A couple of years ago I found myself in a basement bar in Yoyogi, a central precinct of Tokyo, drinking cold Sapporo beers with big foamy heads while the salarymen next to me raised their glasses to a TV displaying a fuzzy, obviously bootlegged video of an old Bob Dylan concert. The name of the bar, My Back Pages, is the title of a Dylan song. Dylan is, in fact, the bar’s reason for being: Japanese fans come here to watch his concert videos, listen to his tapes and relive the ’60s in America, a time and place almost none of them witnessed firsthand. As I heard yet another version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” roaring over the speakers, with some drunk Japanese fans now singing along, I thought how strange this phenomenon was.
The American presence in Japan now extends far beyond the fast-food franchises, chain stores and pop-culture offerings that are ubiquitous the world over. A long-standing obsession with things American has led not just to a bigger and better market for blockbuster movies or Budweiser, but also to some very rarefied versions of America to be found in today’s Japan. It has also made the exchange of Americana a two-way street: Earlier this year, Osaka-based Suntory, a Japanese conglomerate best known for its whiskey holdings, announced that it was buying Beam Inc., thus acquiring the iconic American bourbon brands Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark.
In Japan, the ability to perfectly imitate—and even improve upon—the cocktails, cuisine and couture of foreign cultures isn’t limited to American products; there are spectacular French chefs and masterful Neapolitan pizzaioli who are actually Japanese. There’s something about the perspective of the Japanese that allows them to home in on the essential elements of foreign cultures and then perfectly recreate them at home. “What we see in Japan, in a wide range of pursuits, is a focus on mastery,” says Sarah Kovner, who teaches Japanese history at the University of Florida. “It’s true in traditional arts, it’s true of young people who dress up in Harajuku, it’s true of restaurateurs all over Japan.”
It’s easy to dismiss Japanese re-creations of foreign cultures as faddish and derivative—just other versions of the way that, for example, the new American hipster ideal of Brooklyn is clumsily copied everywhere from Paris to Bangkok. But the best examples of Japanese Americana don’t just replicate our culture. They strike out, on their own, into levels of appreciation and refinement rarely found in America. They give us an opportunity to consider our culture as refracted through a foreign and clarifying prism.
When I headed to Osaka a few months ago, my friend Nick Coldicott, who lives in Tokyo, urged me to visit what he contends is the best bourbon bar in the world: Rogin’s Tavern. Knowing Nick’s command of the spirits universe, I take a commuter train out to Moriguchi, an obscure little town about half an hour from the center of Osaka. When I emerge from the station I can see a neon light spelling “Rogin’s” in English. Inside it is dim, with a long wooden bar backed by hundreds of bottles. American jazz comes from an ancient-looking jukebox in the rear.
Nearly every bottle is bourbon, though there is a smattering of rye and sour mash. I can see bottles from the 1800s next to obscure export bottlings of Jim Beam next to standard-issue Jack Daniel’s. Seiichiro Tatsumi, an older man dressed elegantly in bartender’s attire, emerges from the shadows and says hello in English. I tell him I am a friend of Nick’s, and he reaches for a bottle nestled behind the register. “You want to try a 1904?” he asks.
He tenderly unscrews the top and pours a shot for me and another for himself. I take a sip. It is a brand I’ve never heard of, once made, Tatsumi says, especially for a hotel in Kentucky. It is highly alcoholic but silky smooth. Unlike wine or vintage port, bourbon is not supposed to change much in the bottle over time. And so I think of this as a chance to taste the past and experience, almost exactly, what drinkers were sipping a hundred years ago.
“I tasted my first bourbon in the basement bar of the Rihga Royal Hotel, a famous old place in Osaka,” Tatsumi says. “Then I spent years reading everything I could about bourbon at the American cultural center. I sent letters to Kentucky and Tennessee trying to set up visits to the distilleries. I even asked for help at the American consulate. And then I finally got to visit in 1984. I fell in love with America then. I’ve been back a hundred times since. I now own a house in Lexington, and I’ve even been named a colonel in Kentucky.”
I ask him how he found all these old bottles of bourbon. “I drive across America, only on the back roads and especially at night, when you can see the lit-up liquor-store signs in the distance,” he says. “I stop at every place I pass, and I don’t just look on the shelves: I ask the clerk to comb the cellar and check the storeroom for anything old. I can’t tell you how many cases of ancient bottles I’ve found that way. I’ll try any bourbon once, and if I like it I buy more.”
The next day I visit another bourbon bar in Osaka, Tonen (meaning “decade”), in a downtown neighborhood where salarymen go drinking. This is the bar of the bourbon master from whom Tatsumi originally learned. A pack of businesspeople parade into the place and one asks for one of the most expensive and rare contemporary bourbons around, Pappy Van Winkle, a bottle of which can cost more than $1,000. The bartender makes a big show of pouring this cultish favorite, laying the snifter down horizontally and swirling the bourbon inside it before presenting it to the man who ordered it, obviously the boss of the group. Then he comes over and we talk about his old bottles, and I see a glint in his eye. For someone in Kentucky or Tennessee it might be called nostalgia, but can you be nostalgic for a time and place you never knew? These two Japanese bourbon temples represent a bold act of imagination.
Back in the States I phone up bourbon bars from Manhattan to Louisville, and their responses are all the same: We have old-style bourbons, but not anything old. And then I call Keith Biesack, the beverage director at what may be New York City’s best bourbon bar, Char No. 4, and I ask why no one in America stocks anything really old. “Until very recently people didn’t think they wanted to drink anything but newly bottled bourbon,” he says. “The idea that this was a drink whose past you’d want to discover through old bottles, that’s a very new idea.”
Not in Japan, I think, and I imagine Tatsumi 25 years ago roaring across the small roads of the American South and discovering bottles that only he knew to treasure.
A few years ago a friend took me to Samurai, a jazz bar in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district whose owner, a haiku poet, stood behind the bar surrounded by thousands of maneki neko—smiling, waving cat figurines. He had a primitive video camera trained on the sleeve of the record album he was playing, and he projected that image onto the wall. Samurai had its own quirks, but it wasn’t an unusual type of place: The jazz bar and its cousin, the jazz kissaten, a coffee shop focused on jazz, are shrines to recorded music, dreamlands for high-fidelity obsessives. They offer a kind of jazz experience based on pure appreciation of the act of listening.
In Tokyo I track down James Catchpole, an American expat and jazz expert who goes by the very Japanese-sounding nickname of Mr. OK Jazz, to understand what’s happening right now to Japanese jazz culture. “When these kissa started back in the ’50s and ’60s, Tokyo apartments were too small to play music in,” Catchpole says. “Imported records were really expensive. Jazz kissa were the only places in the city where fans could listen to the music they loved.” The coffee shops became hideaways where jazz lovers could relax, hear new records and learn about trends like free jazz from others who knew the music well. In the ’60s, when jazz was allied with Japanese university counterculture, jazz kissa became organizing centers for the student protests that rocked Japan. But of course Japanese people no longer need to visit a bar or café to listen to recorded jazz. “Are jazz kissa going to survive?” I ask Catchpole.