Only a decade ago, the world of Japanese bartending was an almost exclusively male domain. But times have changed – for the better, most would argue – and finding a woman mixing drinks behind a Tokyo counter is no longer a rarity. Not only that, the emergence of the fairer sex has truly taken the bar industry by storm, with Japan’s female professionals bringing home prize after prize at international cocktail competitions in recent years.
As one of the capital’s renowned master bartenders laughingly puts it: ‘These women have both grit and charm. Maybe the time of men is over altogether.’ But that’s not to say Tokyo’s bar beauties have it easy: here, we shine the spotlight on ten determined ladies mixing up classic cocktails, and chat to them about the joys, hardships and endless allure of the profession. Read on for where to meet the transcendent ten, or take a moment for yourself at one of the best Tokyo bars for drinking alone.
Photos by Kisa Toyoshima and Keisuke Tanigawa. Translated by Ili Saarinen
The top ten
After taking home top honours at the 2012 All-Japan Bartender Technical Competition, Naomi Takahashi became the first Japanese woman to win a grand prize at the prestigious IBA World Cocktail Championships – her Wisteria was named Best Aperitif in Prague back in 2013. And to complete the trifecta, that world-conquering feat also netted Takahashi the Ryoma Award, a considerably less serious trophy given to the Kochi native by her home prefecture for ‘being a talent on the level of Sakamoto Ryoma’ (referring of course to the samurai hero who helped overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate).
But even after being showered with praise, Takahashi remains humble, recognising that technique comes only second in her profession – as she makes clear, ‘a bartender has to be an expert in human nature.’ Formerly a Ginza office worker, her introduction to the world of drink-mixing came at a local shot bar; in order to kickstart her own bartending career, she moved back to Kochi and took a position at a local hotel. A decade out in the boonies prepared her for the All-Japan challenge in 2012, and the experience sure did pay off.
Having opened her own Ginza bar only ten months ago, Takahashi is currently working hard to raise Gaslight Eve’s profile. Her staff of three consists exclusively of women, while most customers here also represent the fairer sex. ‘Women can be tough on their own kind, so I’m very happy about the recognition I seem to have earned,’ smiles Takahashi. She encourages more women to take up the bartending craft, and says she’s happy to share her secrets with the next generation. Be that as it may, we have a hard time seeing any young snapper overtaking this champion any time soon.
One of Tokyo’s truly legendary boozers, the Palace Hotel’s Royal has produced numerous master barmen during a history that reaches back to 1961. It’s currently lorded over by Manabu Ohtake, who was named Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year in 2011, while also counting one woman among its staff. This pioneering lady is Normandie-born Sabine Nakamura, who first came to the Palace two years ago as an exchange student from a concierge school in Paris. Having worked part-time at a bar in the City of Light, she quickly convinced her Japanese superiors and was eventually allowed to train at the Royal.
Eager to learn from her world-conquering boss, she recounts how ‘I was fascinated by Ohtake – how his passion swept customers off their feet.’ After graduating, she returned to Japan and to her old counter, winning a permanent position as the Royal’s first-ever woman bartender. Interested in perfumes from an early age, Nakamura took naturally to mixing drinks. When asked about her reasons for working in Japan, she compares bartending here to the tea ceremony: ‘I’d like to build a solid skill base first, and then incorporate American and French influences to create my own style.’ For Nakamura, ‘Japanese bars are like sushi restaurants: your work and behaviour need to maintain a high standard. Bartenders are like artists, who bring the alcohol into harmony.’ But she also recognises ‘the importance of tending to our regulars – I need to remember them all’.
On our visit, she mixed us a jack rose with French calvados – a fine drink for a relative rookie. Under the tutorship of Ohtake, this diamond in the rough is sure to shine ever brighter in the years to come.
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.
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.
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.
‘I get terribly sleepy at around 11pm.’ That sure sounds like a problem for a bartender, and Sakura Ara of Shibaura’s Socie names it as the hardest part of her job. Unlike many of her colleagues, who lament the physical challenges of constantly being on your feet, Ara has no stamina issues – as long as she can keep her eyes open.
Eager for a restaurant industry career, she started out in a kitchen, baked pastries and honed her customer service skills before taking an interest in fruit cocktails: ‘I noticed that mixing such drinks was very similar to making sweets.’ Her first behind-the-counter experience came at a bar in Omori, from where Ara, now in her fourth year of practising the profession, moved to her current perch in Shibaura.
‘Working in the kitchen, you won’t know how customers react to your cooking. Making pastries takes a long time and there’s no immediate reward, but it’s different with cocktails – interacting with and watching customers enjoy my drinks is what I love about this line of work.’ Admitting that patrons’ opinions influence her approach, Ara, just like her colleagues, emphasises the interpersonal nature of bartending.
Aiming to follow in the footsteps of fellow Omori native Yuko Miyazaki (of Tenderly fame), Ara hopes to one day open a bar in her home neighbourhood, and currently devotes herself to studying the art of cocktails. We’re sure she’ll succeed before long – although starting every shift with a caffeine injection would probably boost her career even further.
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.