Friday November 4, 2011 – Hashigozake (はしご酒) is the Japanese word for barhopping. Literally translated, it means “ladder alcohol”. I theorize this indicates that with an additional drink at each consecutive bar, one gradually climbs the ladder of drunkenness. In the first week of November I heard talk of an upcoming Friday night hashigozake event, and being a healthy fan of social drinking, I got excited to go.
There was something that I didn’t understand, however. Shakotan’s Hashigozake Taikai (はしご酒大会) was more than simple barhop around Bikuni town (美国町); it was an organized pub crawl, with tickets for admission. When people had asked me if I was going, they were confused by my noncommittal attitude because—unlike me—they knew tickets for the event for limited. By the day of the event, I was talking to Yamazaki-san about going on the hashigozake, and he explained my error. He regretfully informed me that I needed a ticket, and as it turned out, tickets were already sold-out.
Never one to give up when it comes to helping a friend, Yamazaki-san made some calls around the office to see if anyone had an extra ticket. To my surprise, a woman who works on the second floor had a ticket that she was willing to part with. Before my afternoon shift at the Board of Education was over, Yamazaki-san had helped me secure a 2000 yen ticket for a night of drinking fun.
The Shakotan town office had coordinated festivities with several local snack bars, taverns, and restaurants, making the Hashigozake Taikai (はしご酒大会) a surprisingly organized event. Participants formed parties of four, and each group was assigned a course with four destinations to hit. There were a variety of venues participating, but your event ticket only granted you free stuff at your four assigned locations.
Everyone first assembled at the Town Hall auditorium (文化センター) to form groups and receive their course details. After a quick opening word, the mass of participants spilled out onto the streets 7:00pm and got barhopping. Everyone received a card with the names of your four venues. At each bar you get your card stamped, verifying that you made it there. At the end of the evening, you were to return to the Town Hall auditorium, and everyone with completed stamp cards (which I’m assuming was everyone), got entered into a big raffle for prizes. The duration of the event seemed a little short to me, as we had only an hour and 15 minutes to sample our four bars.
My group for hashigozake, included Sawada-san and another fellow from the second floor of the town office, as well as a third gentleman, a friend of Sawada’s who lives in Yoichi. We set out on the town and headed first to a sleepy little snack bar called Peny Rain. (I suspect that the inspiration for the bar’s name came from the Beatles hit “Penny Lane”, as the R vs. L aspect of English is a common hurdle for native Japanese speakers. I didn’t ask about it though, lest my question embarrass anyone.)
Laidback, with a relaxed atmosphere, Peny Rain was a nice place to have a drink. Like Snack Cocoro, a local joint that I’m more familiar, Peny Rain had TV screens mounted on the walls that could be used for karaoke. We were seated at the bar, which was made of thick, solid wood with a dark finish. Part of the bar bulged out roundly, like a kitchen table, and this was where we sat. Our free beers were served in unceremonious plastic cups, but along with the drinks, we also received complimentary potato wedges (フライドポテト) and edamame (枝豆). I suspected the vegetables were grown locally in Shakotan, because both were incredibly tasty, especially for bar food.
After one beer at Peny Rain, we headed out to one of my favorite local establishments, Jun no Mise (純の店 – Jun’s Shop). The Jun family runs a great restaurant with especially delicious tempura (天ぷら) and fried chicken (ザンギ). The proprietors always give me a warm welcome when I go there. We were seated at a table on the first floor, in a little alcove in the back. It was just the right about of space for the four of us. We received our beers in plastic cups, just like at the first place, and snacked on some fried goodies. The beers went quickly and Sawada-san went ahead and ordered another round. The next set of beers came in the standard glass mugs, along with a very Japanese snack food, small eel-like fish called kounago (こうなご – young sand lance).The tiny fish were very tasty, but I think most American’s would find their appearance unsettling.
After Jun no Mise, we headed to another bar, one located very close to my apartment, Snack Bright (スナックブライト). Nestled directly behind the ramen shop Yamatomi, Snack Bright is just down the street from my apartment, a little way past the historic Yamashime House. Considering its close proximity, I was surprised that I had never managed to go there before hashigozake.
Like Peny Lane, I was impressed with the warm, old-style bar interior of Snack Bright. The walls were painted dark brown, yet somehow they matched the black tables and couches that sidled them. The bar counter had a clean-looking finish, with a varied collection of alcohol bottles displayed behind. At the far end of the room there was a little spot for singing karaoke. Like a mini-stage, it had a slightly elevated platform equipped with a monitor. In fact, it occurred to me that every little bar in Shakotan was karaoke able, which is a nice touch.
The proprietor of Snack Bright was instantly familiar to me. I had seen him around the town office quite frequently, and I’m fairly certain that he was one of the representatives that traveled to Kōchi-ken for their Yosakai Sōran festival in August. I knew he was a city council member, but I didn’t realize that he also operated a bar as his day job—or night job, I suppose. (It’s funny how the way a person is dressed instantly colors your interpretation of them.) We sat down and enjoyed our free beer, along with the complimentary snack food, and caroused with the crowd of mostly older folks. There was one group of young ladies there, and I recognized one of them who worked in the Shakotan Dentist’s office. To make the event look young and hip, they ladies posed for a picture with me.
Time was running out as we headed to our fourth destination, Fukuzushi (冨久寿し), a sushi shop on the corner of the busiest intersection in town. (Although, that isn’t saying much here in Shakotan). We had only ten minutes or so to try out the place out before we needed to return to Town Hall. Fukuzushi‘s prime location, along with the fact that it serves sushi in a town famous for fresh seafood, gives one the impression that they do very well. Still, this was the first time I had ever been inside, as the more famous Fuji Sushi seems to get all the attention. It was very quiet inside, as everyone else was most likely on their way back already. Instead of beer, we were served nigiri-zushi (握り寿司) with green tea (お茶). The sushi was absolutely delicious, and I love green tea, but part of me still longed for another beer. We devoured our food in record time and hustled on back to Town Hall.
One man from our group ran ahead, to make sure that our completed stamp cards got into the raffle for prizes, even if the rest of us were late. Back at Town Hall, the auditorium was abuzz with excitement. On stage there were a lot of prizes to divvy out, from random stuff like bags of rice, paper towels, and tissue boxes, to more appealing prizes like huge bottles of sake and six-packs of beer. The organizers began drawing numbers and a steady stream of winners walked up to collect their spoils. As for myself, I actually won some beer in a handy tote bag.
After all the gifts were handed out, three more numbers were drawn for the grand prize: Genkin Tsukamidori (現金掴み取り – money grabbing). A clear, plastic box was filled to the brim with 1000 yen bills (千円札 – せんえんさつ). [At the time, 1000 yen was approximately equivalent to $12 USD.] Each contestant got one attempt to try and grab as much cash as possible with one hand, and deposit it in a bowl next to the box. Only cash that made it into the bowl would count, and the contestant had a time limit of 15 seconds. The three lucky contestants tried their hand at Genkin Tsukamidori, and each came away with fat wallets. Considering the event ticket cost 2000 yen, they made out like bandits.
When the event completely wrapped up, the evening was still young. Along with some fellow elementary school teachers, I proceeded to Yamatomi for some delicious ramen. Normally the ramen stage of an evening is dead last, the place you go around three in the morning when you’re completely drunk. Since it was much earlier than that, I enjoyed another beer with my meal. The conversation with my three teacher companions was surprisingly smooth, helped not only by Kazama-sensei’s solid grasp of English and French, but also the English dictionary app on his smart phone.
When we left Yamatomi, I said goodbye to my friends and started my lonely walk back to my apartment. Passing Snack Bright, I stopped. I could hear karaoke and the sounds of a lively party in full swing. At this moment, I had a choice; go home and sleep, or pop in the bar and see what’s up. I wasn’t feeling tired. It was hashigozake night after all, and I was only five beers into it! Curious, I stepped inside Snack Bright for the second time that evening.
The place was packed with patrons, all pretty good and liquored up. But unlike the kind of bar scene I’m used to seeing, everyone present was well-aged. The youngest person must have been in there late 40’s—well, the youngest until I appeared. Ihira-san from the Board of Education spotted me at the entrance and gave me a genuinely warm welcome. Besides Ihira-san, I noticed that there were a few other local officials present, including Mayor Matsui. Ihira-san seated me at the same table at which I had sat earlier that evening, a table now almost exclusively occupied by grandmothers. As I sat down and said ‘hello’ to everyone, a beer appeared in front of me.
I drank and made conversation with the Baba-chan (婆ちゃん – granny) party. They were very interested in me and the United States, and asked lots of questions. They had some bar snack food which they insisted I sample. By the time I completed my beer, another one arrived, a gift from a mysterious benefactor. After much merriment, the Baba-chan’s asked me to sing a Beatles tune for them, and I obliged. Then somebody requested I sing Sake-yo (the only Japanese song I can manage, so far), so I sang that one to. As is usually the case, the grandmothers approved of me.
Eventually, most everyone left the bar and went back home. Still working on my fourth beer, I sat at the counter with the only two guests remaining. They were making conversation with the proprietor of Snack Bright, the man I knew from the city council. When I asked for my tab, the barkeep told me that it was all taken care of; someone else had paid for all of my drinks. I thanked him and departed, walking the short way back to my apartment. The time was around 12:30, and—if my count was right—over the course of the evening, I had drank nine beers. Not bad for my first official hashigozake.