15 of the best bars in old Tokyo

Where to go for stylish cocktails in the shitamachi – Asakusa, Sumida and beyond

By Tamasaburau

Less than a decade ago, few cocktail connoisseurs would have thought of looking for a stylish bar in the shitamachi. While only the most eager imbibers could keep count of all the refined watering holes in Ginza, Roppongi and Azabu, Tokyo’s old downtown was an afterthought at best when it came to trendy grown-up boozing. But with the opening of Tokyo Skytree in 2012 and the beginning of Olympics-related construction out by the bay, the old-school neighbourhoods east of the Sumida River have been thrust into the collective spotlight.

Such developments have revealed that the stereotype of the shitamachi as frozen in time and devoid of style was wildly off the mark. In fact, old Tokyo is home to an excellent selection of both venerable watering holes and sharp newcomers, with its diversity surprising even experienced tipplers. Here’s our list of 15 shitamachi bars that won’t let you down – whether you're drinking alone or with a group.

Prefer a bar with a view? Check out our top picks here

Photos by Kisa Toyoshima and Keisuke Tanigawa. Translated by Ili Saarinen

The shitamachi top 15

Bar Branche

Take a stroll south from the station area and enter one of the small alleyways in Kameido, where a distinct shitamachi atmosphere still lingers on, and you’ll notice a faint liquor aroma emanating from beyond a door decorated with an elegant lamp. Standing out from its rough-and-ready surroundings, this is the entrance to the counter-only Branche, a magical space with seats for six eager imbibers.

No longer a newcomer in the neighbourhood, it’s been inviting patrons to rest their wings – hence the name – over a drink for a full decade now. Owner and bartender Takeshi Sato sourced ingredients for restaurants and spent time behind the counter at legendary Shin-Koiwa bar Fust Carlent before opening his own spot. Boasting quite a collection of rare bottles and quality cigars, he charms visitors with both top tipples and fancy appetisers. Branche is the kind of bar you’ll want to come back to over and over.

Kameido

Drambuie

It was on a rainy day when this author visited Kita-Senju for the first time in years and came across Drambuie. A random search for a bar led through the underground walkway on the south side of the station, around the corner of the police station and – extremely luckily – straight to a spot that appeared out of nowhere almost like a rare jewel.

Run by Hiroki Umemoto, the bar gets its epithet from a Scottish liqueur that’s made from a whisky blend, honey, herbs and spices. That label itself combines the words dram (to drink) and buidheach (satisfaction or gratitude) – fittingly enough, as the owner says his calling is to satisfy the hearts and minds of his customers with fine drinks.

After honing his craft at bars up in Utsunomiya, known in some circles as a veritable cocktail town, Umemoto broke out on his own and set up shop in Kita-Senju in September 2010. When visiting, your eyes will inevitably be drawn to his handsome 6.5m bubinga counter. In fact, it was the availability of this Cameroonian wood that eventually convinced the good bartender to open Drambuie – even the sign outside is made of the same material.

And the attention to detail doesn’t end there: the heavy Chesterfield sofas are a particular highlight, while Umemoto’s trove of Baccarat ware and other antique glasses took 20 years to collect. Even the lamps at the entrance and in the back are Baccarat-made. With the appetiser selection extending to Casalba jamón Ibérico de Bellota aged for 48 months and cheese from French master Hervé Mons, you’ll have a hard time finding anything wrong with this gem up north.

Kita-Senju
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Once Upon A Time

Known as Kuromoncho back when the capital was still called Edo, the neighbourhood between Okachimachi and Yushima stations is still home to several old townhouses and historical homes. Standing out among them like a sore thumb is the Western-style brick structure – a former liquor warehouse built in the Meiji era – that houses this famed watering hole.

Passing by it at night, you’ll notice a faint glow seeping through from beneath the heavy door. One look inside and an experienced drinker will immediately recognise many of the whisky bottles lining the shelves. Opened in 1978, Once Upon A Time is now run by Hiromi Nakamura, wife of the late founder Masato Nakamura. Hiromi thought about closing the place when her husband passed away in 2006, but the bar’s regulars convinced her to keep going. Another crisis came along in 2011, when damage from the earthquake on 3.11 scared the building’s owner into suggesting it be torn down. This decision was also reversed by the bar’s loyal patrons, but only partially: the structure is set for demolition in 2023, so best visit while you still can.

Upon entering, you’ll notice the eight-seat counter on your left. Sit down and you can’t help but pay attention to the two huge JBL monitors set up in both corners of the ceiling. The deep sound of music streaming out from these fills the space, adding to the venerable atmosphere. Alternatively, you can opt for one of the 12 seats in the middle of the bar and admire the metal table that used to be a storehouse door, or head up the strange, steep staircase on the right to the two-seat loft, which is packed with all kinds of quirky gadgets. The perfect spot for a secret meeting, perhaps? Cocktails are all well and good, but this bar is the kind of place where you’ll want to order a glass of whisky along with a light snack and just while away the hours.

Okachimachi

Bar Doras

Called ‘the travelling bartender’ by his colleagues, widely respected Doras owner Yasutaka Nakamori regularly journeys to Europe in search of rare liquors to stock his shelves with. Having opened his own place in 2005, Nakamori used to also serve tequila, bourbon and other varieties of New World booze, but a growing collection of European bottles eventually convinced him to focus entirely on the Continent’s drinking culture.

In addition to liquor, the fruits of Nakamori’s travels extend to antique glasses bought at flea markets – ‘to match with the drinks,’ he says. These centre on crystal pieces such as French Baccarat and Lalique as well as Belgian Val Saint Lambert glasses, while the painting of Prague on the left of the counter was actually bought in the Czech capital.

Aiming to let his customers ‘imagine the scene where the liquor was made’ by enjoying its aroma and flavour, Nakamori has made his bar an embodiment of this philosophy. Everything is meant to be as ‘European’ as possible – from the furniture to the wall décor – but he still says it’s all a work in progress. Doras, by the way, means ‘door’ in Gaelic – in this case, it’s a door that leads to a small slice of aristocratic Europe right by the Sumida River.

Asakusa
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Bar Hasegawa

Step away from Shinobazu-dori near Nezu Shrine to find a certain very shitamachi-esque alley – one that’s also home to a supremely refined bar. It looks almost like someone’s home from the outside, so be careful not to miss the entrance. Slip in through the corridor on the left of the glass-tiled wall and open the sliding door on your right to locate Hasegawa. Natural light streams in through the curved wall window you just passed by outside, while the lengthy counter gives the place that unmistakable bar feel.

Manning the bar is the reticent Morito Hasegawa, a veteran of Ginza’s Rock Fish. Having set up his own place in 2015, he makes a mean ‘ice-free highball’ and serves up a nostalgic selection of blended whisky. Thanks to the bright space, serene atmosphere and its master’s halting chit-chat, Bar Hasegawa feels a world away from the bustling Rock Fish and draws you in to enjoy a casual evening over a few – or even five – tipples.

Nezu

Bar Bee

Even veteran Tokyoites may do a double take when hearing that Bar Bee is located in Hikifune – some might even ask themselves ‘where the heck is Hikifune?’ But the out-of-the-way location does nothing to reduce the charm of this old-school boozer, opened in summer 1998 northwest of the Tobu line station.

In fact, its roots go even deeper than that. Current owner Takayuki Yamada’s grandfather was the first in the family to run a business here, operating a kakigori shop called Maruhachi in summer and later starting to sell oshiruko (red bean porridge) in winter when he realised there could be multiple uses for the azuki beans he used as shaved ice toppings. Ramen was later added to the menu, and by the time Yamada’s father took over the shop, the surroundings had transformed from entertainment district to quiet neighbourhood apt for a Chinese restaurant doubling as a sweets shop.

Yamada himself went to culinary school while helping out at his parents’ place during lunchtime and working as a bartender at venerable Asakusa establishment Orange Room at night. When his dad went out of business, Yamada took over and set up his own bar, taking the ‘hachi’ part of the Maruhachi name and ‘translating’ it into English – thus Bar Bee. Considering this history, it’s no wonder that Yamada’s steamed dumplings and other Chinese appetisers are in a class of their own. ‘Many people are surprised just to find a bar in this area, but they’re even more surprised to find Chinese food on the menu,’ he says.

Cut straight from a log, Bee’s beautiful Douglas fir counter is 9.5m long and extra wide at 80cm, giving you plenty of space to eat. It weighs a whopping 1.2 tonnes – about as much as a Sanja Matsuri mikoshi – so it took 12 grown men to install it back in the day. Although Bee is the kind of casual spot where even bar first-timers will feel comfortable, Yamada’s refined bartending draws on the style established by the likes of Akio Watanabe at Est! and the late Kenji Otsuki, owner of classic Ginza bar Opa. You now have a very good excuse to go to Hikifune.

Mukojima
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Nanonai Bar

If you’ve been to Nanonai back in the day and are looking to realise a repeat visit, pay attention: the bar moved recently, so best make sure not to take the wrong door. Not that quiet owner-bartender Kazuya Aoki seems to make a big deal out of it: he didn’t even let us in on the reason behind the relocation.

A painter and graduate of Tokyo University of the Arts, Aoki creates art during the day and runs his bar at night. This is evident in the menu: every cocktail is presented on a single page, complete with a hand-drawn illustration. Browsing the book is so enjoyable that we almost forgot it was time to order.

Having gotten rid of his old, ill-fitting silver door and replaced it with a wooden version complete with a small window, Aoki has also decorated the space with some of his own pieces. On the right is a ten-seat counter made from Yakushima cedar and shaped in the form of an overturned letter L, while a large table sits on the right. Adding to the frozen-in-time feeling are the gravel-embedded floor, soil-coloured walls and strange tin sculptures scattered around the bar.

Although not razor-sharp like those mixed by members of the Nippon Bartenders’ Association, Aoki’s cocktails are imbued with warmth and the gentle touch of a lover of the classics. When you seek them out, head towards Yushima Tenjin from Ochanomizu Station and go almost all the way up the hill to find a somewhat suspicious-looking set of stairs leading down to a basement. Don’t let the vaguely licentious appearance scare you away: a very comfy hideout awaits down there.

Yushima

Bar Opa Monzen-Nakacho

Having turned out several Nippon Bartenders’ Association champions, Bar Opa is practically always associated with its Ginza location, while this Monzen-Nakacho outpost, opened in September 2001, gets far less attention. That also means it’s great for a quick drink after work or a laidback evening spent sipping quality cocktails. Opened by the late Kenji Otsuki, who lived in the area and hoped that Opa’s second incarnation would became a casual spot mainly for locals, the bar takes its name from one of Akutagawa Prize-winning novelist Takeshi Kaiko’s essay collections.

To find it, enter one of the narrow alleys east of the station, head up a somewhat unlikely staircase and open the door next to the sign. You’ll find yourself in a spacious room decorated with warm wood – but best make a note of the address and phone number before heading out, as this one can a little tricky to locate. The bar houses a massive, 13-seat counter made from Chinese quince, a bookshelf-like display case packed with bottles, and ample tables that make it easy to fit in. The clientele ranges from bar geeks to local regulars – just as Otsuki would have had it.

Also noteworthy is the lengthy food menu: we’re particular fans of the made-from-scratch pizza and hearty pasta. Spacious, casual, great for anything from solo drinking to a date: when in Monzen-Nakacho, stopping by Opa will always bring a smile to your face.

Monzen-Nakacho
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Bar, C

Sitting quietly in a back alley among Monzen-Nakacho’s jumble of clubs, ‘snack’ bars, yakitori joints and yakiniku restaurants, C appeared here long before the neighbourhood became a minor bar hotspot and is up there with Opa in the race for the area’s best watering hole.

Eitai-dori, ‘the aorta of the shitamachi’, is lined by pachinko parlours that give the street a sickly neon glow. But step away from the big street, into the darkness, and you’ll come across a distinctive lantern that raises the hopes of any and all liquor lovers. Step through the door and you could just as well be in Ginza: manning the bar is Hiroyuki Shiiba, who did time at JBA Bar Suzuki, Yoshu Hakubutsukan and Superior before breaking out on his own. And why Bar C? It’s ’Shiiba’ read backwards with a Japanese pronunciation, of course.

The cocktails are just as exquisite as you’d expect from a former Ginza stalwart – with a distinct shitamachi twist, of course – while rare bottles are legion as well. Make sure to try the Merci, an award-winning cocktail made with Marie Brizard aniseed liqueur. If you’re looking to feel a little fancy east of the river, this ought to be your destination.

Monzen-Nakacho

Bar Helissio

Naming your bar after a racehorse is a bit of an unlikely move, but perhaps it can be forgiven in this case: Helissio takes its moniker from a French stallion that won the 1996 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and retired with a superb 8-5 record. Not being eager gamblers, we still found the naming decision debatable, but relented after owner Hidenori Uesawa assured us that he wanted his bar ‘to become as historical as the horse’. Who can argue with that?

This ambitious establishment sits close to the Metropolitan Expressway’s elevated Komatsugawa route, at almost equal distance from both Ryogoku and Morishita stations. So is it a ‘Ryogoku bar’ or a ‘Morishita bar’? Nobody really knows – what we do know is that there are hardly any other bars nearby. Fittingly for its location in the heart of old Fukagawa, Helissio often sees patrons linger until late at night, and it’s even known to be frequented by sumo wrestlers (when there isn’t a tournament on, of course…).

Uesawa himself is a local, too, but his magnificent cocktails would fit in anywhere. He often uploads pictures of his creations to the bar’s Facebook page, so you might want to check what you’re in for before heading over. When you do visit – and you really should, especially if you live in the area – try kicking off the conversation with some darts talk: Uesawa is a professional player. Win his heart and you might be in for an even tastier mixture.

Ryogoku
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Ichi-Hachi

There’s a ‘samurai bartender’ in Sendagi. No, really. Unfortunately you can’t meet him every night: Ichi-Hachi’s Akihiro Ichikawa only ties his hair up for special occasions. Regulars here will tell you that the barman, a former video game developer, is a huge fan of late Sengoku era samurai Keiji Maeda (aka Toshimasu), the protagonist of ‘Fist of the North Star’ author Tetsuo Hara’s early ’90s manga ‘Keiji’ (‘Hana no Keiji’). Ichikawa even makes an annual trip to a temple in Yamagata prefecture’s Yonezawa just to pay his respects to Maeda. Now that’s dedication.

The battling bartender’s castle is found on the second floor of a very apartment-like building close to Sendagi Station. Opening the door feels almost like stepping into someone else’s home, but a look inside will reveal a comfy counter-only space. It isn’t your typical stylish, authentic bar, but the cocktails – including the ones made with seasonal fruit and vegetables – maintain high quality. The Fresh Tomato Bloody Mary is available year-round, while the Mint Julep is made with home-grown Latin American spearmint. And as the bar name suggests, you’ll also find a plentiful selection of 18-year-old whisky. If you need a break from Ginza’s hallowed cocktail temples, Ichi-Hachi will be just what the doctor ordered.

Sendagi

Shot Bar Moorie

‘You can’t beat that place.’ Even bartenders with respectable whisky collections of their own throw in the towel in the face of this Fukagawa gem, famed as an oasis for those looking to sample rare malts at reasonable prices. It’s named after its owner, Kazuhiro ‘Moorie’ Morimura, a born-and-raised Kikukawa local – and bears no relation to the more famous Mori Bar in Ginza. Fresh out of bartending school and woefully under-financed, Morimura still couldn’t help jumping at the opportunity to open his own place when he got word of a suitable piece of real estate back in 1997.

Designed by the owner himself and decorated together with his father, a house painter, and friends from the neighbourhood, Moorie is a supremely homely, American-style joint with old Hollywood movie posters and signed photographs on the walls. It all reminds us of the old adage that a bar lives and dies with its master, no matter how great the cocktails or how rare the bottles on offer. And knowing that the ‘day’s cocktail’ goes for a mere ¥490, it’s no wonder that Moorie has a stranglehold on the local competition.

Sumida
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Dashi & Bar Tawaragi

Back in the day, one tiny Tsukishima stand bar attracted eager imbibers from all over town. Always filled by both locals and visitors to a density usually reserved for rush-hour commuter trains, this legendary spot was unfortunately forced to close at the end of March 2017 – a victim of the ongoing ‘re-development’ engulfing Tsukishima.

But there was hope still for local boozehounds: an effective replacement opened just down the street in March 2016. Its owner, Takamitsu Tawaragi, is a 20-year veteran of the craft – and several of Ginza’s finest bars – who last worked at the aforementioned tachinomiya until going solo last year. His offerings centre on mojitos and other drinks made with Ron Zacapa, a Guatemalan brand of rum aged at an altitude of 2,300m. In 2014, Tawaragi earned a trip to Guatemala after selling more Ron Zacapa than any other bartender in Japan. The best part about his place is that it’s so easy to stop by casually – despite the Ginza-esque level of expertise on display. If you thought Tsukishima is all about monja, think again.

Tsukishima

Phonosheet

Having appeared practically out of nowhere in August 2016, Phonosheet hides out in an alley just behind a very shitamachi-like townhouse in Tsukishima. Its sudden emergence made us a little suspicious at first – trendy neighbourhoods often get quite a few phony newcomers – but a recent visit convinced us that this place is very much for real.

A quick investigation reveals that the inspiration behind it comes from Sendai. Visiting the Miyagi city around a decade ago, Phonosheet’s founder was charmed by Aoba-ku’s Barock, a bar that specialised in rare whisky and vinyl. Also the owner of the aforementioned Tsukishima townhouse, he established a relationship with Baroque’s operator and eventually convinced him to open a similarly themed joint in ‘monja town’.

The bar is housed in a Western-style brick building that stands out like a sore thumb among the townhouses. The twin entrances at the front lead to the main counter and the main table respectively, with the bar itself sitting in between the two – to maintain a suitable distance between occasionally rowdy groups at the table and single drinkers at the counter. The wall behind the bar is covered by shelves packed with rare bottles, which in turn are flanked by two huge speakers. Phonosheet looks far older than its years and is the kind of place you’ll want to hide at for an entire night – one spent sipping fine whisky and taking in classic tunes.

Tsukishima
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Fust Carlent

Calling this Shin-Koiwa establishment ‘legendary’ is no exaggeration. Strolling along from the station’s south exit, you might start to doubt its existence – just before it appears in front of you on the right. Fust Carlent has actually never been featured in any online publication before this, and its phone number still hasn’t been made public. Established in 1997, this secretive refuge is a true treasure chest of rare liquor.

Formerly run by Takeshi Meguro, a well-known name in Tokyo’s bar circles, the place was rumoured to have shut down after Meguro retired last year. But such reports proved greatly exaggerated: Fust Carlent had simply passed into the hands of long-time bartender Makoto Shiraishi, who continues to delight his regulars by upholding Meguro’s teachings and style to the letter. But no bar survives without a little evolution, so Shiraishi has already begun adding some flavour of his own. Exhibit A: the bar’s steadily growing bourbon collection. The legend of Fust Carlent has only just entered its second chapter…

Shin-Koiwa

About the author: Tamasaburau

Born 1965 in Shibuya, Tokyo, Tamasaburau studied British and American literature at Rikkyo University before embarking on a journalistic career. He continued his studies at New York University and the City University of New York, and later worked for the likes of Berlitz Translation Services and CNN. Since returning to these shores, he has specialised in writing about bars, visiting more than 1,000 watering holes across Japan while publishing articles and several books on topics like the joys of booze, noteworthy bartenders and the role of bars in modern society. He is also the author of 'My Lost New York', an essay on pre-9/11 NYC.

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