The tourism experience of Japan can be neatly divided into two parts. During the day, there’s the constant flow of salarymen in identical suits running between buildings, the crush of people on the metro going to and from work, and constant blaring mix of technology, commerce, and otherworldliness peculiar to Tokyo. In the evening, all that vanishes and what’s left is the Japanese nightlife – the karaoke bars, the flashing arcades, the smoky yakitori grills, and the alcohol. I had the day covered in terms of sightseeing and dining options, but I wanted to make sure I also captured the night.
Touristing for me usually begins around noon and ends early the next day. Our Jiro reservation at 5:30pm could potentially qualify as lunch without much of a stretch. This left a big hole in our daily schedule, open to fill however we were feeling. By and large, we elected to get plastered. Japan has long been known as a foodie world capital, having more Michelin stars to its credit than France for some seven years now. I wanted to discover whether or not Japan’s support of alcoholics has wavered in this time. Our first choices represented mixology and cocktail culture – often seen as the epitome of alcoholic class, should there be such a thing. Our first destination was a tiny cocktail bar that has made its way onto numerous “best in Japan” and even “best in the world” lists, Bar High Five.
The Polestar building in Ginza, at first glance, is an unlikely destination for seekers of cocktail bliss. A dingy, flourescent lit office building, it’s now real estate for a range of establishment – from a noisy karaoke bar (apparently the bane of the Bar High Five owner) to a scummy looking hostess bar. Upon entering High Five itself, you leave the symphony-in-beige of the office building walls behind and step into a wood-lined, whiskey-soaked slice of the 1920’s.
Bar High Five is a temple to mixology and alcohol in all its many forms, constructed by bartender/owner Hidetsugu Ueno and his staff of apprentices. Ueno was the head bartender at another Tokyo cocktail destination just down the road, Star Bar Ginza. He broke off to start his own establishment, and Bar High Five is the result. Ueno himself and his female apprentice, both resplendent in suspenders and ties, manned the bar on the night we were there, Ueno is known for being a technician who doesn’t brook errors in his work. That attitude extended to the seating arrangement. Ueno wouldn’t allow our party of three to sit at the bar – it would throw off the even seating arrangement. We modestly made our way to a table at the back and sat.
There’s no menu handed out at Bar High Five. The bar is known for its ability to create stunning versions of classic cocktails, as well as its use of fresh vegetables and fruit in drinks. While we were waiting, another couple at the bar made the mistake of asking Ueno to name his favorite drink to make. Ueno’s voice immediately went to auto-pilot – clearly this is a question he gets nightly. He stated that it doesn’t matter what he likes; it’s about the customer. He offered to make something for them based on their favorite flavors or liquors, but he couldn’t read their minds and predict what they wanted. Overhearing, we whipped out our phones to search for cocktail ideas lest we come up empty when the time to order came.
The first order I came up with was a Singapore Sling – a blend of pineapple juice, gin, and various liqueurs. Ueno got the order from the apprentice and immediately pulled out a fresh pineapple onto the bar. Juice flied as he hacked it apart with a knife, dropped it into a cup with the liquor, and plunged in an immersion blender. The result was a frothy, boozy fruit concoction that ranks up there with the best I’ve had. Yet again spelunking the internet on my phone, I found an article referencing a Japanese Garden cocktail that someone ordered at Bar High Five, and ordered it. The combination of Japanese whiskey, Midori, and green tea liquor came with a huge spherical ice cube to cool the whole thing down. Finally I ordered my signature cocktail, one that truly puts the hair on your chest – the piña colada. I had to get up my courage to actually place the order, and kind of coughed behind my hand when I said it. The apprentice giggled and took up the order to the bar. A few minutes later, a crazy thick, creamy concotion brimming with rum and coconut cream arrived. I wanted to jump in or at least rub it all over my body, but I restrained myself to neat sips.
We stayed at Bar High Five for about three hours, catching up with Emily’s local friend and going through about three rounds of cocktails. It was difficult to not notice a huge leg of ham artfully displayed on a wooden stand on the bar. It being about three yards away, it was also difficult not to order it. Resistance proved futile. Ueno said he or his apprentice personally select the pig and oversee the salting process. The apprentice carved our order directly off the leg. The salted ham was the perfect compliment to fancy cocktails, like an expensive version of pork rinds and beer.
Speaking of expensive, everything was going great until we received the bill. I think I did one of those cartoon-style eye bulges when I looked at the total. There’s a downside to not getting a menu that we hadn’t thought about. It turned out that the wonderful classics we were ordering were coming to us for the price of about $25 each, over twice what we were expecting. Perhaps getting an expertly made top-shelf Singapore Sling with fresh pineapple is worth an extremely high price once in a while, but a $25 piña colada is another thing entirely.
On another night with clearer heads, we set out for a Shibuya cocktail destination called Bar Ishinohana. Ishinohana was founded ten years ago by wunderkind bartender Shinobu Ishigaki, a man with numerous bartending accolades under his sleeve garters. Ishinohana came to my attention from an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, wherein he complains about the time it takes to create the fantastic contraptions that Ishigaki turns out on a regular basis. In fact, the majority of the menu (and yes, there is a menu here) at Ishinohana lacks the circus trapeze-level artistry seen on some drinks. But order right, and you’re suddenly witness to an expert bartender morphed into a precision surgeon.
The menu at Ishinohana is dominated by martini-style cocktails available in a range of different flavors and liquor combinations. We started off with an elderflower-based martini and one that used fresh apples. Both were crisp and refreshing. Looking over the menu for round two, I noticed a drink called Claudia that had a subscript noting that it received some prestigious competition award. Also, it had caramel syrup in it, so… yes. I ordered, Ishigaki bowed, and began slicing the rind of a lime into intricate patterns with a knife.
The Claudia was amazing to look at and at least as good to taste (note, the Claudia is pictured at the top). Rum and vermouth is an odd combination on its face, but the result was a deep flavor profile that peeled back layer after layer over sips. The addition of caramel and pepper added sweet and spicy notes that elevated the entire drink.
We were out on a Wednesday night, and Ishinohana was quiet with only a few other people visiting. A young couple just a few seats down the bar from us was clearly on a first date, and you didn’t need to speak Japanese to notice that it wasn’t going so well. The bartender Ishigaki went over to talk them through cocktail selections proceeded to chat up the woman throughout most of the night. The young man was overdressed and out of his element, getting in about one word for every ten sentences from Ishigaki. At one point, the bartender recommended a cocktail based on persimmon. He mixed it up and gave it to the man, who took a sip and commented.
Man: “Wow, you can really taste the persimmon.”
Woman (looking directly at the bartender): “Well of course, it’s a persimmon drink!”
Woman and Bartender: “HAHAHAHA”
Man: (stares down at his drink, contemplating ritual suicide)
They left soon after.
Looking over how to finish the night off, one cocktail stood head and shoulders above the rest on the menu – the “Beiry’s Frappecino.” Yes, there’s nothing like the combination of Bailey’s, ice cream, chocolate syrup, and Engrish to get me excited at a world-class establishment. The bartender laughed as I ordered it, and who can blame him. This drink wouldn’t look lost on a Chili’s dessert menu. However, it was exactly what I expected – delicious.
We left Ishinohana that night after about three rounds, feeling… not buzzed at all. A common theme we found with alcohol in Japan is the overall lack of actual alcohol content. Cocktails with liquor rely heavily on fruit juices and sodas to dull the bite of the alcohol. Many canned alcoholic beverages feature alcoholic percentages of 2-3%. A Japanese liquor called shochu is very popular, tasting nearly identical to vodka with a lower alcohol content. The net effect is that getting drunk requires a large outlay one way or another. Perhaps the more traditional high-alcohol cocktails of Bar High Five netted the higher price.
After this brief foray into high-end Japanese cocktail culture, the same evidence of continued experimentation and pursuit of a perfect palate as seen with Japanese chefs was clear. It was refreshing to experience both a ruthless pursuit of elevating tradition, and a commitment to pushing forward. However, we felt it was time for a change.
Next week, look for an article covering Tokyo’s Blade Runner-esque night district, Golden Gai, two Tokyo game bars, and ending up at the New York Bar in the Park Hyatt (from Lost in Translation) to reflect on the experience.
Link to full Flickr gallery for this week and next week’s posts.