Japan is a great place to be a drinker, and not just because of the excellent public transportation and lack of social stigma about enjoying a beer in the park. The selection is also fantastic, as the country produces dozens of brands of tasty beer, sake, and shochu.
If you’re still looking for more variety, Japan also makes a plum wine called umeshu, which has a uniquely rich sweetness. Umeshu isn’t as quite as prevalent as other kinds of alcohol, though, so if you’re in need of a primer, we found a restaurant in Tokyo that’ll let you sample as many varieties of the drink as you like during a two-hour stay for just 1,500 yen (US$14.70).
In general, our bosses don’t have to look too hard volunteers willing to check out all-you-can-drink deals, and this time around our Japanese-language correspondent Shimazu stepped up.
Shimazu was especially keen to take on this assignment, as it seems she’s become a bit self-conscious about her beverage selections recently. “I know a lot of girls who tell men, ‘The only kind of alcohol I like is umeshu,’ and then the guys say ‘Oh, you’re so girlish and cute!’ But when I tell them I like beer, sake, and whiskey highballs, they go, ‘You’re like a middle-aged man!’”
▼ Guys must be a lot pickier these days, if they’ve gone from simply appreciating a girl who chooses to get liquored up to being concerned about her method for getting that way.
So, with the secondary goal of ratcheting up her feminine charm, Shimazu made the trip across town, from our offices in Shinjuku, to Tokyo Station, the closest stop to the Hotel Ryumeikan Tokyo and its ongoing event called Umeshu Bar 2014.
The Ryumeikan is a swanky hotel, and its 15th-floor Japanese restaurant Hanagoyomi is an equally fashionable place. Stepping out of the elevator, Shimazu’s eyes were drawn to the beautiful view of the Tokyo skyline, dazzling as the sun went down and the surrounding buildings’ lights came on. She could feel herself being overcome by the romantic atmosphere, until she remembered her single status and arrival, which in turn made her all the more in a hurry to find a drink.
Shimazu’s heart sank, though, when she noticed this sign posted at the entrance.
A glance inside the restaurant revealed a number of empty seats, though, and our reporter decided to ask the suit-wearing staff member stationed by the entrance if he could squeeze her in. Sure enough, he led her to a seat at the edge of the counter. While she couldn’t see the view, she was able to watch the chef skillfully preparing dishes right in front of her.
▼ She was slightly less thrilled by the happy couple next to her, though.
Shimazu bolstered her confidence, though, by telling herself that perched at the edge of a counter in the center of the city, she was the very image of a successful young professional, out for a drink alone. And even if she couldn’t completely bury her loneliness, she was going to drown it, so she began looking over the extensive menu.
Hanagoyomi ordinarily prices its umeshu at 500 yen a glass, so the break-even point for the all-you-can-drink deal was three glasses. Shimazu started off with the Nakano Umeshu Nouveau 2013.
With a name clearly inspired by Beaujolais Nouveau, the menu described the plum liquor as having a fresh, sharp flavor, and an alcohol content of 20 percent.
Not having extensive experience with umeshu, our reporter didn’t know if the flavor is genuinely fresh or not, but she did find it instantly sweet and pleasing.
Next up was the Beninanko Ume, which is also 20 percent alcohol.
Hanagoyomi’s menu marks the Beninanko as “highly recommended.” It’s the restaurant’s most popular plum wine, thanks in no small part to its rarity, a depending on weather conditions, some years none of it is produced at all.
Compared to Shimazu’s first glass, the Beninanko was crisper and milder, with a smooth finish and an aroma just a little like brandy.
Figuring she should pace herself, our reporter then switched to a less-alcoholic brand, the 12-percent alcohol Sansho no Umeshu. Like the Beninanko, this can be a hard variety to find, and Shimazu says she was completely satisfied with it.
▼ She didn’t get a picture of the umeshu itself, though, because sometimes you get a little forgetful after your third drink.
Although she’d come for the umeshu, Shimazu couldn’t help but be drawn to something on the menu called Hatsukoi (“First Love”) Beer. Wistfully searching her memories in an effort to recall what first love felt like, Shimazu decided to get the beer maker’s take on the matter, even though adding beer to her all-you-can-drink plan cost her an extra 500 yen.
Shimazu reports that Hatsukoi Beer has had its bitterness replaced with the sweetness of the Kishu no Ume plum syrup the brew is cut with. It wasn’t bad, but she describes the flavor as “complicated,” which she asserts is a better descriptor for adult romance than first love.
▼ Poor Shimazu….
Four glasses into the night, it was time for our reporter to head home, with the affordable price of her drinks meaning that both her cash reserves and blood-alcohol content were comfortably high. Whether or not she found that boost to her femininity (or really needed it in the first place) is something we’re still waiting on the results for.
Hanagoyomi Tokyo / 花ごよみ東京
Address: Tokyo-to, Chuo-ku, Yaesu 1-3-22 Hotel Ryumeikan Tokyo 15th floor
All-you-can-drink umeshu available weekdays 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m., weekends and holidays 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m.
[ Read in Japanese ]