The top ten
A vocational school graduate, Tochigi-born Kana Ogasawara initially took up a job in the clothing industry but gave up fashion for drink-mixing after becoming enchanted with the bartending profession. Having completed three years of training, she moved to Tokyo to try her luck in the big leagues but quickly run into difficulties: a chronic tonsil infection led to frequent fevers, preventing the graceful cocktail artist from perfecting her art.
But an operation swept her health problems away, and now the talkative Ogasawara has become a regulars’ favourite at the Mita outpost of Hibiya Bar. Frequented by both salarymen and students, her haunt gets more than a little noisy in the evenings, when groups of imbibers from nearby offices and universities stop by to drown their sorrows.
On her days off, Ogasawara focuses on her studies, often visiting competitors’ counters for inspiration. She aims to one day open a place of her own up in Tochigi – ‘a homely bar, a spot that’ll cheer you up after a long day’ – and is well on her way to mastering an essential bartending skill: making her customers feel relaxed, happy and carefree.
Owned by former All-Japan champion Takeshi Yoshimoto, Sherlock opened as recently as July 2016. For former hotel bar employee Ayumi Mizota, first hired to oversee the opening, mixing drinks at a brick-and-mortar bar comes with quite a few new challenges. Having entered the world of cocktails as a booze-loving student turned part-time bartender, she took a position at a hotel near Shizuoka’s Lake Hamana after graduation, and fought hard to secure her preferred position behind the bar. After a later stint at a members-only hotel in Odaiba, she answered Yoshimoto’s call earlier this year.
‘Bartending is physically tougher than I thought – you need stamina, your skin suffers…but I’ve been able to stay healthy, so I think I’m cut out for this line of work.’ On learning from a champion, Mizota praises Yoshimoto’s ‘broad horizons – no matter how busy, he takes the time to look each customer in the eye and make them feel at home’. Although recognising she still has plenty to learn, this up-and-comer is already looking forward to ‘having customers come to the bar to visit me. I do want to improve my technique and win competitions, but the social interaction is what I really enjoy.’
Tokyo’s women bartenders come from a multitude of backgrounds: some of them used to be office workers, secretaries or public officials, while others were rocket scientists or ballerinas. And then there’s Erika Oguri, a former idol from the sprawling AKB48 system. Having played piano since the age of three and violin from seven, her background is firmly in music – which is also reflected in the name of this bar.
After moving to Tokyo and entering the AKB ‘factory’, Oguri had to find a part-time job to support herself – being an ‘idol’ is hardly a lucrative profession – and soon started working at a cigar bar. Singing and dancing eventually lost out to smoke-rolling, and she embarked on a bartender’s career. But those idol years weren’t wasted, as Oguri soon discovered – chatting with customers actually isn’t that different from dealing with fans, she notes.
Having refined her technique, Oguri started preparations for opening her own joint; this dream was realised with Algernon Sinfonia. Here, she focuses on honing the interpersonal skills so crucial for a bartender, and hopes to become the kind of trusted proprietor with whom customers always feel comfortable. She plans to continue mixing drinks even after getting married and having kids, and hopes to keep her bar running for as long as at all possible.
One of the best-stocked rum bars in all of Tokyo, Screwdriver has over 500 bottles on offer and a bourbon list that's almost as impressive. With an all-wood interior and space for just a dozen people, it’s the very definition of cosy, while the location means that it's only a quick stumble back to Kichijoji Station once you're done. Another highlight is provided by energetic bartender Keiko Tezuka, who is aiming to ‘keep going until I’m a grandma – that should be enough to make me a neighbourhood legend’.
Born in Akita prefecture, Tezuka moved to Tokyo is search of opportunity and initially ended up in the real estate business. Living in Kichijoji, she would often hang out in bars and pubs alone at night, striking up conversation with the bartenders. She’d ask them about motivation, and one barman’s reply left a particularly strong impression: ‘There are 24 hours in a day. If you’re going to work for half of that, you’d better pick an enjoyable job.’
This encounter – and one particularly well-executed gin tonic – eventually convinced Tezuka to switch careers. But things proved a little more challenging than she had expected: after frequently staying up all night practicing, she still had a hard time with even the simplest of mixtures. Deciding to try something a little different, Tezuka left the cocktail havens of Ginza for a whisky bar in Shinjuku, and later fell in love with the world of rum after a chance encounter at Screwdriver – her current haunt.
And it’s all paying off now: while still polishing her skills, Tezuka recently finished second in a domestic contest for rum-focused bartenders, and hopes that her example can inspire more women to take up the drink-mixing profession. This is a rising star we’ll be watching closely from here on.
In George Roy Hill’s classic heist flick The Sting (1973), Paul Newman’s protagonist fills a bottle of Gordon’s Gin with water to fool his counterpart and win a bet. It’s a scene familiar only to film buffs of a certain age – a group that includes bartender Mika Nakahiro, whose joint is named after the movie in question. Her signature drink, meanwhile, is the Water Flower, which breaks with cocktail convention in incorporating pure water but really hits you on the way down. Newman’s Henry ‘Shaw’ Gondorff would surely approve.
Hailing from Matsuyama in Ehime prefecture, Nakahiro started out in the clothing industry before setting her sights on opening a café. However, when looking for a part-time job in Tokyo, she ended up a bar employee and soon fell for booze, counter-side chats and fine cigars. In an age where baristas mix up cocktails and barmen study the secrets of coffee, her choice didn’t feel out of place at all.
Nakahiro hopes her establishment can be the kind of place where customers come to lighten their mood and ‘leave their troubles on the counter’. As is tradition at most Shinjuku bars, everyone from corporate executives to students are treated equally at Sting. Stop by next time you’re in the area, but be careful not to fall for the seductively smiling master.
Saying that a desire for self-realisation inspired Eri Kimura to take up bartending wouldn’t be far off: having worked part-time in an office during her student years, this aspiring musician simply didn’t feel like following in the footsteps of so many of her peers and devoting her waking hours to some mega-corporation. Instead, even before graduating from university, she opted to enter the world of mixed drinks.
‘Bartending isn’t that different from making music – you need to create something and then have it appraised by someone else.’ Kimura’s conviction led her to study the art of whisky before taking up a permanent position behind the Lidemo counter this April. While still struggling with the finer details of customer service, she is clearly well on her way to mastering the art of convincing both regulars and first-timers to come back to her digs over and over.
Originally from Osaka, Kimura used to not stand out in a crowd, but she says that bartending has helped her become more confident and aware of herself. Such mental growth is reflected in her cocktails, served from behind a snappy seven-seat counter deep in a Kagurazaka alleyway.
Shinbashi is best known as the bar-hopping circuit of choice for Tokyo's hordes of middle-aged salarymen, but the area is home to more than just cheap izakayas and folksy yakitori joints. Take Anaheim, a classic cocktail spot run by the steely Ryoko Yamamoto. A 14-year veteran of Shinbashi, she knows how to get even bumbling drunks to order refined mixtures – and the plentiful table seats at her bar are only part of the equation.
A former shop clerk at Shibuya’s 109, Yamamoto is quite the perfectionist. Also skilled in leather crafts, she uses only the finest equipment – an attitude that’s obviously reflected in her mixtures as well. ‘Cocktails can’t be perfected, so it’s a constant struggle. I think every bartender feels that.’ She is adamant about upholding tradition, and tries her best to avoid obsessive tweaking: ‘The classics are in constant danger of being lost, so I think being able to mix the truly orthodox choices is crucial.’
Nowadays, some food – particularly French cuisine – is so avant-garde that people have a hard time figuring out if it’s actually tasty or not. Yamamoto claims the same is true for cocktails: in the end, the tried and tested rule the day. Such a stern attitude sure comes in handy in Shinbashi, where a woman bartender gets marriage offers from inebriated office drones practically every night. Yamamoto brushes all suggestions off with a bemused ‘yeah, yeah’ while waving goodbye to departing imbibers.
Chiharu Ono sure is one tough lady: while most people wouldn’t even consider running a regular marathon, this bartender-come-athlete is currently training for the Marathon des Sables, a gruelling 230km, seven-day race through the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco. It was that same steely determination that inspired her to quit an office job and pursue the drink-mixing dream she already gave up on once in her early 20s.
After completing a bartending course while working part time, Ono stepped things up straight away by opening her own joint seven years ago. Setting up a bar without any real behind-the-counter experience was quite the move, but Smalllest Bar (yes, with three Ls) has proved a hit in Fukagawa – not least thanks to Ono’s prowess with tequila-based drinks. And her regulars are a fiercely loyal bunch, having already donated almost the entire 3,600-euro (¥400,000) amount required for entry to the Marathon des Sables. Now all there’s left for Ono is to make her native Kinshicho proud.
You might as well call it the bar at the centre of Japan. The closest watering hole to Ginza’s iconic Yonchome intersection, Grace is run by Kenta Nohara, an apprentice of master Kenji Nakamura at nearby Erika. Nohara’s underlings, on the other hand, include fifth-year up-and-comer Akane Yoshizumi. Following her barista sister into the hospitality business, this hotel academy graduate has found the life of a bartender rather challenging – in part because she isn’t very fond of actually drinking alcohol.
Even a simple-looking cocktail requires countless attempts to get right, but not being able to taste each specimen makes the task infinitely harder. Nonetheless, Yoshizumi isn’t about to give up: she’s aiming to break out on her own in the not too distant future, and is currently saving practically all of her meagre salary for the purpose. Always looking ahead, she has even started assembling a bottle collection of her own.
On our visit, she mixed up a competent version of the classic sidecar – not a drink most Ginza bartenders would choose for a photo shoot, but the first cocktail that supposedly brought Yoshizumi to tears. Try it and you just might have the same reaction.
Having watched over Kinshicho’s Old Scot for 17 of its 28 years in business, Tomomi Shibuya is quite the veteran among Tokyo’s drink-mixing women. A jovial rakugo fan always on the lookout for new jokes to tell her regulars, she dropped out of university and ended up a bartender almost by accident: ‘It wasn’t like I was particularly fond of booze. I just thought it would be cool to be able to mix up drinks.’
Fresh out of bartending school, she was desperate for a job and even wrote an essay for the owner at Old Scot – something that just might have helped her over the edge. Not quite sure what has kept her going for so long, Shibuya notes she likes to memorise stuff. This interest recently led her to study for a whisky-related certificate, but apparently it isn’t all smooth sailing: ‘I need to pen an essay first, unfortunately.’
Despite her flair for comedy, Shibuya is very serious about the job. ‘First, you need to stay true to the basics. Come to work even if you’re hung over, clean, don’t mess up with the money.’ All important pieces of wisdom for the next generation of bar ladies, we’re sure.
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.