17 February 2011

The Graveyard Beer

As fun as my new job can be, it is also quite stressful. Thus when I discovered that last Friday was a Japanese holiday and therefore a day off from work, I had mixed feelings. I wasn’t sure if I should be happy to have my weekend start one day early, or if I should be annoyed for not having enough time to do all the important, interesting, workish stuff I was supposed to have done that Friday.

Regardless of my sentiments in the matter – a day off it was, and I couldn’t go to work even if I’d wanted to. Instead, I ended up going out of town (this being a silly term when the “town” in question is Tokyo, and the “out” of it is Yokohama, Tokyo’s conjoined twin city); I ended up freezing my Norwegian ass off (well, not off – it’s still there, but I was certain I was about to lose a finger or two); and there is beer involved as well.

Delusional, huh? Yeah, I thought so. But I am getting ahead of myself. I should start with the start.

Back in 1864, a young man arrived in Japan, a country that had been closed for foreigners for more than two centuries, but had recently been reopened, much thanks to Matthew Perry (not the actor). The young man (again, not the actor, nor Matthew Perry at all. My narrative is distracting, I know….), named William Copeland (actually, his name was Johan Martinius Thoresen, but he had – for reasons unknown to the internet – changed his name upon arrival in the US a few years earlier), came from the small, Norwegian town Arendal, and he was a brewer by profession.

Copeland must have been quite the entrepreneur, as he started several small businesses before finally deciding to return to his original career. Around 1870 he opened the Spring Valley Brewery in Yokohama, and soon his beer became popular among the Japanese as it was less bitter than the other beers on the market. Unfortunately, Copeland’s luck ran out, and he faced bankruptcy. He left Japan, and when he returned a few years later, he died not long after. He was buried at the “foreigner’s cemetery” in Yokohama. This could have been the end of Copeland’s story.

But it is not.

Even if Copeland never managed to bring the brewery back to its initial success, others did. The Spring Valley Brewery was bought, it continued to produce the popular beer, and eventually it was renamed. If you’ve ever been to Japan (and maybe even if you haven’t), there are a few brand names you will have encountered. Meji chocolate. Toyota cars. Sony, Fujifilm, Nintendo. And Kirin Beer. William Copeland’s company grew into Japan’s largest beer producer, and eventually also a massive soft drink producer.

As a way of expressing gratitude to Copeland’s legacy and contribution to the company, today’s Kirin Brewery Company, Ltd. still tends to his grave, and every day on his death day, his gravesite is visited by representatives for the company. If the Wikipedia page about Copeland is anything to go by, his gravesite is also visited by others who pay their respect by putting empty Kirin beer cans on his grave.

I came across this story while doing some research on Norway-Japan relations. As coincidences would have it, however, I was reading this just a few days before my day off on Friday. And even more coincidental – Copeland’s death day, the day of the beer can covered grave, was that very Friday. It seemed like it was meant to be. Thus, my coworker and I decided that we should go to Yokohama and pay William Copeland’s grave a visit.

Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side. Some people claim that just because I am Norwegian, I am water-, snow- and low temperature proof. This is not true. Even Norwegians will get used to a warmer climate if they spend too much time abroad, and thus I was not prepared for snow on Friday. I was also not prepared for how much colder snow and low temperatures are by the coast. Yokohama is basically one big port, and the cemetery was right by the ocean side.

I have rarely been so frozen in my life. The entire day was spent outside, as it took some searching for the grave in the surprisingly large graveyard. We actually had to take breaks every half hour to warm up in caf├ęs to survive the journey… Also, there might have been some climbing over a fence at some point. And when we finally did find the grave – what did we discover? It was covered with lovely flowers (and snow), but no – not even a single one – beer cans…

We had, as good visitors, come prepared. In the first convenience store we saw in Yokohama my coworker and I bought each our can of Kirin beer (and I bought a woolen cap – you’d think I wasn’t even Norwegian for venturing out without being properly dressed!), and this (the beer, not the cap) we meant to drink, toasting Mr. Copeland and respectfully leaving the cans on the grave.

As it turned out, we didn’t feel like drinking the beer. Partly because it felt wrong, considering it was a graveyard, and no one else was doing it (no one else was there. It was closed. Ahem. Hence the fence climbing…). Partly because it was so freezing cold that I am pretty sure I definitely would have lost a few fingers if I had attempted to spend more time outside than absolutely necessary. And we had absolutely no desire to leave the cans – full or empty – as we already had committed enough sins that day (did I mention I trespassed on a cemetery?!)

In the end, we placed the (full) cans on the grave, took a few pictures, and then brought the cans back home with us. No one will ever know that William Copeland’s grave was visited by two icicle Norwegians with the intention of littering. Well, no one but you guys, of course, but I’m sure you won’t tell anyone. The question, then, is whether the beer can story was just a story; or if the grave had just not been visited that year, either because of the weather or because of the fact that the cemetery was indeed closed. I have no idea. I may have to return next year to find out?

(And if you thought all of this was the result of the delusional mind of a storyteller, I bring forth picture evidence below…)

I think it was called the "Ocean View Park", but I wonder if "Foggy View" wouldn't have been more appropriate...

Apparently, foreigners do die in Japan. By the bunch. And those white specs making the picture blurry? Yeah. Snow. 

Snow. Fog. It was sort of a theme. 

At last we found Mr. Copeland. Beautiful (though cold) flowers. No beer. Hm... 

Fortunately, we were able to add beer. Some day I'll even drink it, and think of William. Indeed I will. 


Jan Morrison said...

Most excellent story. I say leave the cans next time. Who would dare to think that isn't a good idea. Later I'll tell you a story of my father's desire for his favourite drink at his sukhavati (Buddhist ceremony for his death). But not now.

ViolaNut said...

I thought a Kirin was a kind of killer unicorn... wait, hang on, is that what the picture on the can is?

Cruella Collett said...

Jan - oh, you never know with the Japanese. Certain social rules are NOT to be broken...

Leanne - indeed, though I am unsure or the order of evens here. Was the beer named Kirin because of the label, or did they put a kirin on the label because of the name? Chicken and egg...

CA Heaven said...

William was probably happy for the beer. In the end, when I'm resting on the church yard, I will prefer beer before flowers. Or maybe it doesn't really matter, when it's only the bones left, everything else being eaten by worms and bugs >:)

Cold As Heaven