July 23, 2011 – I had to drive into Sapporo for an afternoon training meeting with my company. Apparently the ALTs who work in Sapporo had an additional training meeting in the morning, meaning that they would actually be there all day, the poor bastards. As is my usually habit, I set out very early in the day, and ended up at the training location approximately an hour and half early. Luckily, the Sapporo ALTs broke for lunch, so I was able to hang out and eat bento with them before the afternoon meeting got started. (ALT=Assistant Language Teacher)
The meeting itself wasn’t anything worth writing about, but the nomikai (飲み会 – going out, literally “drinking meeting”) afterwards was something I had been looking forward to all week. My friend Nozomi-san had been planning on making a reservation at a suitable food/drinking establishment for anyone and everyone from the company that wanted to go out. Meanwhile, ALT factions had already been making plans to go to a beer garden in Odori Park, since the Sapporo Beer Festival was in full swing. After a quick group vote, it was decided that we would try to find a spot at the Kirin Beer Garden and see how it worked out. Nozomi-san was fairly certain that finding space for a large group was impossible without going very early, but she humored us anyway.
After the meeting broke, everyone went their own ways, so we were coming in separately and meeting at Odori Park. Walking from the Nakajima Park area, my friend Nari and I made our way to Odori. I was struck with how perfect the weather was. The night air was pleasantly warm, but not too hot. After the sun went down, I still felt quite comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans.
While I had been told that the Sapporo Beer Festival was big, I still wasn’t prepared for how truly huge it was. There were multiple beer gardens in the park, each one a city block in size. We passed through the Suntory and Asahi beer gardens before arriving at our target, the Kirin beer garden. Each beer garden was packed with people; from a distance it appeared to be an undulating mass of alcohol swigging humanity. Making our way through the crowd, the atmosphere was warm and celebratory, with all comers, young and slightly less young, having a great time. I’ve never been to real German-style Oktoberfest, but image that the feeling must be the same.
It proved difficult to get everyone together, since there was so many of us and the place was crazy crowded, plus everyone was arriving at different times. The first people we met up with were fellow ALTs Ralph and Owen, who brought along their friend Koichi and a random guy they had just met at the beer garden. They had started the drinking early and even had the good sense to bring a few cans of beer in there bag, which they were kind enough to share with me.
When a large enough group of ALTs had found each other, I actually got a call from Nozomi-san. She was with the company managers (our bosses), looking for enough table space to sit down, but quickly losing hope. Navigating through the sea of people, I found Nozomi and the managers, and led them to our party of ALTs just outside of the beer garden. With everyone in the same place it was clear that our group was too big to find room in any of the beer gardens this late into the evening. The managers decided to move on to a restaurant, while the ALTs would still try to do the beer garden. Nozomi said that she would coordinate with me, in case our two groups wanted to reconvene later for more drinking, and probably karaoke. At this point, I was given the title of “Karaoke Leader”, which while unofficial, still appeared in a few emails from the company sometime afterwards. (They have a good sense of humor.)
The beer gardens use a weird ticket process for purchasing drinks. Perhaps it works differently once you are seated, but basically, you go up to a counter and pay for a beer. You can choose between a small size glass, a large size glass, or a HUGE 6 LITER TOWER OF BEER that looks like a titration burette from Chemistry class. (I really wanted one of those.) Instead of actually getting your beer right there, you receive a ticket that you then need to give to a waiter (designated by their red hats and vests) to get your drink.
When the ALTs ventured into the Kirin Beer Garden, many of us immediately went to buy tickets for beers. Someone in our group, perhaps Nari, actually found a table big enough to seat all of us, so after some cell phone coordination, we all converged on our new spot. Someone explained to me that the beer gardens actually close fairly early in the evening, at 10pm, so it may have been the case that were able to find our table because people were already going home. In any case, the beer garden party still felt like it was in full swing and the atmosphere was fantastic.
Our group of gaijin got plenty of looks from the locals, although there were clearly other foreigners present. The atmosphere felt quite open, and the conversation from one table easily spilled over to the next table, as long as there wasn’t too much of a language barrier. One brave and friendly fellow approached us and introduced himself in English. (I think he was really pumped just to get to use some English, actually.) He explained that he loved beer and had even worked for a few months at a Trappist beer brewery in Belgium.
Eventually the beer garden closed and everyone had to leave. To make sure drunken groups didn’t try to linger at the tables past closing time, the beer garden actually turned out the lights. This made for a pretty clear signal that the party’s over.
Some of our ALT group decided to call it a night at this point, but eight of us wanted to continue the fun. I called Nozomi-san and got directions to the restaurant in Susukino where they were currently eating, and the group of us walked there. The restaurant didn’t have room for another eight people by the time we arrived, and the managers were pretty much done with eating anyway. We decided that the eight of us would try and find somewhere to drink and sing karaoke (in that order), with the hope that the manager group could meet up with us.
We had barely walked a block before a girl working on the corner tried to sell us on her karaoke joint. Koichi did the talking for the group and was assured that they had a karaoke room big enough to accommodate a group of 20 people. That plus their “nomihoudai” (飲み放題 – all-you-can-drink) meant that we had a winner.
Karaoke establishments in Japan generally have a cramped feeling of small subdivided rooms connected by narrow hallways. Walking from your private room to the toilet feels akin to moving about a submarine; not uncomfortable, but definitely inhibited. The room that we were led to felt oddly large by comparison. Seating wrapped around the length of the walls, with four tables in the middle. You could definitely fit 20 people in there. Since the eight of us were there first, and you pay by the hour, we got started with both the singing and the drinking.
Eventually, Nozomi-san showed up with our bosses and our karaoke party really exploded. I remember singing “One Week” by the Barenaked Ladies, which didn’t seem to disappoint, but not really impress either. What was really memorable was listening to our bosses sing. Nozomi-san, it turns out, has a beautiful singing voice and I was blown away by her moving performance. Jude, the Aussie-New Zealand trainer for the Hokkaido Branch, entertained us by singing the hell out of a Green Day tune.
It was my boss, Josh that shocked me the most. He sang Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”, and as the music started, he stood up and walked to front of the room. Josh didn’t even look at the screen, having clearly memorized all the lyrics. Instead, he faced us like he was on stage and we were his audience. Beer in hand, he sang the entire song hauntingly in character, as if he himself were a drunken lounge singer, or perhaps a pirate. Now every time I hear that song I’m going to see his wide, crazy eyes staring me down.
After two hours of karaoke (or was it three hours?), it was time for everyone to go. Most everyone was calling it an evening, but Owen, Ralph, and I wanted to get some ramen before cashing out. I mean really, that’s just how it’s done; ramen is the only way to end a late night of drinking in Japan. We walked around Susukino for a bit before finding a ramen shop that Owen assured us was fantastic. After as much alcohol as we had had, it was definitely more than sufficient.
While enjoying the noodley goodness of my miso ramen, I realized that I hadn’t eaten any dinner up to that point. I had at least three beers at the beer garden, then another three (or four) beers plus a shochu drink at karaoke, and I had been doing it all on an empty stomach! Suddenly I was incredibly grateful for my bowl of Chinese soup. By this point, poor Ralph had had tons to drink and was crashing. Eventually, a sleepy nod of the head sent his bowl onto his lap, dumping broth all over his best suit.
The three of us were to part ways at the ramen shop, but I was really hesitant to let Ralph walk home alone, since he was so trashed. Japan is super safe, so the odds of him being mugged were super low, plus the weather was so nice that he could literally sleep outside be fine. In fact, he actually joked about sleeping in Odori Park. In the end, I decided that given the lack of danger, if a grown man tells me he’ll be fine, I have to take him at his word. So Owen and I let Ralph brave it home on his own. As I would find out later, Ralph actually did end up sleeping in Odori Park that night. When he awoke, his bag and glasses were missing, but after a little searching, he recovered them. Apparently the worst part of the episode was trying to clean his suit, as the drycleaners were suspicious of the miso-stained, grass-stained outfit. See, he was fine.