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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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/
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
3. Juyondai Honjozo 十四代 本醸造
Premium sake, very hard to purchase retail. Often sold at much higher prices on E-bay (Sakamoto-san, the sake sommelier said that the bottle we had would go for 10,000 JPY even though the retail price is only about 2,500 JPY.)
From Yamagata prefecture.
http://www.yukinosake.com/juyondai.html (sake brewery site in Japanese)
rice: gohyakumangoku (somewhat popular for sake making)
4. Denshu Tokubetsu Junmaishu 田酒 特別純米酒
Also a premium sake from Aomori prefecture. Very hard to find outside of restaurants like this. Also sold overpriced on E-bay.
rice: Fubuki (don’t see this too often)
http://www.densyu.co.jp/list-d07_1.htm (sake in Japanese)
5. Dassai Junmai Daiginjo 獺祭 純米大吟醸
From Yamaguchi prefecture.
This is a top sake that is imported to USA. Good to look for at restaurants, and it is at most Japanese restaurants with a good sake list. This is one brand that I highly recommend.
Dassai also makes a nice nigori (unfiltered) sake that is also sparkling. Very fun to try if you get the chance.
Dassai is also famous for milling the rice down to only 23% of the original size. Dassai 23.
rice: Yamada Nishiki
http://www.asahishuzo.ne.jp/en/ (brewery site in English)
6. Kokken Yamahai Junmai Nigorizake 国権 山廃純米にごり酒
From Fukushima prefecture.
Nigorizake is unfiltered sake.
This one is also in the yamahai style where the sake ferments with naturally occurring yeasts in an open tank.
rice: Miyama Nishiki
http://www.kokken.co.jp/eng/top.html (brewery site in English)
http://www.kokken.co.jp/eng/makingsake.html (great info on sake making process in English)
http://www.kokken.co.jp/eng/products/pro20.html (sake in English)
7. Sake no Ana Daiginjo 酒の穴 大吟醸
A private label daiginjo sake made for the restaurant.
From Nagano prefecture by the Ozawa brewery.
Nagano is famous for its water. The bottled water they served here was also from this brewery.
rice: Yamada Nishiki
http://www.sakenoana.com/sake/nihonshu/index.htm (sake in Japanese)
8. Ryujin Daikoshu 1970 龍神 大古酒 ３０年
From Gunma prefecture.
Aged 30 years.
9. Kameizumi Junmai Ginjo Namazake 亀泉 純米吟醸 生酒
From Kochi prefecture.
Made with yeast that went into outer space called CEL-24.
There are many wonderful izakaya in Tokyo, however finding one that is open for lunch is a challenge. I was in particular looking for an izakaya with a wide variety of sake by the glass that is open for lunch. All of my favorites, including Sasagin and Takara are only open for dinner.
I found this izakaya from John Gauntner’s great book, The Sake Handbook. John Gauntner’s wonderful website is also an outstanding resource that lists the top izakaya in the city. Out of all of these, only Sake no Ana is open for lunch. Sake no Ana in Ginza is an amazing place to go for lunch if you want to try many different sake by the glass. The location also can not be beat, in the heart of Ginza across the street from Matsuya department store. When I made our reservation I confirmed that a sake sommelier would be on hand to help with the tasting.
Sakamoto-san (no relation, unfortunately) was amazing. I asked him to taste us through all of the different types of sake (from honjozo, junmaishu, daiginjo) and asked him to put in some other fun stuff like nigorizake and koshu. Also, good to know that the evening menu which is full of sake-friendly bites, is available at lunch, you just need to ask for it. The restaurant is busy at lunchtime, mostly with salarymen and office ladies taking their set lunch specials, so it is not really the most conducive environment for such a tasting. But if you are in Tokyo for a limited time and want to use a lunch to explore sake, then I truly believe this is the best spot in the city. And Sakamoto-san is friendly, knowledgeable, and provided exactly what we wanted, a variety of sake.
Highlights of our tasting:
All sake below are between 15-16% alcohol unless stated.
1. Suzune すず音
Sparkling sake from Ichinokura (name of brewery) in Miyagi prefecture.
http://www.ichinokura.co.jp/english.html (website in English)
http://www.ichinokura.co.jp/syohin/t/suzune.html (picture of the bottle with notes in Japanese)
You called this the Moscato d’Asti of sake.
alcohol: 4.5 – 5.5%
nihonshudo: -70 to -90
2. Fukucho Purasu X Karakuchi Natsu Ginjoshu 福久長 プラスX 辛口夏吟醸酒
Made by Miho Imada, a female toji (sake brewer) – very rare for Japan where most sake brewers are men.
Made in Hiroshima prefecture.
Yamada Nishiki rice (most popular rice for making sake)
http://fukucho.info/?mode=f6 (sake brewery site in English) – good notes here on the sake making process