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Apr 15, 2016
Tokyo's Secret Bars - The Wall Street Journal

 

 

A Traveler’s Guide to Tokyo’s Secret Bars

Here are the best of the city’s hidden cocktail dens—and all the clues you’ll need to find them 

 

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In front of Kanmidou restaurant and bar in the Nishi-Azabu area. JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
In front of Martha bar in the Ebisu area of Tokyo. JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Bar Yamamoto in the Roppongi district. JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Mixing an orange-based cocktail at Bar Yamamoto. JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
At Bar Yamamoto, there are four or six seasonal cocktail ‘courses,’ with drinks arriving in a variety of delicately cut glasses, etched with leaves and plants. JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Wall bar in Minato district’s Aoyama shopping complex. JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
At Wall, a green wall by French artist Patrick Blanc grows behind the bar.JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The bartender at Wall JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
A cocktail at Wall JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
A bartender mixing a vodka cocktail at Rage bar in the Ginza district.JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Bottles behind the bar at Rage JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The terrace at Rage JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Wodka Tonic bar in the Nishi-Azabu business district. JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Wodka Tonic is decorated with elaborately carved woodwork. JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
In front of Kanmidou restaurant and bar in the Nishi-Azabu area. JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
In front of Martha bar in the Ebisu area of Tokyo. JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

LEAVE IT TO THE Japanese—the people who many claim improved whiskey—to master the art of mixology. During past visits to Tokyo, I’d peer jealously over hotel highballs into the city’s neon nights knowing that somewhere out there better libations were being poured to well-connected salarymen in well-concealed night spots. These bars, which I’d heard mentioned with deep reverence over the years, always seemed out of my reach—not just because I didn’t know where to go, but because Tokyo is famously tough for visitors to navigate. Major roads are marked in English, but many of the smaller side roads don’t have any signs and in my experience only about one in every 10 passersby speaks English. This time I came prepared. An old pal put me in touch with Shinji Nohara, a former food writer, who sometimes works as a gastronomic guide for guests at the Conrad Tokyo, where I was staying. Mr. Nohara, also known as the Tokyo Fixer (so reads his Twitter handle), specializes in leading out-of-towners to the city’s hidden taverns. “Tokyo has 16,000 bars, most of them tiny,” Mr. Nohara said over a round of freshly squeezed juice with carbonated awamori—a sweet Okinawan liquor distilled from yeast and rice—at the start of our three-night bar crawl. “I’ll never see them all because someone is always starting something new.” Here, just the tip of the hand-carved ice cube, as it were.

MarthaENLARGE
Martha PHOTO: JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
For the Vinyl Aficionado

In the trendy Ebisu neighborhood, the entrance to Martha is a battered wooden door illuminated by a sign that simply says “bar,” set in an even less promising cinder-block wall. Inside, the lights were dim and couples were huddled around tiny tables while the gray-haired DJ/owner was busy curating the soundtrack from the thousands of LPs lining the walls. All the music seemed much older than the 18-year-old Yamazaki single malt on offer, if not quite as precious (ABBA, Leonard Cohen and a Japanese Beach Boys cover band were all represented in the collection). Mr. Nohara advised me against making requests. “He’s got his own way of doing things,” he warned, pointing to the D.J., whose expression evoked a priest more than it did a spinner. “You’ll be thrown out.” Before leaving, we bowed gravely to the turntable master. He returned our bow. I guess I can come back. (1-22-23 Ebisu Shibuya-ku, martha-records.com/martha)

Bar YamamotoENLARGE
Bar Yamamoto PHOTO: JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
For the Naturalist

Not far from the rowdy night spots of the Roppongi district, Bar Yamamoto is discreetly tucked away on a quiet side street. It’s a small, bare-white-walled room with just eight bar stools curving around a countertop fashioned from a 500-year-old slab of oak. Behind the bar, stands the owner, Gen Yamamoto, who, with shaved head, black tie and white jacket blends right into the minimalist surroundings. Mr. Yamamato serves you four or six seasonal cocktail “courses,” with drinks arriving in a variety of delicately cut glasses, etched with leaves and plants, made from his design. Our courses included Spanish gin mixed with fresh ginger and, for “dessert,” ground pumpkin and sesame seeds blended into Yamazaki whiskey single malt. Reservations recommended given the limited seating (Anniversary Building 1F, 1-6-4 Azabu-Juban, Minato, genyamamoto.jp).

WallENLARGE
Wall PHOTO: JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
For the International Jet Set

We were wandering all over the posh Minato district’s Aoyama shopping complex until we found an unmarked handle-less utility door next to the Costume National store. Beyond the door is Wall, a tennis court-sized lounge with a lush, brightly illuminated vertical garden behind the bar where black-shirted barkeeps mixed elegant cocktails for moneyed expats. I’ve had better caipirinhas, so next time I’ll know to go for the Hibiki whiskey chilled by a hand-chiseled orb of ice the size of a golf ball (5 Chome-4-30 Minamiaoyama, cnac.jp/wall).

RageENLARGE
Rage PHOTO: JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
For the Night Owls

Amid the neon lights of the Ginza district, we stepped into the elevator of an anonymous office building and pressed the third-floor button—the only one without a sign—and ascended to Rage, a 14-seat bar lined with rare aged-whisky. I was the only tourist and, despite the bar’s name, the other patrons, local businessmen just off work, did not seem particularly consumed with rage. I sank into a comfy leather chair and watched the three bartenders—yes, that’s a 3-to-14 ratio of staff-to-patrons—work their craft, mixing up ingredients you don’t often see at a bar, such as green tea, sage and sakura berries, until 5 a.m., closing time (8-5-24, Chuo-ku, 3F, 81-3-5467-3977). 

Wodka TonicENLARGE
Wodka Tonic PHOTO: JEREMIE SOUTEYRAT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
For the Slavophile
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Wodka Tonic is a subterranean tavern on a quiet lane behind the bustling streets of the Nishi-Azabu business district. It’s decorated with such elaborately carved woodwork that you might swear you were in Eastern Europe save for the 1,000-plus bottles of whiskey lining the cabinets. I ordered a Moscow mule, made there with fresh ginger. It was exquisite. When I tried to bum a cigarette from one of the salarymen at the bar the waiter rushed over with a whole pack and a lighter—the sort of service that reminded me that I was, indeed, far from Eastern Europe (Tamura Building B1, 2-25-11 Nishi-Azabu, Minato, wodkatonic.tokyo).

 
   
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