27 September, 2017

Travel Column: Tokyo’s World-Class Ginza Bars

The next time you visit Tokyo, don’t just go for the food. There’s an alternate cocktail-drinking universe hidden amidst inconspicuous office buildings, dingy lifts and small alleyways and you’ll be damned not to seek them out.

Tokyo is a well-plied holiday destination for Indonesians, so it is no secret that beyond the glitzy concrete jungle hides a developed network of alleyways filled with the best izakayas, ramen shops and sushi bars. More discerning foodies would know the buzzing drinks circuit in Tokyo that has spawned the best beers and whiskies in the world.

Perhaps what still remains a reverent secret among the most seasoned of drinkers is this: the quiet presence of a world class modern cocktail scene in Tokyo. Almost synonymously with the term ‘Ginza bars’ for the reason that most of which are located there, these craft cocktail bars are meccas that renowned bartenders, avid drinkers and locals alike pay homage to.

The Ginza bars are in a class of their own. Bartenders don’t sport beards, rather they are impeccably-dressed with suspenders and bow ties; ice balls are intricately and expertly hand-carved; the ingredients are respectfully seasonal, and every stir and shake is precise. The bars are just as low-key as its menders: mildly old-school, small, housed in nondescript office buildings that are rarely on street level, and unobstrusively calm. You hear only low chatter and the rhythmic melodies of the ingredients poured out in jiggers and ponies.

Seeking the Ginza bars out is something of a thrill. You follow your Google Map, and after some 22 back-and-forths on the same lane looking exactly like what you are — a lost tourist, you finally spot the bar name written in a small typeface on the building directory. Step into the tiny elevator which may or may not remind you of a horror film you watched when you were 12, and wait impatiently for the door to open. When it finally does, you’re now a very sober Alice looking into a drinking wonderland.

It’s the most magical experience. But if there’s a caveat in visiting Ginza bars, it is to stay absolutely open-minded to the unique experience. We’ll warn you. If at first you feel terribly out of place, intimidated and vaguely judged, you’re at the right place. But be mindful of the culture, follow the house rules, and abandon all your pre-conceived assumptions of drinking, and we promise you, you’ll come away, drink in hand, enlightened by the refreshing honesty, excellence and heart in Ginza bars.

Our encounter with Bar High Five, one of the stalwarts of the Ginza bars, began abruptly with a list of House Rules pasted on its door as we exited the lift. One of it reads, “Do not touch anything here if it is not yours”. Touche. It took some convincing from our inner voice before we ventured on, but we were glad we did. The gregarious owner and world-renowned Hidetsugu Ueno later explains to us, “I had to do it because there were some people who didn’t respect the culture that we uphold in our bar. It’s not pleasant, but it’s necessary.”

Known for his precision in hand-carving ice balls, Ueno-san has made shaking up a cocktail a performance, and his drinks, fine on the palate. A simple Highball (made of soda and whisky) attains otherworldly heights in his hands. Another, called the Full Bloom, made with sakura liquer, dry gin and homemade tea bitters, is floral, herbal and botanical; the perfect showcase of the Japanese quest for balance.

Being one of the few bartenders in Japan fluent in English has ubiquitously made Ueno-san the face of the bartender community in Japan, so drinking at his bar is as much a treat for the palette as it is an education.

Among the younger bars that uphold the same Ginza bar standards is Gen Yamamoto, whose bartenders is its namesake. Located a distance away at Roppongi, the quiet hole-in-the-wall seats only eight. It is intimate, but you won’t feel the need for unnecessary small talks. Decked in a crisp white coat, Gen’s movements are understated yet elaborate, and the drinks, simple yet exciting.

In the same spirit, Bar Orchard Ginza is an avant garde bar with no menu but a tray of seasonal fresh fruits for you to pick from. The month of April saw the reaping of citrusy fruits like blood orange and yuzu, as well as the reds, such as strawberry, apple and pomegranate. Bartender and founder Takuo Miyanohara’s rendition of the Blood Orange Campari is a sultry one, with ever a tinge of bright bitter from the fresh fruit.

Says Takuo-san of the unique drinking culture in Ginza, “It’s soft, like the Japanese water. The American way of drinking is too loud for me. It’s hard to appreciate the complexities of the drinks.”

Ironically, historical studies have found that Ginza bars has its roots in America’s Prohibition era in the 1920s. While today’s American drinking culture has taken a different turn, Ginza bars uphold the Prohibition era’s high standards and celebrates the intricacies of cocktail-making.

Now, if seeking the origins of the Ginza cocktail scene is your goal, Bar Tender should also be on your list, even it is just to witness Kazuo Ueda’s legendary ‘Hard Shake’, a style of shaking up cocktails that the master bartender has invented. Classic sours are his specialties, and they’re done to perfection here. Time appears to have stood still in this retro-looking space, and you feel like you’ve looked in on old Tokyo. It is enthralling for a guest.

As we traversed through Ginza in the dark of the nights, the maze of the streets are peppered with Japanese salaried men clandestinely holding hands with kimono-clad young ladies, glamorously-dressed couples making their way to dinner parties, and in some corner, greying geishas making eyes on the streets.

Red-faced, light-headed and psyched from delightful drinks, Tokyo never seemed more glittery from where we stand.