Sakemay be Japan’s national drink but the country is equally famed for its whisky and beer. However, in recent years, wine production and consumption in the country aregaining momentum as well.
Yamanashi, Nagano, Hokkaido, Yamagata and Niigata are Japan’s preeminent producers of wine. Little do people know that grapes have been cultivated in Japan since the 8th century but it wasn't until the 1870s that they were turned into wine with the first brewery set up in Japan. About a hundred years later, production started to take off as Japanese brewers went to study in Europe and brought back the technical know-how to improve local grape breeds and brewing methods.
Keep a lookout for Japan’s indigenous koshu grape, which has been garnering attention both domestically and internationally for its crispness, acidity and delicate taste. Another popular Japanese varietal is the red grape Muscat Bailey A; it typically creates light and fruity wines that are low in tannins and acidity.
Additionally, the natural wine movement that is showing an upward trend around the world has hit Tokyo, too.And in case you’re wondering what exactly makes a wine ‘natural’, it’s when the wine is produced with minimal intervention – nothing added, nothing removed. No chemicals or artificial fertilisers are used on the vines nor is there any manipulation of flavour or additives used in the winemaking process.
So whether you’re after a stylish standing bar, cellar-door hideout, homely hole-in-the-wall or somewhere with a food menu to impress a date, we have you covered.We'll start with what's in vogue – the natural wine bars – and then move on to establishments offering a global wine list as well as those specialising in domestic drop.
This charming cellar-bar, hidden in the relaxed Hatagaya neighbourhood near Shibuya, specialises in natural wine. The remarkable interior is a cavernous, all-blond timber room, with the cellar set further back from the bar through an enormous porthole-like entrance. This commanding feature creates a dramatic contrast to the clean, linear design of the surrounding space.
There are two long communal tables with seats to enjoy your wine, as well as some standing room areas. Glasses start from ¥1,000, or you can select a bottle from the cellar and drink it in-situ for ¥3,000 corkage. For snacks, there’s a house-made cheese and cured-meat plate as well as a selection of small dishes from local French and Italian restaurants run by the owner’s friends.
Located in the hip Yoyogi-Uehara neighbourhood, Aelu is a Japanese-French bistro that is perfect for a casual glass of wine, but the setting is lovely enough for a special-occasion dinner. The interior is homely and rustic but in a modern and stylish way.
The wines are all natural, from both local and international makers, and are curated to match the creative food menu. Each day, there are seven to ten wine options by the glass starting from ¥900, and around ten varieties by the bottle starting at ¥5,000. The menu is filled with French-Japanese dishes that celebrate seasonal local produce, which are served on ceramic wares from the adjoining pottery gallery.
Located just off the main drag in the hip neighbourhood of Tomigaya, Ahiru Store is a small counter wine bistro with a big reputation. It’s one of those local cafés that everyone wishes was in their ’hood. Thanks to its popularity, nabbing a seat is a challenge any day of the week. A standing spot next to one of the upturned wine barrels is more likely and not a bad place to rest your wine glass and enjoy the French-inspired small-plate menu. Bottles line the walls with prices written in white marker. You can take your pick guided purely by the wackiness of the label or ask owner and sommelier Saito-san for his recommendation.
Tiny even for Tokyo standards, Bar à vin is a wine bar tucked under the stairwell to its sister restaurant Maison Cinquante Cinq. There’s standing room only, around a central table, and wines are available by the glass along with a short menu of French-inspired snacks to sustain you. In such an intimate setting it’s easy to strike up a conversation with the person next to you on which wine they are enjoying. Otherwise, leave it to the sommelier who will bring out the selection of wines he’s just opened for the night.
Giving off a relaxed, local vibe, Lug serves up great coffee and a simple lunch menu during the day and has a very impressive rum selection by night, boasting over 150 different bottles. Unobtrusively located in the far back corner is a walk-in wine cellar that’s stocked with 100 percent natural wine bottles. Sommelier Honzawa-san, or ‘Pon-chan’ by all who know her, is passionate about natural wine and is constantly rotating the wines available by the glass so that customers can expand their palate.
This charming little bar offers something surprisingly rather uncommon in the city – all the alcohol comes from Japan. You can expect everything from sparkling rosé from Kyoto to chardonnay from Oita, gin from Gifu and rum from Okinawa.
The wine list by the glass includes three reds, three whites and one rosé, with options changing daily. By the bottle, there’s 20 to 30 varieties. If you’re looking for something to nibble on, Sanpine specialises in oden, a traditional Japanese-style stew, but also serves a range of snacks like cheeses, karasumi (cured cod roe), sausages, caviar and potato salad – all using domestic ingredients, of course.
The cosy wine bar, which seats just eight along its counter, is tucked into the back streets of Tomigaya, a few minutes’ walk from Yoyogi-Hachiman Station. There’s a regularly changing selection of domestic wines, ranging from the fresh, vibrant palate Japanese wines are known for, to richer, meatier drops. We love anything from the Okunota Winery, especially its golden and fruity Hanamizuki Blanc, as well as Takeda Winery’s light and refreshing Sans Soufre Sparkling. Wines start around ¥700 a glass. Dishes range from ¥500 to ¥1,500 and include snacks like bruschetta, locally made cheese and a kiwi and avocado salad.
Opened in 2015, the venue is an urban winery – they brew their red, white, rosé and sparkling in the level below the restaurant. At what looks like an apartment building, ascend the exterior staircase to the second level, where you’ll find an industrial-chic space comprising two rooms separated by a raised open kitchen. The front room is for diners after more substantial bistro-style meals; the second is sort of a tasting room for those looking to just drink wine and nibble on casual bites such as cheese and cured meats.
Fujimaru’s extensive wine list covers both house brews and around 200 wines by the bottle from around the world (ten options are available by the glass). On any given day, you can expect six or seven varieties of house wine, served by the bottle or fresh from the barrel. Look out for the Okuru Sky Sparkling, a pink-tinged, skin-contact effervescent wine with fine bubbles and crisp apple notes; and the naturally fermented Farmer’s Merlot, a well-rounded red with hints of cacao, dark cherry and blood orange.
Tucked into a quiet street at the affluent Nishi-Azabu area, Osozakura is part liquor store, part wine bar. The store’s interior charmingly blends modern Japanese design touches like muted earth tones and timber and bamboo textures with homely traditional elements like daruma dolls, maneki-neko lucky cats and ukiyo-e paintings.
Take a seat around the horseshoe bar and choose from 15 sommelier-selected wines to drink by the glass, or more than 350 to drink by the bottle. An overwhelming 95 percent of the wine selection here is domestically produced. The tasting set is the best way to sample a few di erent varieties, priced at ¥1,500 for three glasses. If you’re buying a bottle as a gift, you can choose to have it wrapped in artisan-made furoshiki (wrapping cloth) for an extra-special, authentic Japanese touch.
Tucked away on the 4th floor of Ebisu’s Atre building is this stylish, well-stocked kaku-uchi of Kimijimaya. Kaku-uchi are part liquor stores, part bars, meaning Kimijimaya has you covered whether you’re looking to buy high-quality sake and wine to take home or have a tipple in-store.
The space is neat and well-organised, and the eponymous owner – who also moonlights as a rock musician – is passionate about creating a space where people can drink authentic, unique and good quality tipple at reasonable prices. Sit at the counter by the window for some people-watching while you sip, or just hang out around the standing table in the centre of the bar area.
For reasonably-priced wine, head straight to Hagare, which is run by the popular imported goods store Kaldi. If you're wondering how the bar can offer wine at such low prices, the clue lies in its name. 'Hagare' comes from the Japanese word for 'peeling', and it refers to the condition of the wine bottles here, many of which feature labels that are slightly peeled or with minor imperfections. However, this doesn't affect the content inside, which are just as good to drink.
The restaurant and bar offers both a standing counter as well as seats for a proper meal, where the menu lists a number of Italian-inspired dishes. If you're there just for drinks, glasses of wine start at an easy ¥300, or just get a bottle – it won't break the bank.