Friday, August 24, 2012

Japan times - part 5: Ginza cocktail bars, Tokyo

I recently spent two-and-a-half weeks in Japan, eating and drinking my way through a destination I've wanted to visit for more than a decade. This is the fifth of several posts of food, booze and sights in Japan.

Street sign in Ginza, Tokyo, Japan
Ginza. It's a place you learn about in high school Japanese classes, renowned for high end shopping.

The wide, clean streets didn't seem too busy on an early weekday afternoon but there were a fair few Japanese housewives out shopping: the modern ones with designer shopping bags dangling from their perfectly manicured hands, but also the traditional, kimono-clad ladies walking slowly but with purpose.

Side street at Ginza
While I'd love to drop a house deposit's worth of savings on the latest designer shoes and bags, there was more attainable luxuries in the streets just behind the main road of Ginza.

Lined with short and tall buildings, it was the extensive and small signage in front of the street's buildings that was most interesting. Some required binoculars to read, but within the countless signs hide bars and other liveliness that had to be discovered and found, before being seen and believed.

Hai-booru - whisky highball
Somewhere that I'll probably never find again, we started simply. Young Japanese guys and girls alike seem fond of the hai-booru, which is apparently a recent drinking phenomenon.

Basically just a whisky and soda served in a highball glass, it took marketing geniuses at one of the Japanese whisky producers to brand the simple mixed drink a hai-booru before the local Scotch-style whisky market really took off with the younger generation of drinkers.

Main road in Ginza by night
There is some very serious cocktail talent in Japan, with a number of bars run by internationally-renowned bartenders right in Ginza, usually in a building complex with a bunch of other booze and entertainment venues.

We had a plan of attack with a list of about five bars to visit in an evening, all mapped out after some much-needed hotel concierge and street directory assistance. Good eyesight and some basic reading of Japanese hiragana/katakana also came in handy for reading the small signs outside the buildings.

Perhaps needless to say, we forgot about dinner and only made it to two bars.

Signature City Coral cocktail at Tender Bar, Ginza
We almost crept into the quiet doorway of Tender Bar from the lift, to be greeted by a white-jacketed young fellow who spoke a little English. We sat at the bar, taking heed of the cover charge for non-regulars, and ordered cocktails, which is when Kazuo Ueda emerged from a curtained back room almost ceremoniously.

Ueda is the big name behind Tender Bar, and renowned in serious bartending circles for his signature 'hard shake' - a cocktail shaking method that is meant to result in cocktails with a softer, milder alcohol taste. In the presence of bartending royalty, I had to order one of his signature cocktails that featured the hard shake, and unknowingly, a couple of brightly coloured liqueurs too.

Aside from the dramatic Blue Curacao tinted salt rim and crust on the outside of the flute, the City Coral had gin, grapefruit juice and Midori. In a way the salt crust made sense as an alternative flavour to the very Midori-sweet cocktail; although the fried pea snacks were helpful too.

Old Fashioned cocktail
Even a classic cocktail, the Old Fashioned, got a new look and treatment, with a nearly over the top garnish of orange, lemon and lime slices. Served with a spoon to stir the ice, the departure from a traditional recipe was interesting and brave.

By now we'd been joined at the bar by pairs of locals: an older Japanese couple, regulars, drinking whisky and a Campari soda; the guy lighting up a cigar in the small, neat room. There were a couple of young businessmen with ties over their shoulders and further down, two young females taking photos of their Tender Bar experience.

Gin Martini
After the intriguing City Coral, I retreated to the safety of classics - a dry gin martini, with Ueda almost warning me that it's a "strong" drink. Stirred quickly on ice with a touch of vermouth, it was Beefeater Gin that sent the icily good kick in the very dainty, small glass.

We were replenished with new snacks on our second round of drinks; a tasty mix of nuts and crackers, making me wonder if the snacks kept upgrading to the point of a steak or something.

While the noise in the bar had picked up a little from the stiff, empty start, there was still a quiet reverence about the small crowd which almost watched Ueda's every move. He was also the only one making cocktails, with his associates fetching bottles, garnishes and utensils in anticipation for him.

One can definitely understand and feel the nobility in which Ueda goes about his work; his pride adding an inimitable flavour to his cocktails.

Whiskey options at Doulton Bar, Ginza
The second bar on the hit list, Doulton Bar, was a reputable and industry-recognised whiskey bar in a pretty obscure looking building; one where a little katakana reading was handy in finding the outdoor building sign.

It was an insightful experience: firstly, entering the building at an incorrect level and peering into one of the rooms/venues where a formally dressed lady sang and danced for the entertainment of a few business men. It was all clean, but enlightening nonetheless.

Inside Doulton Bar
At the right building level, we headed to a closed wooden door, with some signage representing Doulton Bar. Pushing open the heavy door, we revealed a small bottle-lined space, and a single person sitting at the bar sipping a short drink.

He shuffled into his place behind the bar, his bar, and asked us to take two of the probably six or eight seats at the bar, and mind you, the only seats in the entire venue. The bar was small, probably 7 x 4 metres, and had more bottles of whiskey than a whiskey drinker could poke a stick at.

Minoru Kokuzawa, owner of Doulton Bar
Minoru Kokuzawa, a life bartender we later learnt, had owned and worked in Doulton Bar for the last 40 years. One of two of his bars, the place had a capacity of about 16 people and was completely empty on the early weekday we visited.

He doesn't speak any English other than the essential: martini, Manhattan, whiskey, bitters. My high school Japanese went some way, but not nearly enough to capture the 40 years of life and experiences behind a Ginza bar.

We veered towards classics, and because it really wasn't the environment for a Cosmopolitan. Indeed, Kokuzawa-san and I even had a basic level chat about mojitos and lychees flavours in cocktails; the latter which he didn't seem to abhor but also didn't seem to understand its popularity.

He makes a martini without ice, his signature if you will. Made a little dirty with a bar spoon of olive brine, the chilled gin is stirred with a smidgen of vermouth and a dash of orange bitters, which is not the norm but perhaps the unusual is what it takes to stand out in Tokyo.

Canapes at Doulton Bar
As we sat enjoying, essentially, our very own bar and bartender, we could see Kokuzawa working on something behind the bar. Several minutes later, he presented us with a delightfully refined and retro plate of canapes.

Egg and anchovy, and pate and olive have never looked or tasted so sophisticated as in the Doutlon Bar setting. Essentially our dinner for the night, we made a quick meal of it over martinis, Manhattans and laugh-filled bi-lingual conversations.

According to a hazy memory and some photos, there were a couple more martinis at Doulton Bar, and plenty of blank faces and "wakarimasen's" in the night, of which half of it didn't quite make it to my personal memory bank.

However, the parts I do remember at Doulton Bar - Kokuzawa's friendly, smiling face; his passion and generosity; the first sip of his martini - will stay with me forever.

Plenty more Japan posts to come; in the meantime, see more photos on my Facebook page.

3 comments:

Jacq said...

I'm intrigued by the 'hard shake' method - it'd be interesting to find out if it actually does soften the taste of the alcohol consistently. I'm glad that nothing weird was going on when you got out at the wrong level lol!

Mel Piggy said...

I'm loving these Japan posts and the Doutlon Bar just seems adorably wonderful. I want to go to Japan - I wonder if I should try and learn some basic Japanese??? Also, what area/hotel did you stay in (you may have said already, but my memory fails me in my old age).

Tina said...

Hi Jacq - Yeah, though it was hard to tell when there was Midori in the mix... :/

Hi Mel - Thanks! I think Japanese is handy but not crucial in Tokyo. Other areas there's a little less English spoken. In Tokyo, we stayed in Shinjuku :)

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