Japan Tour 2018! Wine, Whisky, and Angry Birds Pop!

According to the flight monitor, we’re at 33,000 feet, six hours to the west of San Francisco. The fasten seatbelt sign is on. I just declined United’s in-flight meal service, except for the after-dinner ice cream, an Asahi, and a club soda. Why disturb the memory of the fabulous crispy tonkatsu and shrimp fry setto I ate at Narita? Why, for that matter, disturb my digestive system? That’s not to say I didn’t eat United’s food on the way to Tokyo—I did—but at this point I feel like it can only lead to regret. Here’s to hoping our bag of accumulated snacks gets me through to SFO. We do need to finish that bag of Japanese smoked bacon before we go through customs, after all. I really want to say no to the breakfast service when the time comes.

Is it worth taking a Xanax and trying to knock myself out for a few hours? Or will well-timed interruptions from the kindergartener in the next seat keep me hovering in a miserable purgatory, simultaneously too on edge to sleep and too tired to entertain myself. I’ll give it a half hour and see how things sort themselves out. This is only the second time I’ve opened my computer in over a week. The first effort ended abruptly when the company-issued security software prevented me from accessing a Japanese home wireless network. I took it as a sign to stay the fuck away from the computer for a few days. After all, I could still keep track of developments in Trump’s America from my iPhone. Mercifully, nothing particularly newsworthy happened in my absence; the post-midterms indictment parade is still a matter of speculation. The exception being those horrific fires in California, and the toxic smoke they dumped on the Bay Area for over a week. Finally (!) it rained the other day and cleared the air. With the Thanksgiving holiday, work email traffic was minimal; nothing requiring my immediate attention. As it should be.

My iPhone, nonetheless, was a busy place. Lots of pictures to take and lots of instagramming to do, with all things Japanese being on-theme for each of my various accounts. I had to make up for lost time, having done a particularly poor job keeping up this year. And I spent a stupid amount of downtime playing Angry Birds Pop—which is going to get deleted upon return to regular life. I got addicted to that game once before and had to delete it, then I had the bright idea to reinstall it after I got a new phone last month. Clearly I haven’t learned an appropriate level of self-control since last time.

Some time has passed. I tried to take a nap, sitting in the middle seat between Hiroko’s reading light and Cato watching a movie. Turning away from the light, I left my face exposed to intermittent tweaking by that infuriating little imp. I went in for subdued electronica—Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest—it has a melancholy and scratchy vibe, so I’d hoped it would do the trick. Maybe that album is too unsettling for sleep music. It should be obvious from the cover, how it shows San Francisco in a way that seems to anticipate the California wildfires. I don’t know. I should have gone for my default sleep inducer, Charlton Griffin’s dusty, British reading of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—preferably one of those many endless, obscenely arcane chapters about the military capabilities of the ancient Goths, or the development of Christian theology in the Fourth Century. Try staying awake during one of those and let me know how it works out. These, of course, are to be contrasted with anything about feeding Christians to bears (or insert carnivore of choice) or the political moment of Diocletian (“that artful prince”), setting aside the tedious passage about his reformation of the civil service. That bit has proved too much for even me to handle. Anyway, I regret not taking the Xanax.

I digress. This trip to Japan was our first real vacation in two years, and it was a welcome holiday. It was also a good deal of hard work, trotting around a rambunctious six-year-old, keeping him well-fed and entertained. Hiroko wanted to take him to meet her parents in person, which we can all agree is a noble objective. It was also a big success—including a tri-generational road trip to a ryokan (Japanese hotel) & onsen (hot spring) in grandpa’s hometown in Yamanashi Prefecture. In Yamanashi, we saw many old people. We also saw Uncle Kiyoshi’s shiba inu gobble up half a pile of his own shit, eagerly and decisively, before we intervened and stopped him from completing the meal. Cato was as delighted by this scene of excretory carnage as we were horrified by the spectacle of a shiba (of all dogs!) doing something so filthy. No kisses from Pochi, I’m afraid.

We did get a full day of adult time up there, though, leaving Cato, Jiji, and Baba to fend for themselves at the hotel while we visited a Japanese winery and took a tour of Suntory’s Hakushu Distillery. As for the wine, we only recently became aware that Japan even has a wine industry. They specialize in a white wine grape called koshu. The winery we visited—Grace Wine (a mythological reference, it turns out, to the Three Graces)—makes superb wine. We learned all about the terroir reflected in their various products, checked out a vineyard, and did a tasting. Our favorite was an oak-barrel-aged white wine that I dearly hope we can find a way to import to the U.S. The Periodic Table needs some wine on the menu, and we’ve wanted to fill that slot with some Japanese wine. 

The Hakushu tour was amazing, and I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in whisky, if you’re willing to make the trek up to the Japan Alps to do it. It’s a couple hours by train from Tokyo, although it’s a popular tour and you have to book a slot at least a few weeks in advance.  The distillery is set in a forested bird sanctuary at the foot of some 9000-foot peaks, and you can visit the well-curated Museum of Whisky while you’re there. The tour itself walks you through the whisky-making process, from the wort production to the massive pot stills where they do the double distillation. Then you take a shuttle to one of the whisky aging facilities—a cavernous building housing a staggering number of barrels, the air so heavy with whisky vapor that those of sensitive constitution are advised to wait outside.

Notwithstanding the fact that Hakushu has seventeen of these buildings, their whisky is in such short supply that there was none to buy in the gift shop!  You can, however, buy Makers Mark or Jim Beam, those venerable brands having been acquired by Suntory a few years ago. But if you’re into Beam, you can save your purchase for Safeway, and instead buy a package of the (delicious) whisky pairing chocolates.  The event concludes with a guided sit-down tasting (with snacks!) and instructions on making the perfect whisky highball. Well, it does so long as you are not a woman who is pregnant or nursing. In a remarkably unapologetic display of paternalism, such guests are given juice in lieu of whisky. Not being pregnant or nursing women, we drank up everything at the tasting and then paid a post-tasting visit to Bar Hakushu and did a flight of Suntory’s long-aged whiskies—21-year Hibiki, 18-year Yamazaki, 18-year Hakushu, and 17-year Chita. Spectacular.

But that’s only part of our trip! Next time we’re off to Tokyo, stopping at a parade of animal cafes and filling our mouths with toro!