Slave to the Machine

It’s been a busy year. That’s 2006 I’m talking about, not 2007, which remains tantalisingly out of reach as I write. How busy? Five expresso machines busy. Ché? Let me explain. The best yardstick of the pace of my year is how many stove-top expresso machines I incinerate — the more frenetic I get, the more I tend to forget about what I’ve left brewing. 2006 has been a five-expresso year, which has got me reaching for the record books. Yep, that’s a record, trumping the three cooked expresso machines of 2004.

Earlier in December I had the pleasure of spending three days in Tokyo — the spiritual home of the insanely busy. I was a Tokyo newbie, I must confess. I recall having a hand-held computer game as a kid, called ‘Rush Hour’. You, the player, act as a train’s guard on the Tokyo subway, and it’s your job to push queues of commuters into the carriage without people falling to their deaths. It gave me my first sneak peak into the otherworldly freneticism of Japan’s capital. But what surprised me about the real-life Tokyo was the extraordinary order. ‘Busy’ needn’t be ‘chaotic’. Yes, people pile into trains like their lives depend on it, but they push themselves in backwards so as to not offer full-frontal offence to fellow commuters. Similarly, gridlock on the freeways needn’t entail shaking fists and unbridled road rage… everyone’s aware of the parameters that  constrain the way they live and patience seems to be one virtue that’s valued there.

Another aspect of Japan that’s well documented is how highly mannered the people are. These days, when we think of manners we picture a snotty-nosed two-year-old reaching for a Paddle Pop only to be thwarted by an grownup waiting for the ‘magic’ word: ta. But a highly mannered society entails more than ‘being nice’, it’s more about protocol, and structure, hierarchy… a right and a wrong way of doing things. Personally, I appreciated that sort of highly mannered environment. It may seem quaint and old fashioned to westerners but it actually offers security to those who adhere to it. As opposed to the West where we race headlong into knocking down barriers of formality as soon as humanly possible — what better way to do business than to share three bottles of spumante in a strip club!

I wasn’t in Tokyo on venue business but, of course, felt duty bound to avail myself of some local nightlife. I left Australia hopelessly unprepared, but hazily recalled a bar/restaurant called Glitter that had been freshly minted and worth a visit. I had a chat to my hotel’s concierge who consulted his PC and, completely poker-faced, printed me out some directions that were indecipherable to me but invaluable to the cab driver. Some 30 minutes later I found myself in the Ginza district — awash with geisha, and streets of fancy retail outlets — outside the Glitter Club. There was, inevitably, a mix up, and the Glitter Club was a B-grade pole-dancing dive bar. (Check our Aspire column on page 98 for more on Tokyo’s Dazzle… not Glitter.) Undeterred I stumbled across a couple of very pleasant nearby venues in which to sip on a Manhattan.

The bar/restaurants I visited were notable in my own mind for the way in which they countered the busy-ness I alluded to earlier. In all cases, low indirect light reigned supreme. Water — either in the form of giant fish tanks or via projection — was also a common theme, and helped to further lower the heart rate. Furthermore, music was invariably low-key — ’50/’60s jazz, more often than not, and at a ‘conversational’ level. It all seemed like the perfect antidote to the high-octane pressures of this formidable metropolis.

And to return to my observations on Japan’s highly mannered society, I was struck by the approach of the bar staff. Earlier, I mentioned my favourite tipple, the Manhattan, and it was fascinating to see it being created, Japanese style. If the flair cocktail makers of the West borrow more from the juggling gymnastics of street theatre then the Tokyo counterparts strictly adhere to the CSIRO approach. Making a cocktail in Tokyo isn’t some sort of conspicuous, tip-generating spectator sport, it’s a high-precision piece of fluid mechanics. It became self-evident that there was a right and a wrong way of making a Manhattan and as a Japanese barman you were taught the right way. And if you were unsure, then a droplet on the back of the hand for tasting would serve as a safeguard against things going horribly pear-shaped — your patron storming out in disgust after discovering the maraschino cherry had been incorrectly skewered.

It’s hard to gauge how one would cope with such fastidious order for months on end; a change is better than a holiday… but I can heartily recommend the reintroduction of a semblance of ceremony.

And, before I turn 2006 into a six-expresso machine year, I’d better duck out and investigate that roasting smell. Which only leaves me time to wish all of our readers a successful, a creative, and a not too frenetic 2007.

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