In yesterday’s post I mentioned that Japanese parties, or enkai, can be rather formal (translation: boring) and that they are pretty much the same no matter who throws them (translation: always boring). Today I thought I’d explain that in more detail.
The Japanese like to drink and they are capable of throwing interesting parties, before that happens, though, there is an enkai which is pretty much the bastard offspring of a long business meeting and cocktail hour. Enkais are typically two hours long and happen strictly on schedule. There’s no such thing as being fashionably late. If the enkai is scheduled to start at 7:00 p.m. and you show up at 7:10 p.m. you will have missed the opening speech and the opening toast. There will be an empty space on the floor where you are supposed to be and you will be at least two glasses of beer and an appetizer behind your neighbors.
At this point a Westerner begins to encounter a level of culture shock. No only are you hunched up on straw mats behind a little floor table but you don’t actually own your own beer. Instead, in the spirit of collegiality, everyone pours beer for everyone else. To pour your own beer is considered greedy and impatient. In fact, you may not even have a bottle nearby (especially if you were 10 minutes late). Getting beer involves getting someone to notice that your little glass is empty and hoping they will crawl across the mat to you and pour you a glass.
There is also a tradition of waiting until you’ve taken a bite of the most delicious food on your plates (Japanese serve each dish on a separate plate) and then ambushing you with a bottle of beer. You are then expected to down your current beer, ruining the taste of the food, and then present your glass for more beer.
At a certain point in the enkai, about 75 minutes in, people start crawling around with bottles as an excuse to chat with the people they’re not sitting near. With five minutes left, everyone returns to their tables and the closing speech is given. At the two hour mark, the enkai and what is typically unmerciful boredom is over. (Note: New Year’s Parties are longer and usually more fun but that is another post.)
It’s at this point that the fun actually begins. You can either extricate yourself from the proceedings and go home or follow the proceedings to the first of the many after parties. Granted, at this point karaoke is usually involved–and in Japan karaoke is actually a martial art–but whiskey is also involved.
However, be warned, in Japan “drinking whiskey” is actually a form of rehydration. They give you a highball glass full of ice, put about a cap’s worth of whiskey in it and then top it off with water. I remember being horrified the first time this happened and I requested a glass of straight whiskey to accompany the watery ruin. I then had the odd experience of chasing straight whiskey with whiskey and water.
For the Japanese, though, this watery drink has a kind of placebo effect and they start singing, usually pretty well. And then they look at me and I’m like, um, no, not enough whiskey yet because there’s not enough whiskey in this town to make me go up there and sing. Now, at this point, some people go “Oh, DL lighten up. Live a little. Everyone’s having fun. Sing. Sing a song. Sing out loud. Sing out strong.” To which I usually respond “Go fuck yourself.” (Remind me again: Why don’t I get invited to parties?)
Granted, there was that time I sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” with my then boss and there was that other time I sang “California Dreamin'” but the first involved the New Year and the second involved She Who Must Be Obeyed and, oddly, England. (But those are future posts.)
After the Karaoke, the hardcore partiers either go to another karaoke bar or to a “snack” which has little to do with food and a lot to do with well-dressed women pushing expensive drinks at you. Or, those of us who’ve been there and done that and got a concussion because of it, go for a bowl of ramen soup and then go home.