The dimly-lit cocktail lounges of Tokyo offered a refined backdrop for the work of master mixologists. It’s an experience to savor, allowing time to consider the pairing of flavors, precision of execution, and other thoughts. For instance, there are times when I wonder just how well a particular vodka tonic or a particular old fashioned might go alongside a game of Super Mario Bros. Or, could a specific combination of liquors be paired with just the right Zelda dungeon? These questions come to mind more frequently than one might expect when touring Japanese cocktail bars with a 3DS, iPad, Vita, and laptop tucked away just out of reach. I mean, sure, the bartender at Bar High Five might wield bitters and aromatics with all the precision and confidence of a Michelin-starred chef, but how many Pokemon has he captured? An idle brain demands answers. Perhaps the overlap of alcohol with classic video games does not represent an expansive market niche needing to be filled, but a visit to Tokyo might have you convinced otherwise. The culture of alcohol in Japan extends more than far enough to touch on our deepest nostalgias.
It seems somehow appropriate that the home of Nintendo, Sega, Sony, and other gaming giants, should spawn a subculture of bars themed around 80’s and 90’s video games. Set distinctly apart from the Dave and Busters-type establishments that come to mind for US arcades, Tokyo game bars serve as shrines to the bygone era of beeps, boops, and big, fat pixels. They’re designed as places to sit, sip, and reminisce about Mario, Luigi, Sonic, Blast Processing, and everything else that formed a huge chunk of childhoods for those of us hitting our 30’s and beyond. Of the many Tokyo game bars that have sprung up over the last few years, we narrowed down our choices to two – 8-Bit Cafe and Qunai Bros.
8-Bit Cafe is hard to find, like everything in Tokyo. An annoying facet of Japanese life is that addresses are damn near useless. Numbers are doled out based not on physical location, but the order buildings were constructed. Following the address can, at best, get you close to the city block the building is on. However, the urban design of Japanese cities recalls the Boston side of that Boston vs. New York meme image, so any given address puts you somewhere between next door and a mile away. Such was the situation we found ourselves in when trying to find 8-Bit Cafe, a Tokyo game bar squirreled away inside a thin building that looks more like condos than anything else. We walked by at least twice before seeing the small chalkboard with the 8-Bit Cafe logo on one side only, sitting outside the building.
After climbing up five thin, precarious flights of stairs, we found the door marked by a bar stool displaying an original Japanese Famicom, like a trophy kill. Heading inside, we stumbled into a scene from the fever dream of a 1993 teenager. Classic game cartridges, systems, action figures, VHS anime tapes, and more are piled against every surface. Pixel art prints decorate the walls and classic consoles like Virtua Boys and Mega Drives are propped on trophy stands for display. The whole place is coated in a thick veneer of 90’s nostalgia. Tables are made from Pacman arcade games, and on some nights monitors are situated around the room for console play.
The nostalgia extends to the drink menu itself, with a large number of cocktails themed after classic games and characters. The Metroid cocktail features vodka, tonic water, and bright green melon syrup. The Donkey Kong is made from Malibu rum and (of course) banana juice. The bar’s signature drink is the Dr. Mario. Alcohol fumes all but waft off the top from the mix of vodka, and gin, featuring a splash of Dr. Pepper, and Coke. Keeping with the theme, it’s served in a glass beaker (because… science!), and comes with red and blue sugar pills. They told us to put the pills in the drink, although it simply floated on the surface and never broke down. Nor did they combine powers to eradicate any viruses – to my knowledge at least.
We were there a few nights after Halloween, and the bar staff was still enjoying the moment, dressed up in anime-inspired vampire and princess costumes. They were happy to chat and make drink reservations. We were not the only Westerners in the place that night. A small group of younger guys sat towards the back. It appeared a Western guy was visiting his Japanese friends. He was the most embarrassing Western stereotype, loudly talking trash about the bar and generally everything Japanese. He also spilled a drink all over the table and floor. We took solace in an old Game Boy sitting on the bar next to a huge stack of Japanese games. Sitting and drinking cocktails and playing 4-color indecipherable games from another continent was a memorable way to spend an evening.
Given how difficult it was to find 8-Bit Cafe, we assumed that we would likely never lay eyes upon Qunai Bros. Every article online about the place mentions how this is the most secretive, reclusive, and tucked-away of all Tokyo game bars. I initially didn’t even want to include it on the itinerary because I assumed we would never find it. It turns out that all these reporters apparently never visited Qunai’s own website, which has a convenient map leading directly to the location. Furthermore, they must have walked right by Qunai Bros’ neon orange sign, providing an order of magnitude more visibility than 8-Bit Cafe’s chalkboard.
In contrast to the fire-hose-style nostalgia of 8-Bit Cafe, Qunai is much more subdued. The space is very small, with four bar seats and a couple small, low benches in the back. Decorations are sparse and limited to a few maps and drawings. However, it’s difficult to miss the giant projector screen up front, ready and willing to be connected up to classic consoles for game play. Qunai also featured a much more straightforward drink list. I ordered a whiskey highball (a very common drink in Japan: whiskey and soda, even available canned), and we shouldered our way through the crowd to the back.
We sat and sipped our drinks and laughed about how easy the place was to find, after I had built it up as this mystery for so many weeks. The atmosphere was suffused with cigarette smoke, but the crowd was friendly. We were the only Westerners in the place the night we went. Emily overheard the group nearest to us debating who’s English was best to talk to us. It devolved into them all declaring their own English terrible, so no one did. Finally we started chatting with another couple near us, and then the owner came over to say hello.
We all had a good-natured laugh over my pidgin Japanese (…jerks), then Emily translated for me. He explained that the name “Qunai” came from a combination of his own name and his brother’s. He said he doesn’t mean to keep the bar a secret, but just wants to keep the crowd manageable in the tiny space. He also asked me to blur out the image of the projector in the picture I took. According to him, certain game copyright holders have caused him trouble in the past when they found out he was projecting games in the bar.
Tokyo game bars are not just for Westerners wistful over a bygone era. Tokyo-based game developers are known to frequent them as well. While chatting up the owner, another patron joined in and started asking about our jobs to make conversation. They both lit up when I said I worked on Halo, and the other man started doing the “I am not worthy” pose. It turns out that he had worked for Namco on the original Xbox title “Breakdown,” a game I frequently reference for inventive first-person animation. In that game, among the usual gun-shooting and punch-throwing activities, you drink cola, eat a hamburger, and vomit into a toilet, all without breaking the first-person perspective. It’s hard not to love. We had a good talk and exchanged autographs before I had to head out.
Qunai Bros. is located within a unique section of Shinjuku in Tokyo called the Golden Gai, a compact neon-and-fluorescent soaked pack of streets that looks ripped directly from the reel of Blade Runner. Golden Gai packs in over 200 separate bars into an area roughly the size of four city blocks. Bars are literally on top of one another, with many featuring only one or two seats. Establishments compensate for the low profit-generating capabilities of their tiny size with cover charges applied to every bill. Typically this is in the range of $15-20, so choose bars carefully! Many bars have taken up particular themes to try and lure in a niche audience. Walking through the Gai, we passed numerous punk rock bars, a few art bars with walls covered in prints, bars touting their excellent grasp of English and their love of foreigners, and any number of bars based on narrow categories of alcohol. After much hand-wringing, we finally decided on one bar where the theme was whiskey and brandy.
The interior was much too dark for good photography, but bottle after bottle of Suntory whisky sat lined up neatly on shelves behind the bar. There were three seats at the bar, so we sat and ordered. The proprietress was an elderly lady, who made friendly chatter. She apparently didn’t get many Westerners in the place and made some astute observations regarding our anatomy.
(To Emily): Whoa, BIG breasts!
(To me): BIG nose!
Completely friendly and not at all weird. It turns out that this lady claimed to be the longest-running bar owner in Golden Gai, going back 50 years. We talked for a bit about running the bar, and she complained that things have been tailing off the last 5-10 years. Running a three-seat bar is apparently a difficult proposition. She served up tasty whiskey highballs, and made otherwise pleasant conversation till we were ready to go. We got the bill, confident she would waive the seating charge for such friendly people as us. But no, there it was – $20 for the privilege of drinking there.
We left Golden Gai resolving to come back to experience even more (apparently there’s a rooftop bar somewhere in there as well), but, like so much we intended to do in Japan, we couldn’t find the time. Instead, the next night, we took advantage of our free hotel stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo and visit the New York Bar.
Every Western Japanophile has an unhealthy obsessions with Lost in Translation, the 2003 Sofia Coppola film about alienation and the difficulties of human connection set against the backdrop of Tokyo. The New York Bar is a key set for several of the film’s memorable scenes, featuring incredible views of Tokyo from the 52nd floor. Unlike the previous bar adventures in this article, New York Bar is huge, taking up one full side of the hotel. A jazz band was playing in the center of the seating area, livening up the place significantly.
For drinks, we are back to the upper atmosphere of the cocktail world, with prices to match. New York Bar, despite its size and location (or maybe because of it), also features a cover charge similar to Golden Gai – $22 (waived if you’re staying in the hotel). Combine this with cocktails that run in the $18-20 range and we’re up near Bar High Five for average price.
Still, the experience of being high in the air, gazing out over the sprawling Tokyo skyline awash in lights, is one that will etch itself in memory. Cocktails at New York Bar are executed to the exacting standards we’ve seen elsewhere in Tokyo. A Dark and Stormy featuring house-made ginger syrup had a lingering sweet burn, accentuated by the use of soda water as the base. As one might expect, of course I had to try out the tiki drinks menu. The most memorable part of the Carribbean Sunset, a blend of gin, rum, and banana puree, was the cup it came in. A huge ceramic mug covered in tiki masks, it made more of an impression than the drink, which was mostly liquor. A “Frio Frio” (rum and mango ice) came out with a bottle Fever Free Lemon Tonic water for self-mixing. The bar even features a “L.I.T.” cocktail, mixing sake and cherry liqueur with peachtree schnapps and cranberry juice in a fruity salute to the movie.
The Park Hyatt was one of our last stops in Japan before we had to head back to the states. As a crowning jewel of the Tokyo skyline high above Shinjuku, there felt like no better place to toast the city. The skyline lights blinked in and out as customers moved around the room to drink, enjoy the view, and listen to the band. We, too, moved up to the window to gaze and take pictures. The view stretched across all the sprawling mass of Tokyo, a particularly amazing sight to take in a little bit tipsy. Whether we were in pricey cocktail lounges, a three-seat bar in the Gai, or playing games in a Tokyo game bar, little was lost in translation when glasses were raised and we drank to shouts of “Kampai!”