Just Here For the Drinks

I wrote this short piece about my experience in Hiroshima for a travel writing contest. Sad to say I didn’t win, but what the hell do they know anyway? Figured I would post it here as well.

Just Here For the Drinks

I should really should have brought some damn business cards. I spent the entire time in Japan bombarded by all manner of finely squared identifiers I would never look at again. Anyone I happened to run into was important enough to warrant their own cards.  Bequeathed like a priceless work of art, owner tightly gripping the sides with both hands and formally bowing ever so slightly. Don’t they know how little I deserve this? And here I was being gifted another, this time in a dimly lit bar. It was easy enough to find. Just take the train to Hiroshima, wander through the street towards the shopping district, hop the elevator to the 4th floor of an entirely unremarkable office building, go down the hall and pass through a tiny black door straight out of Alice in Wonderland. Simple, right?

Every few months some gushing expose comes out in the latest hipster drinking magazine on the simplicity, focus, and devotion of Japanese bartending. Promptly followed by another about how Japanese whisky is amazing, expensive, and you’ll never find any of the good stuff. I ate up every bit of this mustache-twirling, suspender-wearing propaganda all the way to the airport. Anyway, here was the moment of truth. A Negroni is usually a safe choice for feeling out any cocktail bar. Gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari in equal parts stirred with a big old ice cube.  1:1:1 is a fairly simple ratio so little tweaks make a big difference. There’s a fascinating story behind the cocktail, the short version is an Italian in the 1900s named Count Negroni needed more booze in his cocktail and turned to gin.

The bartender made me an Umami version. Imagine in one glass your grandma’s favorite gin, a boozy herbal wine, the bitterness of coffee, and a spoonful of ramen broth. Strange on paper but intoxicating in a glass. The drink has a lovely amber hue, all the more intense when surrounded by cigarette smoke from the Japanese couple next to me (I am vehemently pro-secondhand smoke for atmospheric purposes). The wife and I talked about Justin Bieber, she is apparently a big fan.

You would think jet setting off to the other side of the world for the first time would lift your spirits. I went to Japan as a sad sap fleeing problems, accepting I would be the same way upon returning. Which is why I couldn’t get over this bartender. How and why was he so happy? Everything just looked so easy there. I went back every night I was in the city trying to gleam a little more from the place. All my experiences in Hiroshima pervaded out from this bar and its jovial bartender.

Day one he introduced me to some enterprising tourists with a similar passion for spirits. I joined them the next day on a hike to the top of a sacred mountain on a beautiful island in the bay along with plenty of fresh oysters.

Day two I tracked down the distillery whose gin was in my drink. A tour in English from a hospitable guide with an even more hospitable sampling policy followed shortly after. I managed to stumble my way back that night for more guidance.

The next night he even sent me to someone else’s place, full of bartenders in immaculately tailored matching white suits. My tasteless and wrinkled nomad wardrobe was forgiven over a cocktail. I even ran into my old distillery friends who insisted me straight into an immaculate whisky tasting with some lovely Chinese visitors. My wallet remained more full than it had any right to be for all of the laughter and drinking that occurred.

Visiting Japan hasn’t made me any less of a screwup than I am now. I don’t have any plans to devote my life to making the perfect Negroni. I didn’t leave the bar with some prophetic moment of clarity or a life-changing discovery of my purpose. Just a slight buzz and another business card.