Tokyo has a vibrant drinking culture that offers everything from gin and whisky to cocktails and craft beer. However, no visit to Tokyo, or Japan for that matter, is complete without a little bit of nihonshu (Japanese sake).
The national drink of Japan made from rice, sake can be enjoyed hot, cold or a range of different temperatures in between. Better yet, it also pairs beautifully with food. Whether you're a sake novice or an expert drinker, you'll find a comprehensive range of sake from all over the country at these top bars.
RECOMMENDED: A beginners guide to drinking hot sake
Located on a quiet corner in Shibuya, Utsura Utsura has that type of enticing nighttime glow that just beckons you in. Through the wooden door you’ll find a bar counter that seats eight, running along the narrow open kitchen where you can watch the chef and sake sommelier at work. The latter is, uniquely, a hot sake specialist, and watching him warm up the drinks to their precise temperature can be rather hypnotic. There are tables for four at the back of the room, and the vibe is professional but warm.
The concept of this gastrobar is to find the right sake to match the dish you’d like to eat, or vice versa. Sake comes by the glass, starting around ¥500, or 180ml carafes ranging from ¥700 to ¥1,500, with about 40 varieties of regularly changing labels on offer. The elaborate otoshi (quick bites, much like an appetiser) platter is a standout, with around six tiny seasonal dishes like strawberry with tofu and sesame cream, and duck steamed in soy sauce with poached kumquats.
Kengyo is part-bottle-shop, part-standing-bar, which stocks over 150 types of boutique sake from across Japan. It’s a bright, light-filled, welcoming space, with large windows overlooking Ginza’s backstreets.
Sake can be bought by the 90ml glass from just ¥500. Otherwise, get a tasting flight of three kinds of daiginjo (the A-list sake) or seasonal sake for ¥1,000 yen (all 60ml pours). And if you find something you like, you can purchase the entire bottle to go.
The snack selection, on the other hand, is a playful take on traditional tachinomi (standing bar) offerings, like cans of braised fish and stewed motsu (innards), as well as Japan bar favourites like potato salad, tsukemono (pickles), hiyayakko (cold dressed tofu), edamame and smoked cheese. Kengyo is located just five minutes from Ginza’s main Chuo-dori shopping street, making it the perfect spot to swing by between department stores.
This dimly lit interior of Yummy Sake Collective gives it an underground nightclub feel. Just a few minutes walk from Daikanyama Station, the standing bar fits about eight people, illuminated by the glow from the sake refrigerators behind. There’s also a chic attic upstairs, complete with white-painted timber walls, a long shared table and dangling exposed lightbulbs.
The bar sells around 80 sake varieties, served in glass carafes of 90 to 100ml. The fun part is you get to choose your sake cup from a basket filled with a mish-mash of options from ceramics to elaborate kiriko cut glass. What Yummy Sake Collective excels at is pushing boundaries with their ‘AI’ approach to sake drinking. They’ve created 12 sake profiles, determined by blind-tasting 10 small nips of diverse sake and registering your response in an app. Based on your answers, you’ll be told which type of sake best suits you.
Whether you’re looking to buy sake to take home or sit at a sophisticated little bar and drink boutique sake by the glass, Nihonbashi Hasegawa Saketen has you covered. Enter the L-shaped store and on your left you’ll find a long line of glowing refrigerators brimming with sake from across Japan. To your right and around the corner is a suave little bar that seats about six. The bar has that special juxtaposition of the old and the new – just outside is the Fukutoku Shinto shrine, surrounded by the stylish Coredo shopping and dining complex, and with a backdrop of towering Nihonbashi skyscrapers.
Inside Hasegawa Saketen, copper vintage lamp shades decorate the room, and the all-glass exterior makes it feel like an Edo-era liquor store-bar with a Fifth Avenue makeover. The bar serves around 17 varieties of sake by the glass, including traditional as well as many modern and innovative brews, starting at ¥400 per glass. If you're hungry, the snacks on offer range from dishes like deep-fried broad beans, oden, grilled chicken skewers and udon with chilled tomato.
If you want to sample a bunch of different sake in one sitting, this is the place to be. Brightly lit and filled on weeknights with a largely salaryman crowd, Meishu Centre is dotted with freestanding tables all set with three small glasses ready for the tasting flight: you browse the walls of sake, then flag down one of the staff to fill your glasses with your selection. The prices start from ¥200 for a glass of sake, and if you get three at a time, you get a ¥100 discount.
The vibe here is relaxed and jovial, with swing jazz playing over the speakers. Regular patrons interact with the staff, openly comparing sake, and if you’re feeling peckish, the fridges are stocked with old-school snacks (think potato salad, vegetable pickles, pickled squid, etc) that pair well with sake. Sake bottles are arranged by prefecture, and the offerings change with the seasons and according to new releases. If you find one you really like, you can also buy a bottle to take home.
No matter if you’re just getting started on your sake journey or a discerning expert, there’s always more to learn. The Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center serves up not just an excellent and extensive range of sake and shochu, but also an abundance of information about these traditional Japanese beverages.
Imagine a bar combined with a library – but one where you’re encouraged to drink and chat. The shelves are lined with a cornucopia of sake and shochu information, from books published on the subject matter to pamphlets highlighting the sake of each region. The space itself is airy and modern but homely enough to feel relaxed. The bar serves around 100 varieties of sake and shochu, which change monthly. If you find a bottle you particularly like, grab a bottle to go – you can call it homework...
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