The best Tokyo bars: Meet the masters

Have your drink mixed by some of Tokyo's true bartending greats
The best Tokyo bars | Time Out Tokyo
By Time Out Tokyo Editors |
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Tokyo’s drinking scene is one of the best in the world, with boundary-breaking cocktail bars taking mixed drinks to the next level, while traditional izakayas bring you back down to earth in the best possible way. But such an overwhelming amount of options can feel daunting even for experienced boozehounds, who will inevitably be faced with the dreaded question – where next?

Well, one fitting answer is always 'to a master's bar'. What's that, you ask? A watering hole lorded over by a hooded monk? No: these veteran Tokyo barmen have earned their titles over the decades and are, above all, masters of bar etiquette – things like how to dress, what to talk about and how to carry oneself when faced with some of the finest cocktail artistry on this earth. The 15 bars listed below are no casual boozers: they're temples to the craft of bartending, and will reward a rightful drinker handsomely – as long as you remember these three rules:

1) Keep your voice down – these 'masters' won't hesitate to refuse loud drunks 

2) Note the dress code – wear at least a collared shirt

3) Prepare to pay a cover charge of ¥1,000-¥2,000

Nervous yet? Good. Now get ready to discover the finer side of drinking in Tokyo.

Venues curated by Tamasaburau. Photos by Kisa Toyoshima and Keisuke Tanigawa

Meet the masterful 15

Bars and pubs

Bar Kusakabe: Takaharu Kusakabe

icon-location-pin Ginza

Very Ginza-like but modest and comfortable, former Mori Bar employee Takaharu Kusakabe’s eponymous joint is one of the very few upscale bars in Ginza to stay open through the night. That means this small spot often sees bartenders from nearby establishments stop by during the wee hours to get a taste of the NOK, Kusakabe’s signature cocktail that’s a simple but perfectly balanced mix of Talisker and Laphroaig whisky and sweet vermouth, served with an olive. 

Decorated with colourful illustrations and artsy accessories, the narrow space is very accessible even for first-timers. Unfortunately Mr Kusakabe hasn’t been in good health as of late, often forcing him to leave the bar in the still-capable hands of his son – who may be a master in the making himself.

Bars and pubs, Cocktail bars

Tenderly: Yuko Miyazaki

icon-location-pin Omori

Born and raised in Omori, friendly bartender Yuko Miyazaki trained under the venerable Takao Mori before opening her own shrine to classic cocktails. She shares her wisdom at bimonthly bartending classes held at Tenderly, a joint that also hosts events like rakugo performances and is slowly becoming more just than a local sensation.

Visiting during sakura season? Be prepared to queue up from before 5pm if you're looking to score one of the window seats overlooking the nearby park and its huge cherry trees. At all other times, the main attraction is Miyazaki’s Adagio, a blend so perfect it’s said to have brought some patrons to tears. Best pack some tissues…

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Bars and pubs

Est!: Akio Watanabe

icon-location-pin Yushima

Yushima’s finest old-school bar was named by scientist, inventor and discerning drinker Kinichiro Sakaguchi, but the heart and soul of the place has always been bartender Akio Watanabe. Now well over 80 but as active as ever, this veteran barman has served literary greats like Yukio Mishima over a career spanning almost half a century.

That’s not to say Est is some outdated relic: Watanabe’s signature shaker move looks like he’s warming an egg in his hands, but produces masterpieces like the Luna Rossa and Golden Daiquiri originals. Impeccably balanced, they’re tasty enough to merit broader attention, but have so far remained Est-only concoctions – perhaps because only Mr Watanabe can execute them correctly. Trying to make out the labels on the rare bottles hidden behind the counter is also part of the experience at Est, as is striking up conversation with the jovial master.

Bars and pubs

Mori Bar: Takao Mori

icon-location-pin Ginza

One of Japan's most decorated barmen, Takao Mori has overseen the drink-mixing education of many a fellow Ginza bartender – but none of his disciples has reached the same kind of semi-legendary status as that enjoyed by the master of Mori Bar. First-timers will want start off with the martini, a creation so unlike the original that it's earned the nickname Mori Martini. Is it the finest of its kind anywhere? We wouldn’t bet against it.

Hidden away on the 10th floor in central Ginza, Mori's dominion is a high-end spot, sure, but nowhere near as stuck up as some of the cocktail bars nearby. As such, it makes for a great introduction to the world of Tokyo’s more upscale boozers. And hey, who could resist the appetiser soup, a heart- and innard-warming treat that’s said to be another Mori invention.

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Bars and pubs, Cocktail bars

Tender: Kazuo Ueda

icon-location-pin Ginza

You haven’t tasted a real gimlet before you’ve sipped the mixture put together by Mr Hard Shake, aka Kazuo Ueda, one of Japan’s most famous bartenders and something of an international celebrity in his field. Ueda’s drinks have even found acclaim in the World Bartender Champs, and the New York Times once did a lengthy feature on the micro bubble technician.

Ueda's bar, found on the fifth floor overlooking Sotobori-dori, ranks among the more welcoming of Ginza's high-end cocktail temples and is great for quiet conversations over one of the master’s original drinks. Just remember the strict dress code: whoever you are, you'll need to wear at least a button-down shirt.

Bars and pubs

Y&M Bar Kisling: Nobuo Abe

icon-location-pin Ginza

Counted among Ginza's handful of near-legendary upscale bars, Y&M stands for founding duo Mitsugi Yoshida and Takao Mori. Both of these giants may have moved on – Yoshida to the afterlife, Mori a few buildings away to his own Mori Bar – but the reins remain in good hands: Nobuo Abe is a former chief bartender at the New Otani hotel, while his colleague Akira Ishihara used to manage the Imperial Hotel’s members-only club.

Abe's signature cocktail is the Taiko, a combination of nihonshu, green tea liqueur, sudachi citrus and matcha, topped with gold leaf. The aromatic, gentle drink makes for a perfect match with the refined, almost dignified atmosphere. 

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Bars and pubs

Star Bar Ginza: Hisashi Kishi

icon-location-pin Ginza

Hisashi Kishi broke into the bartending spotlight back in 1996, when he took home the International Bar Association's world championship title at the age of 31. Now also an accomplished author and minor celebrity, he is one of Ginza's most impressive barmen, both in terms of physical appearance and technical skill.

Kishi's kingdom is a quiet basement spot on Namiki-dori, where everything – from the handcrafted ice cubes to the amber counter and exclusive leather stools – exudes a desire for perfection. Down one of his drinks and you’ll be hooked on the exquisitely assembled, almost scientifically precise mixtures that make for the perfect end to a hot summer day.

Bars and pubs, Cocktail bars

Bar Hoshi: Yuichi Hoshi

icon-location-pin Ginza

He may not be the most famous of Ginza's many bartending greats, but Yuichi Hoshi certainly counts among the most successful. In addition to this signature boozer, he operates five other bars in the area, so catching this master can often be quite a challenge – the only way to confirm his whereabouts is to call around and ask.

Having started his career in Utsunomiya (known as ‘Cocktail Town’ in some circles), Hoshi worked his way up in Ginza before becoming a private entrepreneur. He now also runs bars in Utsunomiya and his home town of Aizu-Wakamatsu up in Fukushima, educating an entire unit of future mix masters. Mr Hoshi's tour de force is the Sakura Sakura, the cocktail that netted him a World Cocktail Championship in 2011.

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Bars and pubs

Bar Heath: Takamasa Okawa

icon-location-pin Kunitachi

Way back in the day, Takamasa Okawa was a café owner. However, a visit to Shinbashi’s legendary Tony’s Bar converted him to the wonders of Scotch, eventually leading Okawa to open this bar that’s now been catering to the whisky needs of Kunitachi residents for around three decades.

Leading a quiet existence in a basement not far from the station, the place is a lot more spacious than it looks and gets an added touch of class from the veteran bartender’s indomitable presence. If you're not into single malts, try ordering the Shamrock whisky cocktail and watch the mix master in action.

Bars and pubs, Cocktail bars

Cocktail & Wine Kiyomi: Kaoru Hasegawa

icon-location-pin Oimachi

Originally from Tatebayashi in Gunma prefecture, Kaoru Hasegawa was a regular at that city’s only Western-style bar when the head of the establishment encouraged him to enter the world of bartending. After a few years toiling in Ginza, he set up Oimachi’s Kiyomi in 1964 – the year of the first Tokyo Olympics.

Boasting plenty of space for laidback sipping, it gets crowded every single night, so consider heading over early to secure a seat at the counter and settle in to watch Hasegawa work his cocktail magic. The gin fizz is the master’s personal favourite, and the drink he served to his first customer, but we recommend Hasegawa’s margarita – a masterpiece that’s set to be quaffed long after this city’s second Olympics are over.

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Bars and pubs

Superior: Hitoshi Yoshida

icon-location-pin Ginza

One of the oldest continuously operating cocktail bars in Ginza, the Superior was founded in 1940 and exudes nostalgic charm. The resident master is Hitoshi Yoshida, grandson of former sailor Sakujiro Yoshida, who opened the original Superior in Yokohama. His establishment was named after Lake Superior, presumably because one of Sakujiro’s former bosses came from America’s Great Lakes region.  

The bar’s signboard dates back to Superior’s former incarnation, a brick-and-mortar space not far from the current location, but Yoshida himself is as much a part of the watering hole’s history as that old piece of wood. As a fourth-generation owner, he still mixes drinks for some of the same regulars that knew his grandfather. Don’t miss out on the Saudade cocktail, a Yoshida family original.

Bars and pubs, Cocktail bars

Caesarion: Toshiaki Tanaka

icon-location-pin Yoyogi-Uehara

It’s the kind of place that makes you wish you lived in Yoyogi-Uehara: the imperially named Caesarion is lorded over by Toshiaki Tanaka, a veteran of Ochanomizu’s classic Hilltop Hotel and L’Osier in Ginza, often mentioned as one of the best French restaurants in all of Tokyo. There, Tanaka trained under Tender’s Kazuo Ueda before opening his own joint in 1993.

Now something of a local institution in the neighbourhood, the stern barman’s kingdom is a stylish, almost pathologically clean shrine to classic cocktails. It may be only a quick stroll from Yoyogi Park, but don’t try traipsing through the door in picnic attire – at least a button-down shirt is required. 

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Bars and pubs, Hotel bars

Bar Oak: Hisashi Sugimoto

icon-location-pin Marunouchi

Hotel bars usually aren't very inspiring places, especially if you're not staying at the establishment in question. But the Tokyo Station Hotel's boozer sure isn't like most hotel bars: moved to its current location after a six-year renovation completed in 2012, it incorporates red bricks and wood in the décor and is manned by Hisashi Sugimoto, who's been with the hotel since 1958.

This master mixes up his signature Tokyo Station cocktails from 5pm every day – if you don’t want to queue, best be there on time for the chance to grab a counter seat and watch Sugimoto work his magic up close. Once you’re halfway through his showpiece drink, squeeze some lime into the mixture: the change of taste is supposed to symbolise a train leaving the station.

Bars and pubs, Cocktail bars

Bar Radio: Koji Ozaki

icon-location-pin Aoyama

Radio is quite unlike any other watering hole in Aoyama. Bartender Koji Ozaki has been in the business for over four decades and is an attraction all for himself: prepare for painstakingly prepared mixtures, best enjoyed quietly at the counter with the glass – and the master’s words – capturing your entire focus.

As every detail at Radio is a result of Ozaki's strict aesthetics, you won't want to disrupt the harmony (read: wear your Sunday best). This is also one of the few serious Tokyo bars to prohibit smoking, mainly because the cocktails are supposed to be enjoyed with all five senses. Nowadays, Ozaki himself divides his time between Tokyo and Kyoto, only manning the counter on around ten nights per month while leaving day-to-day management to his many apprentices.

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Bars and pubs

Erika: Kenji Nakamura

icon-location-pin Ginza

Celebrating his 80th birthday this year, master bartender Kenji Nakamura may be among the oldest of Ginza's cocktail champions, but his touch shows no signs of decline: in 2010, he took home the title of Best International Bartender at the Maker's Mark International Bartender Competition in Kentucky with the Beautiful Dream. This mixture of bourbon, peach liqueur, peach syrup, fresh lemon juice and acerola juice is the stuff of legends and keeps Nakamura's fan club coming back to Erika, opened in 1968 and still going strong.

Tamasaburau

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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