Lifestyle & Belief

Japan's obsession with centuries-old bourbon says a lot about the country's culture

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Itska Kinoshita

Many in Japan are obsessed with iconic Amercian brands and items, like Levis and hamburgers.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

But if you're a first-time vistor to the land of the rising sun, their fascination may not be so obvious, as journalist Tom Downey explains.

"When you first travel to Japan, one of the first things that hits you is the culture shock. You can't read the signs, you can't read a menu," he adds,

After a while, though, you may notice a few interesting reproductions and imitations of foreign culture.

That's exactly what Downey experienced when he first went to Japan in 2004.

He was told to go to a jazz kissaten.

After visiting, Downey became interested in other foreign influences that have fueled Japan's obsession.

There's the story of his visit to a small little town called Moriguchi where Rogin's Tavern is. The bar only serves centuries-old bourbon. Some bottles date back to the 1800s.

Downey tasted bourbon from 1904. He says the bar is a "time capsule of taste."

Seiichiro Tatsumi is the bartender at Rogin's Tavern.

Downey says, for 25 years, Tatsumi "had been driving the back roads of America, stopping in every liquor store he saw and buying up old bottles nobody else wanted because he saw the promise and possibility of old bourbon."

Downey has a theory why people like Tatsumi become obsessed. Japan doesn't have a lot of immigrants, so its cosmopolitan cultures comes from Japanese who become interested in other places.

Downey has also noted Japanese interest in nostalgia.

"Even though they may have never experienced a particular era, they've developed a keen interest and strong nostalgia for things they never experience first hand and that's part of what leads them to such obsessive, interesting and focused pursuits," he adds.