Sports bars and pubs exist in Japan, but are not common. Beyond a British pub chain, I didn’t spot any. Many establishments sell alcohol; even your local minimart carries fruity alcoholic drinks, beer, wine and spirits like vodka, brandy, whiskey and of course sake. Bars seem to rely more on cocktails or offer something unique.
The one table is the whole bar
One in Kyoto, Cinquecento, specializes in $5 USD martinis and another, The Joker, specializes in having English-speaking staff. There are also Tokyo’s small 6-10 seater bars in the Golden Gai neighborhood, where each bar will have a different theme. They’re small in an effort to provide an intimate setting for conversation with the bartender and well, the rest of the bar. You are so squeezed together, you might as well join the whole bar’s conversation. It sounds inconvenient and uncomfortable, but think of it as having drinks in one table, what’s common in most bars, except here the one table is the whole bar… and instead of your friends they’re strangers. Great way to meet new people.
Since there is no tipping, most bars in Japan have a cover charge just to sit down. They range from $5 USD to $10 USD for most bars but for the real cocktail connoisseur, this can go up to $15 USD-$20 USD for the high end bar with established master bartenders.
Tokyo is home to many bars that top global bar lists. Many bars in other countries are actually on the same lists because the bartenders migrated from Japan, were trained in Japan, or emulate their style.
For the one bar I’d be visiting, I chose Ben Fiddich
I love cocktails so much that I can appreciate a fluorescent pink drink with a lime green umbrella. In fact, I’ll drink it proudly and slowly to enjoy every sip. I had to go to one of these $22 USD per cocktail places. Were my resources and time greater, I would have visited more bars. For the one bar I’d be visiting, I chose Ben Fiddich.
The only bartender in Ben Fiddich, Hiroyasu Kayama, does not come from the famous lineage of bartenders trained by the famous Kazuo Ueda. The latter became famous by inventing a new way to shake cocktails named the hard shake. The technique used is actually not to shake the drink hard, but rather a particular motion that not only mixes the liquids but instills air into the drink, effectively changing its texture. While this technique sounds unnecessary, bartenders like Kayama and his two helpers pay careful attention to these small details in their drinks and overall experience. Most other bars around the world follow the business model of attracting more customers by having larger spaces to maximize profits with their popular drinks. Here, the thinking is different: the customer’s experience comes first.
The crafting of each cocktail was a mini play with highly coordinated choreography for every drink
I managed to sit in the front-center of the bar, the perfect seat to witness an artist compose his masterpiece live. I felt like I was watching an entertaining play, but his bartending flair was not akin to bottles flying left and right like in popular bartending competitions. That practice seems barbaric compared to what the Japanese mixologists do. The crafting of each cocktail was a mini play with highly coordinated choreography for every drink. The mannerisms in pouring drinks and shaking them were subtle rather than exaggerated. A big part of the entertainment came with how seriously detailed each drink was made with fresh fruits, herbs, bitters and of course, carefully selected spirits. Watching cocktails materialize before your eyes was always a delightful spectacle.
Hiroyasu Kayama actually grows his own plants and herbs, using them carefully to orchestrate the taste he seeks. He does not bother with menus. Regardless of what he’s doing at the moment, he will greet you upon entering the bar and point to the next, best available seat in the house. When he is one or two drinks ahead of making yours, he will casually ask you what you would like and further refine what you want by asking you what kind of spirit you would like, what flavor, or what your taste preference is, in the event that what you asked for wasn’t specific enough. After each selection, he nonchalantly repeats it for two reasons: to make sure the guest is clear on what the direction of the cocktail will be; and so that the helpers can start setting up the ingredients and equipment. Once he finishes the previous guest’s cocktail, he immediately moves on to craft your cocktail in his elaborate way. He will mash and squeeze fruits, grind herbs, and finally pouring the delicious alchemic mix into a stylish contraption and spray it with a perfumy mist to provide a complementary smell to the taste of the drink.
Not having a menu may seem daunting at first, but I find that anticipating whatever he comes up with is exciting. There’s a thrill not knowing what you’re going to get but not have the fear that it might suck. You’re in good hands with his years upon years of experience.
My experience with ordering cocktails, was as follows:
Something gin based and slightly sweet
He began by mixing different herbs and grinding them to dust and preparing half of the mix in the bowl. After finishing with the bowl, he passes it under his arm to the helper which receives it without looking. It is a very smooth transition and why I am convinced it is choreographed. Or they’re just that good.
once the mix is completely done, it is poured into a wooden square box.
After the mix had been fully prepared, he began burning a piece of iron and dipped it inside the cocktail cup, heating up the Strawberry and Chocolate mix to effectively making a Strawberry hot chocolate!
Seeing all the fruits on display on top of the bar and not seeing a passionfruit, I tried to stump him, by asking for ‘anything passion fruit’ and out of nowhere, he comes up with a fresh passion fruit! It turns out he had more fruits below the bar.
A Pisco Passionfruit sour brûlée. The cocktail was served with a small spoon to dig in to the pulp brûlée!
Whatever is your favorite cocktail
Although I secretly wanted his favorite to be something elaborate, it was a classic martini. However, I wasn’t disappointed with his crisp rendition. Martini never gets old.
It’s my final drink, anything you want
First he set on fire what looked to be cinnamon, anise and other herbs to create a woody smelling smoke which was then captured inside a glass. The glass was then covered with a lid to contain the smoke so that it can be inhaled as the cocktail is consumed.
Although the cocktail was really, really good, I wasn’t as amazed by the creation of the woody smoke as I had seen it before in Angel’s Share, a Japanese cocktail speakeasy in New York. He had his own technique of preparing it so it was still enjoyable to watch.
Of course, the cocktails were delicious, but not the best cocktails I had ever had. What, I’ve had some amazing cocktails in my life 🙂 But I can confidently say the whole experience was worth the cost. Even at those prices I can say it was a good value. Some places charge more or the same and can’t come to rivaling the work done here. Many good cocktail bars believe that their sole purpose is to produce a perfectly balanced drink. In Japan, an amazing, delicious and perfectly crafted cocktail is just the beginning.