It’s hot. Damn hot. Beneath the oppressively low cloud ceiling the air is thick and still and viscous. I don’t know if it’s good weather for cigars. I doubt it. It’s not good weather for humans, that’s for sure. Nonetheless, I have the time, and these dusky beauties aren’t going to smoke themselves, so I have crawled out from under my rock with the shortest cigar left on my Upmann list, the Connoisseur No. 1 from the H. Upmann 160th Aniversario humidor.
I light it, and the smoke begins wonderfully, very light on the palette and very sweet. The aftertaste is woody, with strong notes of almond and walnut. The Upmann tobacco flavour is only slight, the strength low.
The weather in Melbourne is famously erratic, but generally the worst of it is accompanied by winds. In the summer they blow from the north, dry and dusty from the deserts of central Australia, and usually filled with bushfire ash. In the winter they blow from the south, and carry the scent of the ice caps. The still, hot mugginess of today is unusual, and reminds me of nowhere so much as Osaka, a town I lived in for a while and which has a summer season where every day is exactly as stifling and oppressive as this one.
I recall a weekend when, about a month into that disgusting summer, I got the itch, and spontaneously caught the train south to Shikoku, where it was hotter, but at least it was sunny and there was a breeze blowing. There was some kind of dance festival in town, and the main thoroughfares were all blocked by an endless parade of troupes of uniformed dancers in tightly marshalled phalanxes, executing highly choreographed steps to blaring Japanese rap. I met up with Yoshi, a local Japanese cigar aficionado, and a gaijin pal, and after some fine Romeo Churchills and whale meat at an izakaya, us foreign devils dragged our poor host out with us in pursuit of dancing girls. Yoshi kept trying to steer us toward capsule hotels and net cafes and so on – places where we could spend the night – but assuming that his urgings were just a distaste for our debauchery we ignored him and carried on until he abandoned us to the night without fanfare, and several hours thereafter. It was four AM by the time we finally gave up on the girls and, by this time substantially inebriated, stumbled into the net-café he had recommended to us some hours earlier.
Typical Japanese net café accommodations include a comfortable leather recliner in a private cubical, along with a small TV and computer, but we were told that because of the dance festival the place was completely full, as would everywhere else be. For $10, however, we could sleep in the lobby on a couple of plastic bucket chairs, such as one might find in a high school auditorium, under the restful flicker of a fluorescent light, and lulled by the dulcet tones of a TV playing J-Pop videos. We stuck it out until 6am or so, when, having added stiff necks and dry mouths to our troubles, we caught the bus to the beach, watched the sun rise, and then laid down in the shade of a tree for a kip.
At the mid-point the cigar has thickened. The burn has not been great, requiring the occasional touch up and relight. The best way a cigar can begin is the manner in which this one did, light and sweet and deep. From that good beginning you expect the cigar to grow, to thicken up and become richer, which this cigar has not. It is a little thicker, surely, but it is no longer especially complex, with light-mid toasted tobacco and a sort of vague, grassy flavour. By no means unpleasant, it is also by no means spectacular. I’m drinking a mid-priced Australian Shiraz, which is not my habit with cigars, but I had half a bottle sitting around and it seemed like less effort than mixing a cocktail. Like the cigar, the beverage is light and uncomplicated.
I awoke around eleven to find myself in the full sun, with my legs already bright red below the knee (in the coming days they would blister and the skin would peel off in great sheets, the worst sunburn I ever experienced, despite a lifetime of Australian summers and little regard for sunscreen). My companion was stirring as well, so together we strolled along the waterline a ways toward a distant cluster of buildings that we hoped would include somewhere for breakfast. Upon arrival we found what appeared to be a gift shop, specialising in stuffed dogs that looked like Saint Bernards wearing samurai gear. My friend’s Japanese was better than mine, and after a moment considering the signs he came to a verdict: “this is a dog sumo ring” he said. “There’s a show in five minutes.”
We joined the gathering crowd and were soon shown into a well-worn auditorium, with battered seating and paint peeling from sloppily welded steel beams, the classic décor of an aging carnival attraction. Underweight and dishevelled, with a cigarette dangling from his lips and with more than one tooth missing, the ringmaster was the classic aging carnival attraction operator. With little fanfare he brought in the yokozuna, the name given to the highest rank of sumo wrestlers. He was a mighty beast, massive, with a glossy coat, and a suit of armour reminiscent of the ones his human contemporaries wear at the beginning of a sumo tournament. With squeals of delight, the audience, which was mainly made up of Japanese school girls, dancers drifted over from the contest in town, gathered around the ring to take pictures of the animal. He stood there sedate and solemn, posing for them.
After a few minutes the yokozuna was walked out, and the lights dimmed in preparation for the bout. The two dogs they brought in were mangy, scarred mongrels from the worst garbage dump in town. Even before they entered the ring they were snarling at each other, pulling on their chain leashes. The referee held a piece of burning newspaper between them to keep them separated until the bell rang. When it did he dropped it, its sputtering remains keeping the dogs apart for the few seconds he needed to climb to the top of the ring fence and began a jovial commentary. All of a sudden we were watching a dog fight. The animals obviously did this several times a day, but hated each other nonetheless, and held nothing back as they tore and clawed at one another. They didn’t have teeth, but both creatures were covered in old wounds, many of which soon opened and bled profusely. For a time one of them had an erection. Uncomfortable with the display I turned away, surveying the crowd, where it became apparent that it wasn’t just us ignorant foreigners that had been misled by the cutesy gift shop: I have never seen so many looks of abject horror as I saw on the faces of those Japanese schoolgirls.
After three minutes it was over: the promoter lit another piece of newspaper, and his assistants dragged the dogs out to lick their wounds, next show in an hour. In silence we exited through the gift-shop, and soon found a little ramen place, but for some reason we weren’t so keen on breakfast any more.
With the cigar in the final inch it begins to rain slightly. The smoke is mild all the way to the end, never growing overly bitter, and never filling with tar. All in all it has been an unexceptional but completely inoffensive cigar, reminiscent of nothing so much as it’s big brother, the Prominentes: I rate it better than that cigar mainly by virtue of its comparative brevity.