23 April 2018

First Champagne in Japan?

From the earliest days of the Christian Period, Europeans arriving in Nagasaki brought foods and drinks for their own consumption in addition to merchandise for trade. The drinks of course included alcoholic beverages. For the Portuguese it was wine, as evidenced by the wine glasses regularly unearthed during excavations in the old downtown neighbourhoods of Nagasaki. The Dutch, who followed in the mid-17th century but hailed from the northern part of Europe where grapes could not be cultivated, brought a steady supply of beer and gin to drink in their trading post at Dejima. Gin in particular was an important fixture on the Dejima dinner table. The monotonous daily life on the island — characterized by historian Charles Boxer as “beginning with gin and tobacco in the morning and ending with tobacco and gin at night”— could probably not have continued without the infusion of that indispensable spirit. 

Since Nagasaki served as Japan’s earliest receptacle for the exotic beverages carried on the Portuguese and Dutch carracks, the people of the city were the first in the country to taste them, although, from all accounts, they prized the unusual bottles more highly than the liquids inside.

After the opening of Japan’s doors in 1859, a new and diverse wave of foods and drinks arrived in Nagasaki Harbor and inundated the dining rooms of foreign residents and the hotels and bars established in the foreign settlement. The earliest record of the alcoholic beverages brought to Nagasaki can be found in advertisements carried by The Nagasaki Shipping List and Advertiser, published in 1861 as Japan’s first English-language newspaper. One enthusiastic importer was a Briton named J. Collins who opened a store in Hirobaba, the street in front of the old Chinese Quarter where European merchants launched business activities before the completion of the foreign settlement ground works.

One of Collins' neighbors was an American resident named Henry Gibson who established the "International Bowling Saloon" in a Japanese building in Hirobaba, a facility recognized today as Japan’s first bowling lane. Gibson also posted an advertisement in The Nagasaki Shipping List and Advertiser, assuring readers as follows: "The undersigned respectfully begs leave to inform the Community that his bowling saloon is now open for the reception of visitors.  A fresh supply of the best description of Wines, Spirits, &c., &c., will be sold at very moderate prices.  The Proprietor trusts that by strict attention to business he will merit and receive a portion of the Patronage.  HENRY GIBSON. Nagasaki, 22nd June, 1861."

The Hirobaba street as it looked before being widened in a recent urban redevelopment project.
The exact location of the establishments run by J. Collins and Henry Gibson is unknown.

Collins' advertisement in The Nagasaki Shipping List and Advertiser
At the top of Collins’ advertisement are the words “Superior Champagne Crème de Bouzy in pints.” This shows that—only two years after the opening of the port and undoubtedly for the first time in Japan—France’s famous sparkling wine was filling glasses to toast the prosperity of trade and cultural exchange in Nagasaki. The other articles in Collins’ advertisement include cognac, gin and sherry as well as “assorted pickles” and candles made from whale blubber. All of these rare items found their way into Nagasaki stores and then into markets throughout the country, exerting a lasting effect on Japanese lifestyles.

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