Blue Moon in Tokyo

Image

A new craft beer, Blue Moon, has arrived to Tokyo. Blue Moon is something we drank from time to time when we lived in New York City. It’s refreshing, citrusy, and light on the palate. I can imagine that it will be very popular in Japan. Craft beers in Japan are very hot with many new bars opening up serving a variety of domestic and imported craft beer. Blue Moon’s timing could not be better for entering the market in Japan.

Blue Moon2

Keith Villa, head brewmaster and founder of Blue Moon, was recently in Tokyo to launch the craft beer in its newest destination. The first venues to carry Blue Moon include:

Craft Hands in Azabu Juban

Tavern Meat and Bakery in Naka-Meguro

Craftheads in Shibuya

Cataratas in Shibuya

Beard in Meguro

Mardi Gras in Ginza

Blue Moon3

Unfortunately Blue Moon is currently only being sold at bars. Hopefully it will be soon sold retail. I did get a bottle to bring home, along with an orange, at the launch party. I was inspired to make a carpaccio style dish using the orange. This simple octopus carpaccio with an orange vinaigrette was a nice partner to Blue Moon. Blue Moon has hints of orange, coriander and is creamy. Welcome to Tokyo – look forward to seeing you around town at more places.

Tokyo’s Top Places to Drink

Izakaya 居酒屋 are literally places to have something to drink. When I was working as a sommelier at the New York Bar and Grill at the Park Hyatt Tokyo my shift would end late at night, well after dinner. I would often stop by a local izakaya for a beer and some small bites. What made this one so special was the friendly mama-san. I was always welcomed and the food was all made by okaasan. Good izakayas should be just this, offering good food and drinks, and making the customer feel comfortable.

Tokyo is also home to some of the world’s top mixologists at places like Star Bar Ginza  or Bar Tender. These will be covered in a separate post. For now, here are my favorite places to have a drink in Tokyo.

  1. A popular izakaya in the nostalgic shitamachi district of Morishita, Yamariki 山利喜  was introduced to me by Japan’s first Master Sommelier Ned Goodwin. Ned brought me here one night to drink French wines with izakaya cuisine. Yamariki has a sommelier on staff, Mizukami-san who will gladly pair wine with your order. One night here I ran into John Gauntner, who said the restaurant also has a great selection of nihonshu. Yamariki is also known for its nikomi, soy-simmered innards, which has been made with the same broth for over forty years. It is also known for its yakiton or grilled pork bits (like yakitori but made with pork instead of chicken). Koto-ku, Morishita 2-18-8.
  2. Sasagin 笹吟 has one of the better selections of nihonshu in the city and exquisite fare to go with it. Best of all, if you ask them to help you select interesting ones to try they will. It is very popular so reservations are highly recommended. Shibuya-ku, Uehara 1-32-15.
  3. For wine I love Maru マル because of its value. Next door to the standing bar is a wine shop. Pick up a bottle there and the corkage fee is only 500 yen at the bar. It feels a bit like a European wine bar with food like cured ham and cheese but there is also a grill station on the second floor for grilled skewers. There are also seats on the second floor. Chuo-ku, Hatchobori 3-22-10.
  4. Buri is a popular standing bar near Ebisu. I come here for the one cup sake, a selection of about 30 to choose from. Small plates to share, seasonal seafood, and some grilled meats. Ask for the frozen sake which is almost like a slushy. (I don’t think the brand I had was Hakutsuru, but this video shows you what the slushy looks like.)  Shibuya-ku, Ebisu-Nishi 1-14-1.
  5. Everyone needs at least one reliable place for beer and my go-to bar is The Harajuku Taproom. Delicious craft beer by the talented Bryan Baird and kushiyaki (grilled meats and vegetables). It is also conveniently located just off of Takeshita Dori, a few minutes’ walk from Harajuku station. There is also a location in Naka-Meguro. To educate your palate, try small cups of a variety of his beer. You won’t be disappointed. Shibuya-ku, Jingumae 1-20-13, No Surrender Bldg. 2F
  6. Saiseisakaba 再生酒場 is the place to go if you are into innards. From sashimi to simmered to grilled, you’ll find a wide selection to choose from. My personal favorite shop is in Monzennakacho but there is also a branch at the Shin Maru Building near Tokyo station. Alternatively, the Shinjuku branch too is a lot of fun. I usually drink shochu as it is a great partner for the offal. Shinjuku-ku, Shinjuku 3-7-3. www.ishii-world.jp/brand/motsu/nihonsaisei/shinjuku3/ 
  7. Located in the heart of Ginza, Sake no Ana 酒の穴 is on John Gauntner’s great book, The Sake Handbook. I came across it as I was looking for a place to try a variety of nihonshu over lunch and this was the only place that was open. I called ahead and was told that there was a kikizakeshi (sake sommelier) on staff and that he would be there for lunch. Sakamoto-san gave us exactly what we were looking for, a variety of different nihonshu. The evening menu is also available at lunch if you ask for it. Traditional izakaya bites like grilled himono (salted and air-dried fish), natto omelet, and much more. Chuo-ku, Ginza 3-5-8.
  8. It is a bit of a journey to Ikejiri Ohashi, but well worth it to get to Tsukushinoko つくしのこ. One of my favorite nights out learning about nihonshu with beer writer (and nihonshu aficionado) Bryan Harrell. It feels very local and cozy inside and the selection of nihonshu is great. Staff are also very knowledgeable and can help guide you through a variety of sips. Typical izakaya fare – ask for a nabe (hot pot) in the winter time, you won’t be disappointed. Meguro-ku, Higashiyama 3-1-11.
  9. If you are looking for somewhere to celebrate an occasion then the New York Bar & Grill in the Park Hyatt Tokyo is on top of my list. Perhaps you’ll recognize it from Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. The high ceilings and the spectacular views from the 52nd floor are breathtaking. My recommendation is to go just before sunset so that you can see the lights come up on the city as it sparkles below you. I used to work here, and I am even more convinced that this is one of Tokyo’s special places. Shinjuku-ku, Nishi-Shinjuku 3-7-1-2.
  10. A good martini and burger can be found at beacon in Aoyama. One of Tokyo’s top chefs, David Chiddo not only makes a great burger, he also knows his martinis. David’s Perfect Martini is made from one of my favorite gins, Hendricks. Parent company T.Y. Express is also the owner of the brewery TY Harbor, making really good beer, which is also on the menu here at beacon. Solo diners can sit at the bar and enjoy their martini and burger. Shibuya-ku, Shibuya 1-2-5.

Book Review – Drinking Japan by Chris Bunting

Drinking Japan

Drinking Japan

This indispensible guide will become the bible for anyone passionate about Japanese beverages. Regardless if your preference is for shochu or nihonshu, Chris has covered it all. Clearly written by a reporter, no detail is overlooked, and the information is easy to understand. The descriptions of each bar transports you there and he even includes specific drinks to try once you get there. The bars are not limited to Tokyo but he also guides you on major cities including Sapporo, Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto, and where to go in Okinawa.

I know this book is a winner as many of my Tokyo favorites are included such as the New York Bar & Grill in the Park Hyatt Tokyo, he even mentions to come as the sun is setting, which is what I recommend to all of my friends. Buchi, Buri, Maru, Akaoni, Taproom, Takara, and Sasagin are other favorites that are included in this guidebook. He definitely has his pulse on the bar scene in Japan.

There are also a slew of bars that are new to me that are on my list to check out that include Shusaron for its collection of koshu (aged nihonshu), Garari and its impressive kokuto shochu list, and Cheese and Wine Salon Murase in Ginza. And although I am not much of a whisky drinker, just reading his chapter on Japanese whisky has me thirsty to visit some of the bars listed in the book.

As for covering beverages he definitely has a well-trained palate that I would trust. He recommends Bryan Baird’s beers and in the Q&A below his favorite awamori at the moment is Shirayuri, also one of my favorites. Just knowing this I am confident in reading his notes on the beverages written about in Drinking Japan.

The chapter on the drinking culture that is to be found in Japan is essential reading for anyone who will be drinking in Japan. And Chris explains why Japan is truly is a drinker’s paradise. While other books go into greater detail on nihonshu, he more than covers the base on what readers need to know when drinking nihonshu in Japan. The same goes for shochu, awamori, beer, wine, and whisky.

One of my favorite parts of the book are his directions on finding each bar. Essential information as I have found myself on numerous occasions lost, and I have a good sense of direction.

Chris is quick to point out others who have helped him along this journey, including professionals like John Gauntner, Bryan Harrell, Phred Kaufman, and many more.

This book will become a reference book for drinks in Japan. I have already dog-eared many pages for my next night in Tokyo. For those who do not read Japanese, there is essential Japanese in the book for names of beverages and addresses for bars, which will help you while on your evenings out. Even if you are not physically in Japan, the information presented on the different beverages alone makes it worth investing in. A portion of the proceeds are going to Japan Earthquake Relief.

Chris was kind enough to answer some questions posted below. Very insightful answers – see his suggestions for nursing a hangover and why he would not open a bar in Japan.

Drinking Japan – A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments

By Chris Bunting

Tuttle Publishing

272 pages

$24.95 (2127 JPY on Amazon Japan)

For more information, check out his website: http://drinkingjapan.com/

1. What drink do you have at the end of a long day?

Depending on the mood, I might have a glass of beer or something a bit stronger: whisky, awamori or shochu. Recent favourites have been a bottle of Shirayuri awamori from Ishigaki island, which has delicious unctuousness that I find really relaxing, and a bottle of Japanese grain Kawasaki whisky from the independent brand Ichiro’s Malts.

2. If a tourist is coming to Tokyo and only has time to visit five bars which five would you recommend?

I am going to blather a bit before I answer your question because I want to make clear that I don’t think it is possible to come up with any definitive list of top bars in Tokyo. I went to hundreds of bars for the book and the one thing I discovered was the foolishness of my initial objective of finding the “100 plus best bars.” Everywhere I went I seemed to get a new recommendation for a hidden gem. Japan’s, and particularly Tokyo’s, alcohol culture has a boundless energy about it and it just cannot be nailed down. There are new places popping up all the time. I found myself writing at the end of the guide that all my recommendations were just my favourites from the small slice of Japan’s alcohol life that I had been able to experience, and urging readers to use the book to get out and discover their own new places. That said, six (I am cheating) of my favorites at this point are Shot Bar Zoetrope, a Japanese whisky bar near Shinjuku station; Shusaron, a bar specialising in aged sake near Shinagawa station; The Aldgate, a great pub with good craft beer in Shibuya; Katakura, an izakaya near Ichigaya station with a great selection of awamori, shochu, and sake; Tafia, a rum bar near Roppongi,  and Bar Lupin, a really historic bar off the Ginza where Osamu Dazai and other literary greats used to hang out.

3. Again, advice for a tourist who can only have a few drinks during his stay, can you suggest one of each of the following? Nihonshu, craft beer, Japanese wine, shochu, awamori, Japanese whisky.

I will try. This is a fiendish question because it is a bit like asking someone to pick out one French wine. But here goes (I will cheat again by not naming particular brands in most of the categories but styles instead because that is the key issue): a really wild kimoto or yamahai sake rather than just sticking to the clean, dry sakes; one of the Baird Beers from Shizuoka, a brewery that plays freely over a whole range of styles; a wine made with the koshu grape, which is one of Japan’s special contributions to the wine world and often has a delightful shy and delicate touch; a sweet potato shochu from Kagoshima (my favourite brand is Manzen, because I had a great time visiting Manzen san’s tiny craft distillery in the backwoods of Kagoshima); a “kusu” (aged) awamori of some sort, rather than just the unaged stuff; a Japanese whisky that has been aged in mizunara oak, another unique Japanese style, which often offers distinctive sandalwood and coconut aromas and tastes.

4. Your favorite bar outside of Tokyo?

Pub Red Hill in Takayama city. A lot of the bars in my book have absolutely mind-blowing selections of alcohol of one sort or another. Red Hill doesn’t, but it is really friendly and is run by a good friend of mine. Bars are not all about hundreds of bottles on the shelves, they have to have soul as well.

5. Any remedies for nursing a hangover?

Don’t drink too much the night before. Gallons of Pocari Sweat, if you have strayed.

6. If you could create/own a bar what would it be like? Where would it be? What would you call it?

I would not be able to run my own bar. It takes dedication, attention to detail, and persistence, among other qualities. I don’t have those. If I did have to set up a bar, I would set it up somewhere other than Japan, because my bar simply would not be able to compete in Japan’s very competitive nightlife.

7. Through your travels you had the opportunity to meet so many interesting people. Who was the most memorable and why?

Tatsuro Yamazaki, the 90-plus year old owner of Bar Yamazaki in Sapporo. I write about him quite extensively in the concluding chapter of the book. His life story is extraordinary (including living in a boiler and being cleaned out by theft and fires ) and I think it helped me understand why Japan’s bars are of such a high standard.

8. If you could trade jobs with one of the people you met from your travels who would it be? (Someone who had an awesome bar or maybe a distiller, etc.)

As I say, I don’t think I have it in me to do any of these people’s jobs, but if I could be the assistant to Toshihiro Manzen, who runs a small craft shochu distillery in Kagoshima prefecture, I would be a happy man. It was such a beautiful place: in the middle of the forest, birdsong drifting into the distilling hall, the sound of the river …. The stills, believe it or not, are wooden and the spirit they produce is really distinctive. I had a tremendous sense when I was there that Manzen san was toiling away at something that will one day get international recognition.

9. Your favorite bar snack (or food with alcohol)?

Cheese. Any cheese. Not because it goes with all alcohol but because I love cheese and am starved of it here in Japan (see page 204 of my book).

10. Where are we most likely to run into you in Tokyo? At which bar?

At a not-very-fancy izakaya called Mugiya out the back end of Shimbashi station. It serves standard Japanese lager in small glasses and the fried spam gives me terrible jip the next morning, but my colleagues at work go there so I go too. It is about the company as much as the drink. When I get my way, we go to a place in Nishi-Shimbashi called Craft Beer Market, which has reasonably priced craft beer that is becoming increasingly popular among my colleagues. Recently, my roistering has been restricted because my wife and I just had a baby.

Tachinomi in Shinbashi, Nihonbashi, and Hatchobori 立ち飲み

Tachinomi

Tachinomi

Tachinomi, or standing bars, offer drinks and small bites often at bargain prices. In this article, which fist appeared in Metropolis magazine, Alex Vega and I visit popular tachinomi in Shinbashi, Nihonbashi, and Hatchobori.

http://archive.metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/668/localflavors.asp (text follows)

In a country famous for its reserved
populace, tachinomiya are among the few places where it’s easy to talk to strangers. That’s what makes these “standing bars” fun. As well as an obvious lack of seats, there are a few unwritten rules.

Some places are pay-as-you-go, at others you run a tab, and at others you may find a small bowl on the table where you leave your loose change; the server will take what you owe from there. Be flexible, as you may be asked to move around to accommodate newcomers. Because counter space is also limited, order your food bit by bit. And, according to one tachinomi aficionado, while it’s fine to be friendly, don’t be too friendly.

Shinbashi

One of the best places to experience standing bar culture at its most relaxed is Shinbashi, especially on a Friday night, when the salarymen celebrate the end of the work week creating a real party atmosphere in the streets.

Most of Shinbashi’s bars are on the west side of the JR station. Noyaki is one of the friendliest. It’s been around for 30 years, and it looks like nothing has changed in that time. There are seats inside, but standing out in the narrow alleyway is a good way to soak up the Shinbashi culture. The smoky aroma of nikomi (innards stew) wafts out of the window in front of the grill. The house specialty is chicken and pig bits skewered and grilled, but you may need a few beers before you can stand the gristlier bits.

Tonko is hard to miss, with a plastic pig outside that signals its specialty: pork. It’s famous for its friendly, all-female staff, and many customers seem to be regulars who go for the flirting as much as the beer. You can get every piece of the pig here, from the mimiga (ears) to the “Titanic” kakuni (soft, braised pork), to the gutsy nikomi.

Higoikini is a one of a new generation of standing bars; you might call them “gastro-tachinomi” (like the modern British “gastro-pubs”). It’s a cavernous space with long communal tables and a wall of shochu bottles. The young crowd outnumbers the salarymen. The food is self-service (the deep-fried calamari is recommended) and drinks are ordered from the cashier.

Also in the area, Heso is known for its good food, but is a male bastion of gray-haired chain smokers, so we gave it a miss. There are dozens more, so stroll around and get adventurous.

East Tokyo

In Nihonbashi, Masukyu Liquor really feels like something from another era. Every day at 5pm, this liquor store on Chuo Dori turns into a standing bar. The same goods it sells during the day (cup sake, cans and bottles of beer and shochu) can in the evening be consumed in the shop. Early birds can stand around the mama-san at the cashier; latecomers may find themselves in the office space at the back. As there is no kitchen, for food you can select from an array of snacks and canned goods: tuna, yakitori, scallops, squid—even whale. Yes, all in a can.

Another favorite that is definitely worth seeking out is Maru in Hatchobori. The bar is located next door to a wine and liquor shop. Pick up a bottle in the shop, pay for it and then take it into the bar, where they will open it for ¥500. The menu is quite extensive with European tapas such as grilled and cured meats, olives and cheese, as well as typical izakaya fare. The first floor is a tachinomi, and there are seats upstairs. Maru fills up quickly, so come early.

Address Book

Heso 2-8-2 Shinbashi, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3508-0466.
Higoikini 2-8-9 Shinbashi, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3502-3132.
Maru 3-22-10 Hatchobori, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3552-4477
Masukyu Liquor 2-7-19 Kyobashi, Chuo-ku. No phone.
Noyaki 2-8-16 Shinbashi, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3591-2967.
Tonko 2-9-17 Shinbashi, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3508-1122.