Tokyo at night. A city transformed. The monochrome of the daytime – steel grey buildings, black suits, white shirts – is replaced by eye-aching neon and glitter. The disciplined march of salarymen and women becomes a throng of careering bodies, all laughing and shouting.
As the lights come on in the high rises you see that every floor is advertising five or more bars, every doorway and basement offering some enticement to sit and drink.
There are as many types of drinking establishment as you could ask for. Izakayas (essentially a cross between a pub and a restaurant) are noisy, smoke-filled places either catering to carousing office workers or serving a local community. The drinks will tend to be cold Highballs served on draught, or sake.
Then there are bars, which tend to be quiet, crepuscular spaces. Everyone will be seated, the space will fit a maximum of 20 people, quite often less. There will be jazz playing quietly. Conversation is hushed. You’ll watch the precise movements of the bartender as your drink is made, then served in vintage glassware. This is drinking as a state of reverence.
Take Ginza’s Bar High Five (Efflore Ginza 5 Bldg, BF 5-4-15 Ginza), run by Hidetsugu Ueno as an example. There is no menu here. You’ll be asked if you want a hard or a long drink, and what spirit you’d prefer, then one will be crafted for you by either Ueno himself or (if he is on one of his regular jaunts abroad) his chief bartender Kaori.
At some point you will encounter, or need, a Highball – the simple mix that triggered whisky’s recent revival. You can get it in cans, ice cold on draught, or stirred with immense and glacial precision in bars.
The Highball revolution started in one bar, Rock Fish (2F no. 26 Polestar Building, 7-2-14 Ginza), owned by Maguchi-san. Here’s his secret: keep your whisky (ideally Kakubin) and glasses in the freezer. When ready, pour 60ml into the glass and then top up with Wilkinson Tansan soda and a twist of lemon peel. Simple. Cooling. Refreshing. Slightly deadly after four.
Honed to perfection
Over time, so the Japanese approach to bartending reveals itself. Precise, detailed, every movement thought through. Every aspect of the drink – from ice to glass – obsessed over. Cocktails as tea ceremony.
Even the shaking is honed to perfection. To see the finest expression of this, head to Star Bar (B1F, 1-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku), owned by Hisashi Kishi. He manipulates the two-piece shaker so that the liquid interacts with the ice in different ways, depending on the drink being made. A master at work – and he makes the greatest Negroni on the planet (I know, it’s a stirred drink).
Kishi-san is typical of the older generation, a generation that has long been the guardians of classical techniques. The downside of this is that Japanese bartending seemed to be homogenised at one point, and too reverent to the past. If you wanted the greatest White Lady or Sidecar, this was the country to go to, but if you were a seeker for innovation, you’d be hard pressed to find it. Not any longer; a new generation is now emerging.
Take Ben Fiddich (Yamatoya Bldg, 9F, 1-13-7 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku), run by Hiroyasu Kayama. On first glance it is another eight-seater, white-coated shrine to the past, but look again and it reveals Kayama as an alchemist, the bar his laboratory. Spices and herbs (from his family’s farm) are ground, liqueurs are made, liquors are infused then turned into bespoke drinks based on whisky, gin, absinthe or amaro.
There are only eight seats, set around a tree trunk that serves as the bar at Gen Yamamoto’s eponymous, tranquil shrine to drink in Minato (1-6-4 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku). Seasonality is key here, reflecting Yamamoto’s investigations into flavour and the traditional Japanese custom of breaking down the year into 72 distinct ‘seasons’, focusing on when ingredients are at their utmost freshness. Bartender or chef? Boundaries blur.
A more relaxed yet equally focused approach is taken by Rogerio Vaz at Bar Trench in Ebisu (1f, 1-5-8 Ebisu-Nishi, Shibuya-Ku). Absinthe again plays a starring role as Vaz creates innovative combinations of flavour, radical reworkings of classics and adoptions from overseas. The mood-changing effects of aromas play an important role in his creations.
A more recent addition to the scene is Shibuya’s The SG Club (1-7-8 Jinnan, Shibuya), named after its owner Shingo Gokan. This townhouse is split into three: Guzzle on street level for casual drinking from what looks like a standard menu – though each of the crowd-pleasers has been tweaked and finessed. In the speakeasy-style Sip his creative juices are allowed fuller rein. There’s also a members’ cigar lounge on the top floor.
Best Tokyo bars: Whisky shrines
You’ll soon notice that in most bars the shelves are packed with bottles of single malt. But if you want to take your whisky appreciation one step further then there are plenty of specialists around.
The grandest is Tokyo Whisky Library in Omotesando (Minami-Aoyama Santa Chiara Church 2F, 5-5-24 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku), which carries in excess of 1,200 bottles and, unlike some of the hardcore whisky temples, also offers cocktails and highballs and whisky infusions.
The hardcore whisky geek will be equally satisfied with the selection at Suzuki-san’s impeccably hand-chosen selection of rarities at Shinagawa’s Mash Tun (2-14-3 Kamiosaki Mikasa Bldg, B 2F 202, Shinagawa).
If you are in Ginza, head towards the tracks at Yurakucho and into the corridor that houses Campbelltoun [sic] Loch (1-6-8 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku), where owner Nakamura Nobuyuki is hemmed in by cases and bottles.
Best Tokyo bars: Japanese whisky
Don’t, however, expect a large selection of local Japanese whisky. The stock shortage that has bedevilled the industry in recent years has impacted as deeply here. Your best bet remains the amazing Zoetrope (3F, 7-10-14 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku), which was started by owner Horimagi-san as a specialist in ‘Japanese-distilled, western-style’ spirits. His stock has been depleted, you’ll have a chance to try whisky from the new distilleries, some older bottlings and, if you’re brave, some of the whiskies made in the boom times of the 1960s and 1970s.
All of life in its boundless diversity is to be found in Tokyo’s bars. Here you will understand hospitality, craft, precision and Japanese culture while enjoying yourself. Dive in.
Oh, and a word to the wise: Tokyo is huge. Pick a district and work your way around its delights rather than spending the whole evening in taxis or the underground. Get the name, phone number and address of the bar and give that to your taxi driver. Google Maps is getting better, but be prepared to enjoy the hunt.
Other spirits specialists
- Whisky is far from the only spirit to have its specialist outlets. Rum lovers should head to Tafia (2-15-14 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku) with its immense selection of cane spirits.
- Perhaps it’s time for a Sherry. For many years, Ginza’s Sherry Club (6-3-17 Ginza Yugen Building 2-3F, Ginza) had the world’s largest selection while the excellent Sherry Museum in Shinagawa (1-4-8 Nishigotanda 2F, Shinagawa) has melded the art of the venenciador with the grace of the tea ceremony.
- Maybe you want to widen your horizons? Try Roppongi’s cantina-style Agave (Clover Bldg B1F, 7-15-10 Roppongi, Minato-ku) for a fine selection of mezcal and Tequila.
- Or get to grips with Japan’s native spirit shochu at the reservations-only Umebachee (3A Sankus Prime Building, 3-22 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku), run by Go Umezawa, a passionate advocate for the new wave of shochu and sake producers.