By Shelley Pallis.
Masaaki Watanabe’s anime series Bartender is part of a long tradition of TV shows about smart loners who help others in secret. Its leading man is cut from the same cloth as many a medical maverick, discussed in the same tones of hushed admiration as the trouble-shooting physician Black Jack, as a man with the “glass of the gods,” able to mix the perfect cocktail. Drop into his bespoke establishment, Eden Hall, and bartender Sasakura will be your confessor and psychiatrist. He’ll watch your hands and your face, he’ll talk over your problems, and then he’ll come up with a drink to make your problems go away.
It wasn’t all that long ago that cocktails were regarded as a medicinal pick-me-up, dished out by apothecaries at what might be better describes as the town pharmacy. Bartender reclaims the public house as a form of retreat and therapy, reimagining alcohol not as a poison, but as a medicine. It would surely come as no surprise to the authors of a new book, The Japanese Guide to Healthy Drinking: Advice from a Sake Loving Doctor on How Alcohol Can Be Good For You.
The drinking guide is the brainchild of Kaori Haishi, director of the Japan Sake Association, and Dr Shinichi Asabe, an expert on the human liver. It has its origins in an ongoing column that Haishi writes for Nikkei Gooday magazine, which has already spawned two books and a manga adaptation, and come packed with hard information about the effects of wines, beers and spirits on the human body.
Haishi’s book has much universally relevant information for anyone curious about drinks and drinking, but can also offer fascinating insights into the nature of Japanese booze culture. She has plainly suffered through many a compulsory works outing, and has empathetic advice for the woman who really doesn’t want to be endlessly chugging beers with her colleagues from Accounts in some shouty karaoke bar. She also has much to say about the relative merits of Japanese bar snacks, some of which turn out to have beneficial effects in staving off hangovers, whereas others are just salty excuses to make you thirstier.
Using scientific evidence and pertinent anecdotes, Haishi answers all sorts of questions about the nature of drinking, including the reason why you can find your way home but still not remember how you got there, the mechanics of getting red-faced (a common issue among Asian drinkers) and the question of whether alcohol can shrink your brain. She also deals with the “French Paradox”, an issue in medicine that continues to baffle scientists, since the people of France drink much more wine, but remain infuriatingly healthy.
From some of the stories that Haishi tells about her younger drinking days, I am surprised she is still upright, but author photos make her seem remarkably well preserved. That surely has at least something to do with her love of sake, since she doesn’t just discuss the merits of sipping, gulping or otherwise chugging it, but also its value as a skin-care product.
When cosmeticians tell Haishi that her skin is “ten years younger” than it ought to be, she credits her eternal youth with a daily tipple of sake, and the use of “the geisha’s secret.” In olden times, it is said, geisha wouldn’t let left-over sake go to waste, but would dab it on their faces and necks. It turns out that sake contains over twenty amino acids, a fact leapt upon by cosmetics companies in the 1990s, although sales were hampered by a loophole in the law. Even though you were supposed to put it on your face, “cosmetic sake” still had a 13% alcohol content, and was, at least theoretically, still drinkable, which meant it could only be sold in off-licences. It wasn’t until 2003 that the Fukumitsuya corporation came up with the solution – Aminorice, an alcohol-free sake that retained the skin-soothing properties.
While Haishi performs the writing and interviewing duties on the book, her colleague Dr Shinichi Asabe provides the heavy-hitting data, rounding up a whole bar full of booze-loving physicians to talk through the medical effects of alcohol. This is done with impressive clarity and precision, backed up with rich citations from academic journals, of everything from that time some Japanese boffins got mice drunk to see what happened to their brains, to the doctor who rigged himself up with a pulse oximeter on a flight to Bangkok, to see how mid-air drinking affected his breathing. One of Haishi’s most winningly quirky interviewees is Nobuhiro Furukawa from the Kawasaki University of Medical Welfare, who looks set to go down in history as Japan’s leading expert in throwing up. Furukawa has a charming, starry-eyed interest in his subject, and regards it as a “mechanism that can save your life.”
Beyond Captain Vomit, Haishi interviews two dozen other physicians, on everything from travel sickness, to nightcaps to baths – not just bathing in sake, which is apparently another skincare secret, but the very real risk in winter-time of passing out drunk in a super-hot bathtub. Ten degrees hotter on average than a Western bath, the Japanese variety can have fatal effects on a drunken bather, particularly if she goes from warm room, to cold bathroom to hot water; apparently, fatalities have almost doubled in the last ten years.
Haishi is unfailingly amusing, but also strictly proper in her approach to drinking. It’s a hobby she loves, but she does not flinch from examining medical dangers, including alcoholism, but also the unseen dangers of things like turmeric, which Japanese drinkers have been known to ingest in industrial quantities in an attempt to stave off hangovers. She is determined to deliver enough information so that readers can drink responsibly, and healthily, so that they never have to give up what they love. I’ll drink to that.
The Japanese Guide to Healthy Drinking: Advice from a Sake Loving Doctor on How Alcohol Can Be Good For You, is out now from Robinson. Bartender, directed by Masaaki Watanabe, is released in the UK by Anime Limited.