I have no idea what the bartender in this basement whisky bar in Tokyo means by “tasting game.” He and the other two Japanese bartenders are beaming at me, waiting to hear my response to their “challenge” invitation. What am I tasting? What’s the challenge? How much does it cost? Instead of asking any of these questions, I say yes to the game. The bartender, Wataru, wearing a vest decorated with a Texas flag pin, ducks down behind the bar to gather the necessary supplies.
The reason I’m in this basement in the first place is because I have an obsession with hunting for the world’s best hangover cures. I’m not sure if one’s actually out there, but that doesn’t stop me from checking with every bartender, master distiller, agave farmer, and civilian imbiber I meet, from Oaxaca to Finland. On a balmy Tuesday night in Tokyo, I was back on my bullshit, on a mission to find out if Japan held the secrets I’ve been chasing for years.
The drinking culture in Japan is famous, or infamous, depending on who you ask. Men and women go hard until sunrise, partaking in legendary drinking until the sun comes up while still managing to make it to the office on time. Surely they had some advice for managing the inevitable next morning hurt. And so, after a few warm up beers with friends at a Shinjuku izakaya, I began an all-nighter for the sake of research.
It’s not uncommon to find bars and restaurants underground in the world’s most densely populated city where space is precious. Being in a basement doesn’t make a place seedy, either. After a few weeks in Japan, I felt at home below street level. The night before, I’d gone to a subterranean kaiseki restaurant run entirely by women called Tsurutokame, where the likes of celebrities and politicians dine. I’d found ROSE Whisky Bottle Bar on the recommendation of Lance Henderstein, a photographer sometimes based in Tokyo.
ROSE isn’t your typical whisky bar. It’s well-lit, so you can see all of the sparkling bottles on the wall. There’s a TV in the corner that plays some ocean life channel. While a clownfish swims through a mess of floppy sea anemone, I start to worry watching Wataru produce four bottles of Japanese whisky from underneath the bar and pour me a dram of each: The Yamazaki Single Malt, Yamazaki 18 year, 12 year, and The Chita. He’s going to mix them up, and I have to guess which liquid is which. The anxiety stems because a) I’m not a skilled whisky expert and b) Japanese whisky like this is expensive as hell and also c) it’s only midnight and I still have a long night after these four pours (plus the highball I’d finished two minutes before I was propositioned this challenge).
In theory, the game should be easy. I’d been to the Yamazaki distillery a few days before and had a tour of the place with Suntory’s global brand ambassador, Mike Miyamoto. He’d started working at Yamazaki in 1973, and stayed in the business ever since. He was even the first Japanese person to work in the scotch industry.
“I can answer any question about whisky, but please don’t ask me about anything else,” he told me. We walked around the distillery, the first whisky distillery in Japan, exploring out the inner workings of the hallowed ground.
I asked Miyamoto if he had picked up any hangover cures in his lifetime in the whisky world. He laughed at the question. "No. Drinking lots of water. That’s all,” he said. “If you drink too much, it doesn’t matter what you do, you get a hangover.”
Miyamoto explained that he doesn’t drink a lot and paces himself. “If you take three shots of whisky, I usually take them over maybe two hours,” he said. “Between them, I drink lots of water.”
He told me that some Japanese people take sesame oil supplements to support their livers. He takes it every day, not for hangovers, just overall health. After the tour, we tasted a number of whiskies, including all of the ones that were put in front of me at ROSE. I should have been paying attention to the subtle nuances instead of thinking yep, this stuff’s good.
The other patrons at ROSE are watching me as I swirl and smell each glass of whisky like I know what I’m doing. I place my bets, lining up name cards next to my glasses. My first guess is right, causing the tiny bar to erupt in a round of heartfelt applause. I mix up the 12 and 18 year olds, yielding a two out of four final score. Knowing the 18-year alone is 7,000 yen ($63) a pour, my heart sinks as I calculate the price of losing the game.
Maybe sensing my panic, bartender Maho points to the bottles and says something in Japanese—a language I do not speak, by the way. She pulls up Google Translate and shows me the English word “service.” I’m still confused. She tries again, writing “it is free.” The English word “relieved” does not begin to cover how I feel.
Now on the Google Translate train, I pull up a question of my own.
“Do Japanese people have any specific medicine or drinks to fix a hangover?” I type and translate. Maho furrows her brow, and calls Wataru over to discuss the question. They write down Ukon no Chikara—a turmeric supplement—and also show me a photo of some medicine on Google images. It’s Daiichisankyo IchouYaku Green intestinal medicine, something like Tums. I take a photo of the photo and pay my inexplicably reduced bill.
It’s about 1:30 when I leave ROSE. I ask Wataru a recommendation for my next bar, and he walks me to one a few streets over. Japanese hospitality is insane that way. He drops me off at a bar called Champion and I thank him for everything—the game, the fun, the walk, and the Ballantine’s-branded paper hand fan he gave me as a gift back at the bar.
I walk into Champion and walk out almost immediately. It’s packed with foreigners scream-singing Bruce Springsteen karaoke. Instead I decide to find some place to drink in Golden Gai, a maze of minuscule bars housed in two-story buildings surrounded by Shinjuku skyscrapers.
While navigating the tangle of Golden Gai alleys, I befriend Taka, a 26-year-old who works for an agriculture startup. We go to Bar Bergerac, a karaoke dive I’d visited to three years before. We get a round of highballs and I ask him about his go-to hangover meal. I tell him mine’s ramen.
“Ramen is kind of the opposite. Personally speaking, I eat Japanese pickles or porridge,” he tells me. “Maybe it’s easier for the stomach. Usually alcohol makes people want to eat oily things like ramen, but if you get a hangover you don’t want to eat. When I was a student I would have a beef rice bowl at Yoshinoya. Or McDonald’s. Not anymore.”
The hours peel away as we move from bar to bar. We end up at an empty gin bar stocked with bottles from all over the world. The bartender tells us his name is Indi, like Indiana Jones. He opens a bag of cheesy chips for us to eat with our drinks. I ask him what people do about their hangovers here.
“In Golden Gai, regular customers who drink too much go to the sauna and drink water,” Indi says. “Regular customers with a hangover just come and drink again.”
I ask him about medicine or supplements people could take. “Medicine, I have no idea,” he says. “Pocari Sweat, maybe. Sport drinks.” Pocari Sweat is a lightly citrusy electrolyte drink you can find all over Asia.
Taka brings up Ukon no Chikara. “It’s like a vegetable that helps protect you from getting a hangover. All of the convenience stores sell them,” he says. “Japanese people will buy this typical drink at a convenience store before getting drunk. It’s a drink that helps you get sober or protect you from getting a hangover.” I wish I had known about this before I started the night.
When we leave the gin bar, it’s 5 AM and the sun is out. I brace myself for the long slog home and the hangover I’m bound to get from mixing whisky, beer, sake, and umeshu, a plum liqueur that tastes like fruit soda when you drink it with carbonated water.
It is no longer morning when I wake up, but three in the afternoon. Freelance life is good that way. It’s time to face what’s left of the day and see if I can test out some of the cures I’d gathered. As I start to form a game plan, I realize the pain that’s welling inside of me. It’s sharp and deep and getting worse.
I leave my Kanda apartment and stop at the nearest vending machine for a Boss Coffee cafe au lait, then a green tea. Fried chicken seems like a good idea, so I stop into 100 Hours Curry for a plate of saucy rice and meat. It helps, a little, maybe. I remember Pocari Sweat and dip into a fluorescent 7-Eleven to buy a giant bottle.
I chug the electrolytes as I pop into drugstores until I find one that sells IchouYaku Green. The pharmacist recommends Bufferin for my headache, which by this time has reached the level of splitting. Since the damage is already done, I don’t look for Ukon no Chikara, the turmeric supplement you’re supposed to take before you drink. It’s too late for that.
By the time I’m done drinking my Pocari Sweat, I’m feeling dizzy and horrible, bursting at the seams with a cocktail of the faux Gatorade, coffee, tea, and potentially incorrect doses of hangover medicine (the directions were in Japanese, and I’m an idiot). I decide that the last-ditch effort is to try exercising, something just about every hot bartender at Tales of the Cocktail recommended doing after you drink too much. I smash my way into the clusterfuck that is the Tokyo subway at rush hour and make my way to Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium where you can work out for the wildly low rate of $4.50 a day (plus the dollar it cost to rent a towel).
With every drop of sweat that hits the rubber gym floor, I feel closer to normal. I didn’t find any magic, but everything’s going to be ok.