Thursday, March 09, 2006

Nomihoudai, an appraisal...

The Japanese call it "Nomihoudai", the rest of us call it "all you can drink in a certain time for a fixed price". It's one of the many things that is great about Japan, and fits the Gaikokojin psyche like a soft glove - you drink yourself silly and then pay a fraction of what it would normally cost you. Win win, impossible to fail. Right?

Well, mostly. I'd say that at least 90% of the Nomihoudais I've been on have been roaring successes, but there have been a few that descended into, at best, stale farce, and at worst, exhibit A, B and C in any future deportation cases. Why? Here's why, in my very potted truths about Nomihoudai.

Truth 1 Gaikokojin + unlimited alcohol is an accident waiting to happen

Most Nomihoudais are peaceful and laidback, but there's always the latent threat that things will escalate beyond all control. With excessive alcohol, the Japanese versions of ourselves that we have nurtured are sometimes forgotten, and we often revert to our University ways - reckless necking of anything and everything that we can conceive, cries of "DOWN IN ONE!" and extravagent drinking games whose only purpose is to send the participants hurtling into a beery oblivion as quickly as possible. The rapid intake of alcohol affects us in many ways, but recurrent ones are the sudden beliefs that we can do anything, that we have solved the secret of life, that we can dance, that we should be doing this every week and not just on a special occasion, and that we simply must steal something as a memento for the evening. We Gaikokujin rarely need prompting to drink up, and the time limit of Nomihoudai seems to compound our idea that we need to drink a lot very quickly.

During my university days, I dallied with Chinese, and they introduced me to a number of ingenious drinking games which I always forget, only for them to resurface with gusto once a sufficient amount of ale has been quaffed. As is our wont, my friends and I would take these games and change them a little, making them more difficult and outlandish, creating such devilment as the Thumbmaster - Freezemaster - Backwardsmaster Game, which seems so very important when inebriated but rather ridiculous when sober.

When drunk we do things that we would never normally do, which occasionally put us in real, tangible danger.

Two of my best friends from back in England, who I will call JA and DI, were on their way to a fancy dress party, dressed as 007 characters complete with realistic shiny plastic guns. Happening upon some police officers, JA leapt at them, pulling out his guns and pretending to fire, much to the horror of the lesser-scallywag-of-the-two DI. Bear in mind that this wasn't long after 9/11, and on another night and place they could have been shot dead on sight.

Of course this is extreme. Usually we do less volatile things, such as when I took it upon myself to dance home in the style of Chrisopher Lee during the procession scene to the beach in The Wicker Man (and in the process somehow getting home in ten minutes instead of the usual 20). Alcohol seems to give us a feeling of immortality and untouchableness, which whilst thrilling is ultimately dangerous.

Regarding the desire to pinch stuff, there have been at least 3 occasions on which I have desired to bring the giant bowling pin from outside the bowling alley back to my apartment, even going so far as to plan it's capture on scraps of paper from Friends' bags. I don't know where this light-fingered desire comes from, but it's prevalent, at least in England, where the self same JA once filched a large ornamental plate from the wall of a local pub, and the sandwich board from outside a city pub, only for the police to pull up in their car just as he was heading off with it over his shoulder.

Truth 2 People maketh the Nomihoudai

All you can drink nights can be completely different experiences, depending on who you are with. Case in point:

On the night shown in the above photo, I was with the teachers from school. It was all shop talk and rather tame, their idea of all you can drink being to order a medium sized beer and nurse it carefully all evening. Only the insisted addition of 4 bottles of wine prevented the evening from being a complete washout. But besides the red faces and threats of ties being tied around heads, there were to be no fireworks, only talk about how delicious the food was, and what would happen during the next school year.

The photos below shows a contrasting night.

It was the night before the big Kurume earthquake of March 2005, and it was Zoe's leaving bash. Food and drink were laid on, as well as a subsequent bout of karaoke that went on until the next dawn. There was no shop talk, there was no reluctance to refill glasses and there was none of the sitting quietly and pretending to be interested to someone talking about work. There were loads of people there, and everyone mingled freely, talking about whatever they liked with whoever they liked. The karaoke session turned into a gartantuan effort, with arguably the largest number of people present before or since. Songs were sung in earnest, lacklustre happoshu beer (literally "sparkling liquor") was polished off with determination, Ben thought Christmas had come early with Linh parking herself on his lap, and Zoe and Ewan started pashing there and then on the sofa (which she still denies despite the photographic evidence above... "we were just talking" indeed..)

Despite the fact that we were apparently forbidden to rebook the first bar due to an unknown slight, and despite the fact that most of us went to work afterwards with only a hastily glugged genki drink to get us through the day, it was memorable, entertaining and fun. But this aside, the point is that even if we had all sat in the same restaurant as that of the school teachers and just talked, it would have been a thousand times better. It's who you are with, not what you do.

Truth 3 You have to be prepared for disappointment

Bad things happen sometimes on nights out, and Nomihoudais are no exception. Whilst it would be utterly unthinkable in another country, in Japan it is not uncommon for bars to delclare that they have run out of beer, and there endeth the supping. Thankfully, the very nature of Nomihoudai is such that the places hosting them expect more drinking than usual, and thus they prepare themselves and stock up. That said, it's been my experience that almost every Japanese bar and restaurant greatly underestimates the constitution of a bunch of foreigners on the lash, so don't be surprised if the staff can't keep up with you.

With this in mind, I've prepared a little guide for successfully navigating a Nomihoudai, with problems and quick solutions.

Problem: What's the best kind of venue for a Nomihoudai?

Solution: It depends. If you go to a karaoke place and do Nomihoudai there, chances are the quality of the food and drink will be less than in a restaurant/bar. Some people like small places, some like big, some with music, some without. Basically, a good guide is to pick somewhere with a pleasant interior, drinkable alcohol and reasonable price.

Problem: The staff can't keep up with our drinking!

Solution: You need to over-order! If three drinks are needed, get a few extra. The number required plus three is a good yardstick, as it allows for maximum drinkage in case of staff holdups. Of course, places vary, and so should your approach. In one place, a friend was asking for 6 glasses of red wine every time and receiving only 2. In another only one was omitted. In some places, the staff will immediately recognise that they can't delegate staff members to spend the entire evening running back and forth to your table with grog, and if they have the facilities they will bring you a keg and glasses, and ask you to pour your own.

Problem: Where is the best place to sit at a Nomihoudai?

Solution: Anywhere apart from at the end closest to the staff, as this is where a keg - should it appear - will be placed, and you will be duty-bound to pour drinks for everyone all night. A lot of places in Japan have curtain partitions separating parties, usually on one side. The other side is usually a solid wall, and this is perferable as it allows you to lean back and relax a little more.

Problem: It's the end of the meal, we're all hammered and we can't seem to make the money balance!

Solution: Do your homework beforehand. Find out exactly how much you will have to pay and have it ready in your pocket. Ideally someone should be designated as the money handler (usually but not always the party organiser). With larger parties, it pays to write down who is present and whether or not they have paid, although if you are planning an almighty city-razer, it might be best to get the money off people before you start drinking to avoid trouble later on.

Problem: One of our party is making a scene/causing trouble/being sick over everything

Solution: If you want to return the same venue in the future, you'll need to nip it in the bud quickly. Either pay and leave all together or choose someone to take the offending guest home. Whilst most Japanese forgive salarymen for throwing up on train platforms (and occasionally on trains too), Gaikokujins tearing down curtains, shouting at staff and launching multicoloured yawns everywhere will bring out the worst in them, and at the very least you can expect to be barred from the establishment. With there not being a massive community of us in many of the towns and cities around, bad news travels fast and many establishments enjoying the process of tarring with a ridiculously large brush.

Problem: Our bill is much higher than we thought!

Solution: Again, homework. Nomihoudai is for a set menu and set alcohol. If you start ordering extra dishes (and sometimes extra drinks), the staff will add it to the bill. It pays to find out exactly what drinks are included in the Nomihodai, and what food, and stick to that. The food will usually be a set amount, and it will be brought to your table automatically. To play it very safe, don't order any extra food, and stick to nama biru.

Problem: You call this beer?! It's vile!

Solution: Whilst most Nomihoudai beer is ok, sometimes the cheapest of the cheap is used. You have to weigh up whether or not you're willing to sacrifice quality for quantity. Generally speaking, the more expensive the set price, the better the alcohol should be, but don't quote me on that...

Problem: Having prebooked, some of our party are not here, and we are being told that we have to pay for them even though they are absent!

Solution: Make a choice. Either pay and get on with it, or make a scene and threaten to leave - tell them, as a friend did, that rather than lose the money for a couple of people, they will lose the money for everyone, and all the food was made for nothing. The establishment will most likely back down, but they might not. Having a Japanese speaking person here is a must (though not necessarily a Japanese person, as it's been my experience that they will often apologise and yield to whatever the establishment wants).

Problem: We've turned up but we're being told the place is full!

Solution: You should have made a booking, especially if you plan to go on a weekend. If you did book, and you are still being told that it's full, get someone who speaks Japanese to explain the situation to the staff. If this doesn't yield results, threaten to spread the word that the establisment in question is discriminatory and cares little for its customers. Claiming to work for Fukuoka Now! or some other such public news centre should spur them into immediate action. If not, take your custom elsewhere. Bookings are usually honoured in Japan, and I've never experienced the above scenaro. But that doesn't mean it can't happen...

Problem: It's the morning after and I feel like a pig has shat in my head!

Solution: There are a million and one remedies for a hangover, but the only one I know that works is to throw up all the ale before you sleep (if it's been a really heavy night it might happen for you). Having done this, you should wake up at 7am feeling chipper. Another tip is to eat something before you embark on your night out, as the food component of the Nomihoudai is often insufficient to counterbalance the vast amount of alcohol you will put away. On a similar theme, the simplest way to prevent the raging dehydration thirst of dawn is to drink at least a pint of water before you sleep.

Well, there we are. A little longer and more preachy than I planned, but I hope his rough guide to the Nomihoudai will be of use to at least someone. As for me, I really should get back to work. Mine's a pint, by the way...


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