Many a well-intentioned westerner has emerged from the arrival gate of Narita airport, suitcase in hand, with dreams of exploring magnificent temples, mastering the art of haiku, or hiking heroicly up Mount Fuji. And yet, within hours of their arrival they find themselves knocking back tequila slammers in a smoke-filled karaoke bar, clothes drenched in sweat and lager, screaming the theme from “Ghostbusters” dissonantly into a microphone in front of cheering, red-faced businessmen.
It happens so easily, you see. Wherever you stay, there’s invariably a cluster of watering holes within stumbling distance of your house, usually open until 5 AM every single night of the week. And it’s hard to resist the temptation to pop out for a drink or ten after being subjected to a few minutes of the mind-numbingly inane variety shows on TV.
Alternatively, you can buy booze 24 hours a day from convenience stores or even vending machines, and you’re free to openly neck cans of lager in the street without the police spoiling the fun. Drink-driving is never a concern because nobody seems to own a car. If you wanted boozing to be any more convenient you’d have to get alcohol pumped into your arm by an intravenous drip.
Like many foreigners, I was overwhelmed by all this freedom when I first showed up in town. Before I knew it I was sucked into a nocturnal world of sybaritic binge-drinking, with a different reason to get plastered every night- birthdays, sporting events, welcoming parties for new colleagues and visiting friends, then “sayonara” parties when they all went back home again.
There’s also a plethora of local festivals and holidays in every season- In Japan people celebrate the coming of spring by getting smashed in parks under the cherry blossom trees. In summer they convene in beer-gardens on the rooftops of department stores, or in hastily constructed wooden bars on the beach. In December they have countless “year end” parties, followed in January by countless “new year” parties.
After all that consumption you’d think Japanese folks would all have livers the size of medicine balls, but in fact they have among the longest life-spans in the world. Apparently the secret to longevity and good health is getting massively shit-faced on a nightly basis.
This wild side of the Japanese is a far cry from their image as buttoned-up workaholics. More often than not, they’re friendly and excitable when they’ve had a skinful, and happy to invite a foreigner to join their table for a tipple. Japan is a land of cheery, fun-loving drunks, who’d sooner sing pop songs than fight. You’re far more likely to witness a breakdancing Elvis impersonator than a bar-room brawl on a friday night in Tokyo. Seriously!
Consequently drinking has no negative associations. It is, in fact, positively encouraged. Some nights after work I’ve gone drinking with Japanese colleagues, and made an exhibition of myself with shameless beer-downing and belching. Yet the following morning, rather than raising their eyebrows, my co-workers have congratulated me on being “a strong drinker.”
With barrels full of booze readily available at all hours and stigma-free, it’s no wonder that unsuspecting visitors have a tendency to go off the rails when they land in Japan. Even the most impeccably well-behaved ex-pat, who may wince at the sordid tales of excess on this site, will begrudgingly admit that when they first arrived on these shores they were rat-arsed for a good month before they realised where they were.