spirits. The most popular spirits were the famous French brands including Chivas Regal. Royal Crown (a Canadian product) was also popular, and some of the more known brands of American whiskeys were present.

Hidden in the corner, not an ideal marketing location, were the few Japanese whiskeys. These were whiskeys made by the distiller, Suntory, the most noticeable brand I spied while there. I remember thinking, “Japanese whiskeys? These folks make sake, not whiskey.”

whiskey-japanNot too long ago, this marvelous book arrived in my mailbox: “Whisky . Japan – The Essential Guide To The World’s Most Exotic Whisky” by Dominic Roskrow and published by Kodansha USA. Diving into this amazing book, I quickly realized my perceptions of whiskey in Japan were out of date and needed to quick jump-start to present time. Roskrow, the author of eight books on whiskey and numerous articles that has focused attention on non-traditional whiskeys—meaning whiskeys not necessarily produced in Scotland or the United States.

The book is eye-opening especially when one discovers that Japan has a one hundred year old tradition of making whiskey. Japan’s romance with whiskey actually goes back to when Commodore Perry arrived and American whiskey that was given to the Emperor as a gift. The author writes that the history of whiskey making in Japan is based on what was learned from Scotland, but as the book explains again and again, what Japan is producing today is uniquely Japanese and is of an extraordinary high quality.

The book is fun to read and is lavishly illustrated with color photographs of the major whiskey producers and their products. There is a delightful chapter titled “Eyewitness” that interviews key players in the growth of the Japanese whiskey industry.  Roskrow asks them each, “What are you drinking?” A great question. Another chapter is about Japanese whiskey bars followed by another chapter titled, “Bars Around the World.” And what would a book like this be without a chapter showing how food and whiskey cocktails can be paired.

There is such a cornucopia of information, interesting insights, places to put on your “To Do” list, it is simply a delight to pick up the book and randomly read what the book opens to. I continue to do this and find it difficult to not turn to the next page and then on to the next page again and again.

WHISKY JAPAN – The Essential Guide to the World’s Most Exotic Whisky” by Dominic Roskrow, Published by Kodansha USA, Ltd., ISBN 978-1-56836-575, Hardcover, Suggested retail price: $34.95

Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at paulfrederickrest@gmail.com.

Written by Paul Rest / Edited, Karie Engels Giffin


Adventures in Japan: What Am I Eating Part III by Paul Rest

Adventures in Japan Part I and Adventures in Japan Part II

japan-articleJapan is a mix of stunning unforgettable natural beauty, and a seemingly lack of consciousness about the environment. A storybook looking factory of some kind situated in a lush green landscape unfolding before our eyes yet with an incinerator in the back belching black smoke. Driving on a scenic highway winding our way up a mountain we would suddenly come to a curve where in some almost Jungian collective consciousness people threw trash out of cars—soiled diapers, food containers, garbage, you name it.

But on the same trip near the famous Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest fresh water lake, a stop on a journey south at an ordinary looking cluster of shops revealed some of the most amazing textiles. Jackets, scarves, shirts, bathrobes and more all made locally with designs and patterns that evoked classical Japan. A stay at the resort on the small rocky outcropping of Urishima, which reminded me of the James Bond movie “Dr. No” with its caves that were once probably lava tubes extending from the heart of the lava core to the ocean. The traditional tatami room with a futon, waves crashing from the Pacific Ocean outside the window, gave me one of the best slumbers I had in years.

Japan is at best a place of magic and on the other end of the spectrum, a place where you could purchase sake from a vending machine, hot or cold on the walkway to the Zen temple, Ryōan –ji (with the world-famous rock garden). By the time the bullet train arrived in Tokyo, I was ready for anything. After checking in our rooms, I decided to relax with a gin & tonic. The “ice tray” in the room’s small refrigerator had the tiniest ice cubes I’ve ever seen. I mean, almost microscopic.  So I did what one would do in America. I called room service and requested ice. What arrived was a chuck of ice, obviously knocked a large block of ice. Well, necessity is the mother of invention. I wrapped the chuck of ice, about the size of a cantaloupe, in a towel and proceeded to smash it as quietly as possible on the tile floor in the bathroom until I had pieces that would fit in a glass. (Later, this chunk of ice showed up on my hotel bill: $25.00!)

We watched a TV channel in English while we all enjoyed cheeseburgers, fries, pie and ice cream with tall neck Buds from the room service menu. The food was excellent. It was good to have my American taste buds in play again.  Our suite, which we decided to share to save money with separate beds, faced Mt. Fuji, something we had requested so I could view this mystical symbol of Japan. Except the smog and low clouds obscured the view and all I could see was an unending grayness.

Our last night there we decided to go out. My host said there was a great Italian restaurant that was all the buzz then. So we managed somehow to get reservations and off we went. The restaurant was a large rectangular room with a high ceiling with murals on the walls. There were two isles going the length of the restaurant. One each side and in the middle were rows of tables.  Our table was located on the right side when you walked in towards the back and close to the kitchen. The ironies began immediately. A group of Japanese musicians strolled around the restaurant singing “O sole mio.”  Yep, that was the only song they knew. If you just happened to look at them, they assumed you wanted them to serenade your table. Of course, when they were done they expected a tip. Now I love Italian songs, but hearing the same one over and over and over again. Mama mia! When they came to our table, uninvited, I gave them an American twenty-dollar bill and pointed to the table next to ours, which almost instantaneously got hit with our merry troubadours.

The meal was great. A simple salad dressed with a divine olive oil began our meal followed by a perfect Ragú Napoletano with a bottle of excellent Chianti Riserva Classico. Or, maybe we had two bottles? I didn’t care. I was in heaven. And a spumoni for dessert brought me to new gastronomical heights and left me speechless it was so delicious.  The bill arrived and quickly brought me back to earth but still speechless. After all, this was Tokyo and we were eating at the one of the “in” restaurants.  The total bill with gratuity was what my total food budget was for a month back home, and probably my neighbor’s next door too. Oh, mama, mama mia!

We left with my thoughts focused not on the night sights of glittering downtown Tokyo passing by our cab’s window, but what my American Express bill would look like next month. Musing over a hot sake back in our hotel suite, still peering through the inky darkness, hoping to catch a glimpse of the moon shinning on Mt. Fuji I realized I just had a lifetime of experiences while visiting Japan. The food, the sights and even the incongruities of this very different culture that is closed to so many Westerners, with all this I was lucky to have been included by not only my host family but others and made to feel like more than just another gaijin.

And, after all, I was an honorary Japanese now: I had done the octopus gonads shooter and survived to tell the tale.

An interesting side note: A year after I returned, I began my now almost twenty-five year practice of the martial art Aikido. I had no direct contact with any martial artists while there, or at least that I knew about. I was near the hometown of the famous Aikido teacher Motomichi Anno Sensei on the way to Urishima and hop, skip and jump further south was O Sensei, the Founder of Aikido’s birthplace, Tanabe. I did drink water from the sacred Nachi Falls so all I can say is that is was probably, “in the water.”

Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at paulfrederickrest@gmail.com.

Written by Paul Rest / Edited, Karie Engels Giffin


Adventures in Japan: “What am I eating?” Part 2 by Paul Rest

If you haven’t read Part I yet…here it is


Japanese Spider Crab / Wikipedia

After five days, it seemed like the sky opened and it would not stop raining. At one point it rained so hard it soaked through my umbrella. Waiting for a cab (on the wrong side of the street) I realized I was getting soaked to my bones. When we arrived at my host’s restaurant I asked for hot sake, thinking this would be the Japanese thing to ask for. She replied, “A glass of good whiskey works best.”

Japan was like that. I’d think I was getting the hang of things only to find out I had missed the boat once again. Here’s another example. There are these amazing long-legged crabs that are found in the Sea of Japan. They are called “Spider Crabs” and have longer legs than Alaskan King Crab. My host and her daughter took me to this famous restaurant in Kyoto that specialized in these crabs. Soon after ordering, the crab’s cleaned body and a pile of crab legs on a plate was put before each of us.

Now I thought my host would be a very typical Japanese eater of crab. When her daughter visited me in California, I once served our famous Dungeness crab. She meticulously removed all the meat from the shell, legs and claws, put it in a neat pile, discarded the shells and then and only then began to eat. She explained that this is the way her mother taught her to eat crab. So I was expecting a mother and daughter synchronized crab-piling contest. Instead, my host grabbed a crab leg, with a quick twist broke the red spiny leg in two and proceeded with her chopstick to push the meat out with one motion.

I was going to say something but decided to keep my mouth shut. It took me a couple of clumsy tries to master the chopstick-push-crabmeat-out maneuver. I eventually mastered the one motion action and began to enjoy the delicious meat. It was different from our West Coast Dungeness crab, not quite as sweet with a more tangy, salty taste of the sea. I enjoyed every morsel, picking up the loose pieces on my plate as best I could with my chopsticks.

A few days later the rain had finally stopped and I found myself with my host family next to the famous Gion district again; only this time my young host’s father was joining us. We all squeezed in a tiny elevator and rode up to the second floor. The building that looked like every other office building you saw in Japan, drab concrete with rectangular windows in an orderly row. When we emerged from the elevator there was a restaurant immediately to the right with tables filled with diners. To the left next to the dining area was a long fish tank, filled with hundreds of different kinds of fish and assorted shellfish unaware that they would soon be consumed by hungry diners. “You will like this Paul-san,” my host’s father told me.

We were seated and he then began to order. Dish after dish arrived washed down with copious amounts of beer. Then he ordered something that arrived in a shot glass. It was dark and inky. He said something to his daughter in Japanese who giggled and then translated. “My father says it is time for you to become a Japanese man.” I smiled as politely as possible after three plus Kirin’s, wondering what was next? More Japanese followed from my host’s father. “Please Paul-san, he says you must now swallow this,” she told me, again giggling. My host’s father was smiling like the Cheshire Cat. “What is it?” I asked. “Octopus gonads,” she replied. “You swallow all at once Paul-san. Then drink a glass of sake right afterwards. The two go together. It is tradition.”

Putting aside my squeamishness about the yucky looking stuff before me, my host’s family all smiling and looking at me, probably somewhat anxiously, I picked up the glass and like my first oyster let it slide down my gullet in one slimy action. I quickly grabbed the shot glass of sake and downed that with one gulp. Fortunately, I couldn’t taste much of the octopus gonads but what I could, I was glad the shooter of sake quickly followed removing a majority of the taste.

Slapping me on the back, “You now a real Japanese man, Paul-san,” my host’s father said to me laughing. The two women, mother and daughter, smiled and clapped in appreciation that I had succeeded in doing it while no doubt praying that I didn’t retch afterwards embarrassing everyone. For me, I did notice that afterwards the family warmed up to me incrementally more each day. So I guess I did pass a test of sorts.

But one more test was to follow and it was a doozy.

Continue to Part III

Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at paulfrederickrest@gmail.com.

Written by Paul Rest / Edited, Karie Engels Giffin