This postcard piece was featured in full in the April issue of Bartender magazine.
By David Spanton
After a whirlwind trip to the land of the rising sun I can safely say that Tokyo is one city that everyone who loves their food and great cocktail bars must visit at least once in their lifetime. To sum up I would say Tokyo bars are fantastic – they are disciplined, quirky, interesting and just bloody different! All in all a great trip.
I was very lucky to have legendary bartender Hidetsugo Ueno show me around the city during the day which made it possible for me to see so many wonderful places in such a short time, even though I know I have only just scratched the surface. There’s no doubt that this city can be a bit intimidating (due to its size and language barrier) but please don’t let this stop you from heading over there as the people and places are fantastic and always ready to help a confused looking tourist like myself.
So let me get to it and help you on your quest for liquid enlightenment and hopefully my trip can help you with better enjoying yours.
Sokichi Inc. (www.sokichi.co.jp)
Described by Ueno as the “best glassware place for bartenders” this hole in the wall shop in the suburb of Asakusa is well worth the visit and if you can afford anything it’s a great opportunity to get some truly beautiful handmade items. Just down the road is a Kappa-Bashi street, lined with all manner of shops dedicated to the running and setting up of a restaurant or bar.
Everything from the best knives, kitchen equipment to a few shops that just sell the display food that is hand painted and made of plastic. I almost bought a blue cocktail in this Hurricane glass until I saw it was worth $70! Anyway this is another must see for any cocktail geeks out there as you can also pick up some unique style Japanese items like their three piece cocktail shakers and strainers.
This is the oldest and biggest temple in all of Tokyo. This Buddhist shrine is visited by an astonishing 30 million people every year and dates back as far as 628A.D. It’s free to visit but for the sake of good karma I would suggest making a small offering.
One of many back alley food vendors this one specialized in a local offal stew dish called “Nikomi” made up of pork stomach, soy bean paste and shallots. I couldn’t resist their BBQ kidney and liver on a stick that was dipped in black bean sauce. Both so simple but packed with flavour and without question my food highlight of the trip.
“Amasaki” is a non-alcoholic sweet Sake style beverage that actually uses the left over rice mash used to make sake. They simply add some water and sugar then heat it up and there you have this tasty beverage.
Another famous local fast food item is this deep fried battered shrimp ball called “Kakiage”. I kid you not this thing was so big and jam-packed with prawns I couldn’t finish it! Not bad for a few dollars.
Much like karaoke this local gambling pastime called “Pachinko” is something I have absolutely no interest in promoting and feel the inventors of both items should be charged with crimes against humanity or something. In saying that we all know the torture that is karaoke but I’m sure most have no clue about the horrors of Pachinko! Punters sit in front of vertical looking pinball machine and they accrue points by dropping small ball bearings and cascading them into holes at the bottom.
Much like when you were a kid popping those Ping-Pong balls into the clown’s mouth. At least we all stopped doing that at 10 yet parlor after parlor around Tokyo is filled with people in zombie like playing-mode. The kicker is that since gambling for money is illegal in Japan you collect your winning tickets and head outside or down the street (never inside the game room) to trade your coupons for cash or prizes. You have to stick your head into one of these dens but don’t waste your time playing. And block your ears – it’s that loud!
I was told how in love with vending machines the Japanese are but until you see it you can’t comprehend just how prolific they are. You can get almost anything to eat or drink from these machines and a hell of a lot of other things too. Just seeing street after street lined with these machines is amazing and at night when they are all alight it also makes for a good photo or two. You never have to worry about the bottle shop being closed with your very own liquor vending machine just around the corner…
Tokyo Fish Market
I’m told that Tokyo’s Fish Market is the busiest in the world and when you spend some time checking it out its easy to see why. Besides a handful of bars this place was at the top of my list of must-see places and it didn’t disappoint. It’s filled with laneway after laneway of specialty shops from hole-in-the-wall restaurants, knife shops and of course countless fishmongers selling their catch of the day. Keep in mind most shops in the shops shut each day around two, as many of them have been open well before the sunrise. I enjoyed trying a couple of simple snacks of smoked eel and the BBQ eel liver on a stick as we couldn’t get in to many of the little restaurants as they were already packed and had big queues waiting.
“I don’t go to bars, I go to bartenders”. Dale DeGroff said that to me at Sydney BarShow Week a few years back and it really stuck with me. I can’t think of a better way of describing High Five as most nights it’s a one man show with owner and legendary bartender Mr Ueno Hidetsugo there to greet you. Situated next to a railway track on the fourth floor of a non-descript building tower is this pocket size bar that is no bigger than 3m x 9m with seating for less than 20 guests – yet it all works. Its just part of what makes this place so special but the real reason is the extraordinary talent that Ueno brings to his bartending craft where he is pioneering the now famous “ice diamond” carving technique along with being a master of Japanese bartending techniques.
In my job it can feel like I’m always on a quest for that perfect cocktail or bar and what Ueno and High Five delivered is one of the most enjoyable drinking experiences I have ever had in my life. I can honestly say his drinks, service and atmosphere is simply perfect! I should mention he makes a mean hot dog that comes in very handy for the winter walk outside. There is no cocktail menu but try his signature drink the White Lady done without any egg white. I would also suggest giving his award winning cocktail the Japanese Garden (Hakushu single malt 10 year old, Green Tea Liqueur & Midori) a spin as it really works even with Midori!
Under the guidance of owner and head bartender Kishi Hisashi Star Bar has over the past decade developed a cult following and very few bartenders take their craft as seriously as Kishi. Ueno from High Five is one of them and he too previously spent many years honing his craft under Kishi at Star Bar. Now finding this place is a little easier in that it has a small plaque on the wall outside the basement bar. Stepping down their narrow staircase you come across what is a tiny space dressed up like an old school Parisian cocktail lounge with its red booth and dark oak bar that would seats no more than 10 customers. Don’t go looking for a cocktail menu, as they too prefer to help find something that suits you.
What’s interesting in these top cocktail bars is that the head bartender who is often also the owner will almost always make your drink but the other normally much younger apprentice bartenders who will take your order and prepare the ingredients for the master bartender who after mixing your drink will have one of the apprentice bartenders serve you your drink. I’m sure when it’s busy on weekend’s things might change a bit but it’s interesting to see such a system applied to bartending. Make sure you try their signature classic which is the Side Car but without the sugar rim on the glass. Just watching these guys shake their cocktails is an event in itself so makes sure you opt for a seat at the bar in these places.
Established in 1997 by veteran bartender Mr. Kazuo Uedaand and home to the Hard Shake that has become synonymous with Japanese bartending. Similar to many bars in Tokyo this cozy little gem is hidden in an office building (fifth floor) making it very hard to find. Again another exemplary example of bartending and cocktail making at its best in what is a slightly more formal setting with its brighter lighting and numerous at tentative white coat staff. Again no cocktail list that I could find but try a Gimlet as it is their signature classic cocktail. Unless you speak Japanese you will have no luck having a conversation with Kazuo rather one of the enthusiastic young bartenders who all seem to have a decent understanding of English will happily translate any words of adulation to their master bartender.
Header: Little Smith
What I found these tops bars have in common, besides their impeccable service, is their love for Jazz music. I must say that this agrees with me immensely and is perfectly suited to transport you away from the daily grind of work outside these little cocktail dens. Little Smith is just around the corner from both High Five and Tender Bar. A very minimally designed, round table bar that was built just over 18 years ago with the indented focus being squarely on watching the craftsman ship of their white suited bartenders. All of who speak English, which isn’t as common as you might think. You have to love a bar where even your glass of water gets as much attention as your old fashioned. Look out for their young (compared to the 45+ of the other bars I visited) head bartender Mimi who likes to create drinks that are very seasonal and what I enjoyed trying included their mandarin like fruit called the Kin Kum. You eat the whole fruit including the skin.