Gen Yamamoto (and other Tokyo cocktail bars)

Gen Yamamoto (and other Tokyo cocktail bars)

When I was researching for my trip to Japan, a lot of posts and articles came up about the cocktail scene in Tokyo. The impression that I got was that the style leans towards the pursuit of perfecting the classics, and I couldn't help but think to myself: How much better can they get? But once you arrive and have your first sip, you know that it's absolutely true. Each ingredient is in sync, creating the perfect harmony. It's sorcery, surely.


One of my favorite bars was Gen Yamamoto. It's this tiny space in Minato with the most gorgeous wooden counter that can seat about a handful of people. The eponymous owner, who has worked in both New Jersey and New York City, makes drinks in a style in between that of the Japanese and Americans, a style that is both crazy creative and exquisitely crafted. While it seems possible to slip in for a drink or two if he has space in between bookings, typically you can only get in with a reservation for one of his cocktail tastings. My recommendation: go for the longer tasting. 

 
 
 Buntan, barley shochu, cucumber

Buntan, barley shochu, cucumber

 
 
 Strawberry, sweet potato shochu, flowers

Strawberry, sweet potato shochu, flowers

 Old koji dessert sake, milk steeped with fava beans (It sounds like it would be weird, but this was my favorite!)

Old koji dessert sake, milk steeped with fava beans (It sounds like it would be weird, but this was my favorite!)

 Tomato, rye vodka, shiso

Tomato, rye vodka, shiso

 Ginger, lemon, rosemary, barley shochu

Ginger, lemon, rosemary, barley shochu

 Kiwi, Sake, Matcha

Kiwi, Sake, Matcha

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although Gen Yamamoto was the only bar where I took photos, it was not the only bar that I visited. Here are my other favorites, listed in alphabetical order. 

  • Bar High Five - Ueno san, the owner, is a genius. And as I sat in a row of foreigners at the bar, listening to him answer all our questions about Japan and Tokyo, including the Japanese address system(!) [you can immediately bond with other foreigners just by bringing up the infinite number of times you've gotten lost], I'm now convinced that there's nothing that he doesn't know. There is no menu here, and you instead tell them what you like. My personal strategy: Ask for flavors that are uniquely Japanese. I had at least 4 different cocktails made with various Japanese citruses or tea infusions and a slew of other ingredients that my inebriated mind was never going to remember. 
  • Ishino Hana - The menu is extensive, to say the least, and as a visitor, it may make choosing a bit difficult. There is a section of highly seasonal drinks, which is where I would suggest starting. Anyone who has questioned the origin of a fruit in any Japanese dining establishment will know that the ingredients being used always seem to be a rare variety that is solely grown in some 5x5 plot in a section of the mountains only accessible by foot - and then, the plant only bears fruit on the second blue moon of each new millennia. Basically, you will fall in love, only to find out that you will likely never taste that specific flavor again, but it's a love that worth the heartbreak. 
  • Little Smith - We were looking to blow some time before dinner in Ginza, and there were three bars in the area that I wanted to try out. One of my friends was a little more budget-conscious [in that she wasn't quite so carefree with just, you know, spending ALL the money]. I couldn't quite remember the details of each bar, but my mind was like, "Little Smith. Sounds like a place named by hipsters, and hipsters have no money."  Upon entering, I knew that my thinking was completely wrong, as all the bartenders wore tuxedos and quickly listed their competition-winning pedigrees. The prices were a little on the steeper side, even for Tokyo, where the prices are generally higher than what we find in major cities stateside, but as always, it was worth it. 

Oh, you know what? I take it back. I have two photos from Little Smith.

Other information:

  • When you drink in Japan, it's typical for them to bring you a little, bite-size snack, and I don't mean a dish of nuts. One place had little chicken meatballs, one place gave soup shooters, and one had camembert on a cracker with other delicious stuff. 
  • Prices: Some places may be around the 14$ range that is pretty typical for most major US cities, but be prepared higher. Don't think of it as just a drink - think of it as alcoholic artistry that your palate has the opportunity to experience. 
  • If you are going to bars in Ginza, you WILL get lost. 
  • I know that I only mentioned awards for Little Smith, but the other bars listed above (and generally, bartenders at numerous other establishments) are also extensive award recipients. 
  • From what I have read online, there are a lot of hidden bars in Tokyo, but Japanese people seem to be better at keeping secrets. So you either need to know someone in the know, or you'd need to hire a fixer. 

Date: March 2015
Camera: Canon 6D