A Bar Owner’s Guide to the Best Bars in Matsuyama, Japan

Matsuyama has a surprisingly diverse and vibrant nightlife scene
Matsuyama has a surprisingly diverse and vibrant nightlife scene | © Helena Lopes / Unsplash
Matthew Wilcox

Matsuyama may look like a sleepy provincial town, but it is home to a surprisingly diverse range of nightlife. Here, Kazutaka Sawamura, the owner of one of the city’s best-loved craft beer bars, Bokke, tells us the best places to drink in the capital of Ehime Prefecture.

Like many spa towns in Japan, Matsuyama punches above its weight when it comes to night-time entertainment. On the weekends, the compact grid of streets between Niban Cho and Sanban Cho hum with the sound of people out looking for fun. When it comes to bars, Matsuyama caters for every taste, whether it’s sampling saison at the city’s burgeoning craft beer scene, grabbing a classic cocktail at the timeless whisky bar Dew, or hitting the tiles at the Blue Belton Discotheque. These are Kazutaka Sawamura’s recommendations for where to drink in Matsuyama.

1. Bokke

Bar, Beer

For decades, beer in Japan meant only one thing: pilsner-style lagers made by the country’s big brewers: Sapporo, Kirin and Asahi. But today a new generation of craft beer-makers are transforming the world of Japanese beer. Within the past two years the number of microbreweries has risen above 300. The result is a huge variety in beer, and Bokke is the place to try them. With brews from all across Japan as well as delicious food, this is a must for anyone interested in quality food and drink. The bar is easy to find, located opposite the south-west corner of Matsuyama Castle’s moat.

2. Bar Dew (Tsuyuguchi)

Bar, Cocktails

The highball (one-part ice, whiskey, three-parts club soda and a twist of lemon) is an icon of Japan’s hard drinking post-war office culture. Bar Dew (Tsuyuguchi), on Niban Cho, is an authentic piece of this era, and the Tory (Suntory) Bars that epitomised it. The couple that run Tsuyuguchi are now in their eighties and have been making their legendary highballs for decades, persevering through the vagaries of time and fashion to bring you a timeless classic unmatched anywhere in the city.

4. Le Club

Cocktail Bar, Cocktails

Le Club cocktail bar opened in 1994, and is run by one of Japan’s best bartenders, Hide. No detail is overlooked in the creation of his extraordinary drinks that specialise in local fruit but can include anything and everything including crab. The decor of this Niban Cho bar is every bit the match for the drinks, featuring antique furnishings and paintings that loom out of the darkness of the bar. The atmosphere, says Kazutaka, “reminds you of medieval Europe, with its wicked cocktails. Le Club might seem a good place for a quiet drink.”

5. Kuramotoya Ehime no Jizake

Bar, Beer

Matsuyama boasts five sake breweries in the city, each producing delicious, aromatic sake using traditional methods. To try some of their wares, head to Kuramotoya Ehime no Jizake on Ichiban Cho. There are no seats here, just a few round tables made from the lids of old sake barrels resting on crates. Despite its slightly rough appearance, Kuramotoya is run by the Ehime Sake Brewers’ Association, offering products from every brewer in the prefecture. Many of the options on the menu aren’t available for general release and are only available here, offered by the glass at affordable prices.

6. Chocobar

Bar, Cocktails

This tiny and extremely popular hip-hop bar is located in the area of Sanban Cho and features a lively soundtrack and eccentric decor. This is a fun, casual place to drink with a loyal clientele: “Since the shop owner is also an expat, it’s quite an international crowd, and everything there is well thought out,” says Kazutaka.

7. The Blue Belton Discotheque

Nightclub, Cocktails

If one had to pick a weakness in Matsuyama’s nightlife, it would be the comparative lack of clubs. Thank goodness then for the Blue Belton Discotheque. For a proper night on the tiles, nothing else quite hits the spot. Although this club is at the heart of the red-light district – hidden on the second floor of an unassuming building between Niban Cho and Sanban Cho – there’s nothing dodgy about it. This is a proper old-fashioned disco.

8. Flankey Kobayashi

Bar, Hole in the Wall, Beer

Located on a busy corner of the red-light district, a block east of Okaido, Flankey’s is a hole-in-the-wall bar and local legend. At ¥300 (£2.25) a glass, this standing-room-only dive bar offers the cheapest beer in town, and it’s quite remarkable just how many people can squeeze themselves into the small space. On summer nights when the customers spill out onto the surrounding streets, the atmosphere is second to none.

9. Bakushuan

Bar, Beer

In the area of town around Dogo Onsen, visitors should be careful not to accidentally wander into hostess or snack bars, where there are often cover charges as well as other dangers. The best bet in the area is Bakushu-An, adjacent to the Onsen itself. This brewpub is the perfect spot to enjoy the excellent local Dogo beer and a bite to eat after a relaxing soak. For food, there are always interesting specials as well as local standbys such as tai-meshi (baked sea bream with rice), while – in tribute to Botchan, the novel that made Matsuyama famous in Japan – the names of the beers on offer are all allusions to the writer Natsume Sōseki’s work.

10. Bar Roppongi

Bar, Cocktails

This cosy hideaway, on Ichiban Cho, is well established as a favourite among locals and has a steady crew of regulars. Run by a husband-wife team who split the cooking and bartending duties between themselves, all the food is delicious but particularly the pizza that comes overflowing with cheese, the perfect thing to soak up the deadly cocktails on offer. The owners are passionate about Matsuyama and keen to share their knowledge.

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