Tokyo Izakaya and Standing Bars

Yamariki

Yamariki

Grabbing a drink after work with colleagues or friends in Tokyo is great fun as there are so many options to choose from. These are some of my favorites from Food Sake Tokyo.

Saiseisakaba

This friendly tachinomi (standing bar) is located on the back streets of Shinjuku Sanchome. Designed with Showa era items, it feels like stepping back in time. The shop features grilled innards, but you can have some items sashimi style. The brains are creamy and the yudetan (boiled tongue) is tender. If you can, grab a spot at the counter and notice how vigilant the staff is at keeping their cutting boards spotless. You can also see everything that’s being grilled and coming out of the open kitchen staffed with young, handsome men.

Saiseisakaba
Shinjuku 3-7-3, Marunaka Building 1st floor
tel: 03-3354-4829
17:00 – 24:00, no holidays
www.ishii-world.jp/brand/motsu/nihonsaisei/shinjuku3/ (Japanese)


Sasagin

Near Yoyogi-Uehara station is an upscale izakaya with a great selection of sake in the windowed refrigerator behind the long counter. The menu is diverse, including seafood, and small bites that call out to be had with nihonshu such as nuta, a vinegary miso dressing with seasonal seafood, or grilled ginko nuts.

Sasagin
Shibuya-ku, Uehara 1-32-15, Kobayashi Bldg. 1st floor
tel: 03-5454-3715
17:00 – 23:00, closed Sunday and holidays
No website


Yamariki

Since 1925, Yamariki has often been ranked as one of the top ten izakaya in the city. Located in the shitamachi district of Morishita, there is usually a line waiting to get in. There is a second shop down the street and the staff will direct you there. Their signature item is a nikomi made from cow innards, port wine, Hatcho miso, sugar, and bouquet garni. The store proudly says that they have been adding to the same nikomi for over 40 years now. The other house specialty is the yakiton or grilled pork bits on a skewer. What makes Yamariki unique is they have a wine list (French only) and a friendly sommelier, Mizukami-san, who will help you match a wine with your food, as well as, of course, sake.

Yamariki
Koto-ku, Morishita 2-18-8
tel: 03-3633-1638
17:00 – 22:00, closed Sunday and holidays
www.yamariki.com (Japanese)


Tachigui Sakaba Buri

The walls at buri are decorated with colorful cup sake from all over Japan. There are over 30 different types of sake served in individual cups. A unique sake to try is the frozen sake that is like a slush. The menu is filled with small plates of sake-friendly foods like seasonal seafood and grilled meats.

Tachigui Sakaba buri
Shibuya-ku, Ebisu-Nishi 1-14-1
tel: 03-3496-7744
17:00 – 3:00 a.m., no holidays
www.takewaka.co.jp/buri/index.html (Japanese)


Stand Bar Maru

Maru may be one of the best bargains in the city for standing bars. Located next door to a wine shop with about 200 wines, customers can purchase a bottle and have it opened for drinking at a nominal fee. The first floor is standing only (tachinomi), but if you get there early enough, you may be able to snag a seat in the second floor restaurant. Following the tapas concept, legs of Iberico ham are shaved per order, small plates are to share, and the grilled meats are highly recommended. This shop is in an out of the way area and is always busy with local young hipsters and salary-men from the area. The staff at this fourth-generation shop is very friendly.

Stand Bar Maru
Chuo-ku, Hatchobori 3-22-10
tel: 03-3552-4477
17:00 – 23:00, closed weekends and holidays
No website

This article first appeared in the ACCJ Journal.

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.

Five Questions for Sake Master John Gauntner

Sake Master John Gauntner

Sake Master John Gauntner

John Gauntner has done more to promote sake than any other non-Japanese in the world. John is the author of five books, an informational monthly newsletter, and for those lucky enough to be in Tokyo, he holds interesting tasting seminars at Takara.  His accomplishments are too numerous to list all of them here but some highlights include being the only non-Japanese to be certified in both the Master of Sake Tasting and as a Sake Expert Assessor. He also sits on many panels, often as the only non-Japanese, and rarely does a month go by where John is not in a Japanese magazine or newspaper. He has inspired many in the world to pursue and learn more about sake.

He has influenced my life as well. While I was working at Takashimaya’s flagship store in Nihonbashi as a sommelier in the sake department the staff were given a chance to study another beverage. The store manager encouraged me to study sake but John had done so much to promote sake that I decided my energy was better spent learning shochu. Originally from Ohio, this fellow Midwesterner also came to Japan on the JET program the same year that I did, in 1989.

John generously shares with us some with insightful tips for sake lovers visiting Tokyo. My recommendation is to time your trip with one of his sake seminars, to subscribe to his free newsletter, and pick up one of his books. My personal favorite at the moment is The Tokyo Sake Pub Guide.

1. On your website you list many of the best izakaya in the metropolis. If a visitor to Tokyo has only a limited time, could you suggest three izakaya. By visiting all three readers would have a better understanding of the izakaya scene in Japan.

This is a hard question to answer without qualifying. It all depends on whether or not one speaks Japanese. But I think one all around recommendable izakaya for food, sake, ambience and user friendliness is Sasagin. Another great and classy one on all fronts that flies under the radar a bit is Nakamura in Shibuya. Everyone that goes there is surprisingly pleased. And perhaps the ultimate gritty (in a good way) izakaya experience with great sake too is Taru-ichi in Kabukicho. Finally, the fourth of the three is Ajisen in Tsukishima: outstanding food, great sake, but very small, very popular and a bit more expensive.

But there are so many more…

2. What are good retail sake shops in Tokyo? Ideally conveniently located.

Surely the Hasegawa Saketen shop INSIDE JR Tokyo station at Gransta is the easiest and best. They have a great sake selection, English spoken (a bit) and optimally located albeit inside the wicket. Their Azabu Juban store is good too. Next would be Sakaya Kurihara in Moto Azabu, at the bottom of the hill down from the Chinese Embassy. Solid, classic collection and friendly proprietors but English may be strained. And in Shibuya, Tokyu Food Show just below Hachiko has a great selection too.

But there are so many more…

3. You have your finger on the pulse of what is happening with sake in the world. What sake trends do you see right now – either in Japan or in the world?

Domestically it is hard to see trends in a contracting industry but I do see some

-New branding, i.e. “our regular stuff sells under this old name, so let us make a new brand name for ginjo only, or junmai only.”

-Lots of young blood, i.e. younger brewers with new enthusiasm and ideas.

-Overall higher milling rates. Not necessarily a good thing, but I do see this trend.

-A second wave of muroka (not charcoal filtered) nama (unpasteurized) genshu (undiluted) sake. Personally this kind of sake lacks subtlety but it does seem to be making a comeback.

-More character-laden sake like kimoto, yamahai and naturally occurring yeast sake. Not a ton, but enough to see a trend.

4. What sake is in your fridge now? What good sake have you had recently?

In my sake fridge are about 30 sake, lots of which are “science experiments.” But most interestingly are a couple from brewers that no longer exist, like Suzuran in Iwate. The ones I most want to taste are Tensei, Mori no Kura, Sakuragawa, and a Kame no O from Niigata that is about  ten years old. Oh, and one Tatsuriki made with Toku-A Yamada Nishiki @ 35% that needs a year to open up.

5. What are some easy to find sake to look for at izakaya?

One way is to look for harigami, streamers on the wall, to see what is just in or not on the main menu! Two is to ask the proprietor not for a recommendation but rather what he or she likes now or best. Then ask for something similar if you like it or different if you do not. Some places (like Sasagin) will assess you and pick one for you. Others are more reticent to do that. Finally, ask for what you like and if they do not have it ask for something similar. And I highly recommend taking notes on what you taste!

John’s Blackbook

Sasagin 笹吟

Shibuya-ku, Uehara 1-32-15, Kobayashi Bldg.

03-5454-3715

http://r.tabelog.com/tokyo/A1318/A131811/13004599/

Nakamura 並木橋なかむら

Shibuya-ku, Shibuya 3-13-5, Ipuse Shibuya 2F-B

03-6427-9580

http://r.tabelog.com/tokyo/A1303/A130301/13059986/

Taruichi 樽一

Shinjuku-ku, Kabukicho 1-17-12 5F

03-3208-9772

http://www.taruichi.co.jp/

Ajisen 肴や味泉

Chuo-ku, Tsukishima 1-18-10

03-3534-8483

http://r.tabelog.com/tokyo/A1313/A131302/13002247/

Hasegawa Saketen はせがわ酒店

Chiyoda-ku, Marunouchi 1-9-1, Tokyo Station, GranSta B1

03-6420-3409

http://www.hasegawasaketen.com/english/about.html

Hasegawa Saketen はせがわ酒店

Minato-ku, Azabu-Juban 2-2-7

03-5439-9399

http://www.hasegawasaketen.com/english/about.html

Sakaya Kurihara さかや栗原麻布店

Minato-ku, Moto Azabu 3-6-17

03-3408-5379

http://www.sakaya-kurihara.jp/

Tokyu Food Show Sake Department

Shibuya-ku, Shibuya 2-24-1 B1

03-3477-3111

http://www.tokyu-dept.co.jp/foodshow/shop/liquor/