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 it's absolutely true. Somehow, it tastes like what you are already familiar with, except that every ingredient seems to be in 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 American, 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.
Although Gen Yamamoto was the only bar that I took pictures in, it was not the only bar that I went to in Tokyo. Here are my other favorites, listed in alphabetical order.
- Bar High Five - Ueno san, the owner, is a genius at making cocktails. 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, but there is a section of highly seasonal drinks, which is where I would suggest maybe 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 helicopter and then 10 hour hike; and then, the plant only bears fruit on the second blue moon of each new millennia. Point being: you will probably never taste that seasonal fruit again in your life, and brace yourself for heartache because that fruit is also always, always going to end up being the most delicious one you've ever tried. [Goddamn it, Japan! How are you so perfect?]
- Little Smith - I think that I found this bar in an old, old Bon Appetit article [I told you, extensive research], and I don't understand how it is just off the radar for most other western publications. Anyways, it'll be our secret. So a little background: We were looking to blow some time before dinner in Ginza, and there were three bars in the area that I'd wanted to try out. One of my friends with me was a little more budget-conscious [in that she wasn't quite so carefree with just, you know, spending ALL the money]. So, I couldn't quite remember the details of each bar, but my mind was like, "Little Smith. Sounds like a place named by hipsters. Yes, this is probably where the Japanese hipsters hang out, and hipsters have no money." After getting lost for a while - because it's Ginza and because even Google maps couldn't find its way around - a friendly bartender at a nearby establishment brought us to the door. Upon entering, I knew that my thinking was one thousand percent wrong. You're greeted by bartenders wearing white tuxedos, and as you sit and ponder the selection, they will expound to you their award winning history. 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.
- When you drink in Japan, it's typical for them to bring you a little, bite-size snack, and I'm not talking about 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 common in the states, but be mentally and financially prepared for possibly higher. I paid as high as 33$ for a drink. But don't think of it as just a drink - think of it as artistry that your palate has the opportunity to experience.
- If you are going to bars in Ginza, you WILL get lost. Definitely factor that in, and if you luck out and spend less time than anticipated staring at and mentally cursing the street signs and towers of business signs, I guess it means that you have more time to spend drinking.
- I know that I only talked about pedigree business for Little Smith, but other bars listed above (and generally, bartenders at numerous other well-established places that I didn't get to) are also extensive award recipients.
- From what I have read online, there are a lot of hidden bars in Tokyo, but unlike us, Japanese people seem to be good at keeping the secret places secret. So, you either need to know someone in the know, or you'd need to hire a fixer. I did not make it to any secret places because I'm just not that cool.
Date: March 2015
Camera: Canon 6D