Japan’s capital boasts one of the liveliest bar scenes in the world. From impeccable formality to raucous abandon, a great night in Tokyo begins with a drink.
Saké and fish. Both are dear to the hearts and stomachs of the Japanese. Both are house specialties at this easy-going izakaya in the historic neighbourhood of Azabu- Jūban. Ippo’s saké list hovers around the 50-bottle mark and remains in a permanent state of flux as regulars drink their way through the bar’s considerable stocks. Hard-to-find jizake (local boutique saké) bottlings are a speciality. Although the menu is a study in seasonal seafood, the bitey namero – a raw chopped-fish paste from Chiba – is essential.
2-8-8 Azabujuban, Minato, Tokyo; +81 3 3457 5383
As far as marketing slogans go, “nice time, nice taste” is one catchcry any bar fly can get behind, and team Little Smith does its darnedest to live up to its credo. Don’t be put off by the heavy wooden door that separates that warm, cosy bolthole from the outside world. Take a seat at the gorgeous timber bar and give yourself to impeccably dressed bartenders who are waiting to mix drinks, talk shop and make guests feel at home. It’s a pleasure to watch staff take as much care stirring a Negroni as they do a glass of water.
KN Building B2F, 6-4-12 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo; +81 3 5568 1993
Mik-kel-ler. In beer circles, these three syllables carry a serious amount of weight, and so it is with the Danish brewer’s first craft beer bar in Tokyo. Following the example of its other bars around the world, the Danish brewery’s Japanese outpost carries a comprehensive range of hard-to-find Mikkeller brews and other guest (usually local) beers. The spare, airy aesthetic, meanwhile, is unmistakably Scandinavian in its minimalism.
37-10 Udagawacho, Shibuya, Tokyo
Tanagokoro the Bar
Specialist binchō-tan (Japanese charcoal) stores are a rarity in themselves. But to find one that boasts a sophisticated, mature bar in its basement? Only in Ginza. While there might be places in Tokyo with rarer bottles lining the shelves and a more zealous approach to craft cocktails, team Tanagokoro is notable for its utter focus on guests. The classics – a bright daiquiri, perhaps, or a sturdy Godfather – are well made; bartenders act like consummate hosts; and the mood is deeply, deeply civilised.
B1F, 1-8-15 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo
Bar C Shell
Tucked down a narrow side street in Shinjuku, bartender Yu Makiura has created an intimate space dedicated to relaxed sipping and talking, accompanied by his extensive collection of jazz records. Makiura’s English is excellent and he delights in revealing the “secrets” behind his unique cocktails, including the must-try smoked gin. There’s no menu, as Makiura prefers to communicate with his customers. Choose from the hundreds of rare whiskeys on display or tell him how you’re feeling and he’ll surprise you.
9 Arakicho, Shinjuku,Tokyo; +81 6380 6226
The bar staff at Chouette Rouge know their wines – and they really know their meats. Try house-made porc rillette, fois grois brulee or a charcuterie selection to pair with your chosen wine. Keep an eye on the blackboard for specials like locally sourced venison or house-smoked bacon. The extensive menu of wines by the glass, mostly French with a few choice drops from Italy, Spain and Australia, comes with photographic tasting notes to help you choose.
1-8-6 Higashi Ikebukuro, Toshima, Tokyo; + 81 3 6907 2122
With just eight seats at the rough-hewn oak counter, it’s best to get to Gen Yamamoto as close to the 3pm opening time as you can, for the seasonal cocktails created by Mr Yamamoto are a truly Zen experience. Locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, from plum and yuzu to wasabi and shiso leaves, are combined into masterful cocktails. Leave it up to Yamamoto and try a tasting menu of four or six different sips.
1-6-4 Azabu-Juban, Minato, Tokyo; + 81 3 6434 0652
By day, Fulgen is a popular Norwegian-Japanese café, pedaling mid-century modern furniture alongside its creamy cortados. After seven, it becomes a funky, laid-back bar, serving up cocktails, craft beer and occasional live jazz. Regular theme nights run from Tiki cocktails to coffee classics using their own roasted beans, to hot toddies to warm up a chilly night.
1-16-11 Tomigaya, Shibuya, Tokyo; + 81 3 3481 0884
Old Imperial Bar
Come for the classic architecture, stay for the impeccable service. The historic bar is the last remnant of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic 1923 design for the Imperial Hotel. There are still traces of the original stonework but a rebuild in the 1970s added a gentleman’s club atmosphere in shades of brown and dark red. Take a seat at the long rosewood bar for a Mount Fuji cocktail, created in 1924: fluffy egg white mimicking snow on the mountain on a base of gin and pineapple juice.
1-1-1 Uchisaiwaicho, Chiyoda, Tokyo; +81 3 3539 8088
Tatsumi Seishu Do
Behind Ginza’s famous Kabuki-za Theatre, this saké bar lets you try any drop by the glass and, if you find something you love, you can buy a bottle to take home. The bar opens from noon and tasting cups are 300 yen so you can try a sample range of brews from around Japan. Small, simple dishes are designed to bring out the flavours of the sake.
13-5-4 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo; +81 3 3542 2822
This unassuming basement bar on a Ginza side street is legendary. Owner Hisashi Kishi and his staff carve flawless ice cubes and craft immaculate cocktails. Kishi is a former International Bar Association world champion and many of Tokyo’s best bartenders got their start here. Try a Sidecar, Kishi’s signature cocktail. With his dramatic figure eight “hard shake”, he perfectly blends cognac and triple sec into a light, velvety concoction for his signature Sidecar cocktail.
B1F, 1-5-13 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo; 81 3 3535 8005
It’s all about the fruit at this modest Ginza bar. Husband and wife team Takuo and Sumire Miyanohara work surrounded by piles of gorgeous seasonal fruits, from standard strawberries and citrus to dragon fruit and lychees. Choose a fruit and await a whimsical, creative surprise. Cocktails are served in one-off vessels – it could be a mirror ball or a miniature bathtub – garnished with anything from a smoking pine cone to salted foam, designed to enhance the drinking experience.
7F, 6-5-16 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo; +81 3 3575 0333
Ginza is best known for luxury shopping but it was a centre of art and literature before WWII. Step back into a more bohemian era at Bar Lupin, which has been the favoured watering hole of the literati since it opened in 1928. It seems virtually unchanged, with a hint of Moorish design and well-worn wooden counters. Regulars order a Moscow Mule or a Charlie Chaplin.
B1F, 5-5-11 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo; + 81 3 3571 0750
The SG Club
Though it only opened in Shibuya last summer, The SG Club feels like it’s been here since the 1930s with its dark wood walls and faded tiles. The bar is named for its bartender Shingo Gokan and for its concept, Sip and Guzzle: “Sip” is a refined basement bar and “Guzzle” its more casual sister upstairs. Head down to Sip for serious cocktails in a speakeasy atmosphere with hints of Edo Japan in its traditional lamps and tatami or grab a tea-based long drink and some snacks at Guzzle.
1-7-8 Jinan, Shibuya, Tokyo; + 81 3 6427 0204