Tokyo’s bar scene is quite unlike anywhere else in the world, and you can’t really say you’ve ‘done’ the Japanese capital until you’ve experienced it. Don’t know where to start? These 13 suggestions from a long-time Tokyo resident will set you on your merry way.
Bathing in the neon-lit glare of Shibuya‘s love-hotel district, Mikkeller’s location is curious, but its popularity is not. After opening in Tokyo in 2016, the Denmark-born microbrewery was forced to shut up shop before re-emerging as a series of pop-ups and eventually finding this permanent home. With standing room on the first level and seating upstairs, the bar serves over 20 artisanal brews on tap, sourced locally and internationally.
A staple of the Shimokitazawa nightlife scene since 1972, the popular Mother is located just south of the area’s main shopping district. Expect a rotating selection of seasonal beverages (the mango beer is a winner) and zero cigarette smoke (they banned smoking in 2017), making Mother a blessed change from the smoky environs of Tokyo’s izakaya and local haunts.
Now that the government’s prohibitively expensive regulations on small-batch breweries have been relaxed, craft beer is finally making waves in Japan – and the stylish Bar Beer Kobo chain is an excellent way to check out the local scene. There are a few outposts scattered throughout the city, but the cosy Nakano branch – a standing bar that serves exclusively in-house brewed ales – is a definite highlight. Its location is a little out of the way, making it an excellent spot to hang out and drink with the locals.
Shimokitazawa is one of Tokyo’s more laid-back suburbs, but it’s also an area that likes to stay up late, making it an excellent bar-crawling destination. 808 Lounge is a local favourite and a worthy addition to any booze-hunting itinerary. The kitsch-but-cool, tiki-themed bar is small, seating about eight people max along the counter (which is typical in Tokyo’s bars). The drinks menu has eclectic options, but chilled-out incarnations of favourite cocktails are what 808 does best. A top recommendation is to go for the mojito: it’s well balanced, refreshing and dangerously generous.
Hidden in a nondescript building off Shibuya’s Center Gai, Whales of August is a film lover’s boozy fantasy. The entire bar is dedicated to the art of cinema – the place’s name is an homage to the 1987 cult classic starring silent film actress Lillian Gish – complete with a movie-inspired menu. All the drinks are named after famous films, with interpretations ranging from the esoteric to the literal. There’s limited English guidance, but the bartenders are patient and do their best to explain the drinks if asked. It’s worth noting that the bar is cash only, and charges all patrons a seating charge of 500 yen (£3.75).
Opened in March 2019, Rangitoto Tokyo is a cosy wine and sake bar run and owned by New Zealander-turned-Tokyoite Wayne Shennen. A world champion sommelier before opening Rangitoto Tokyo, Shennen now utilises his expert palate to help others appreciate Japanese sake. If you want to understand the subtleties of the Japanese national drink, pop by Rangitoto Tokyo, grab a glass and have a chat with Shennen, who’ll be more than happy to be your booze sensei. As well as 40 different sake brews from across the globe, Rangitoto also features about 100 wines from New Zealand.
Lupin is a living, breathing piece of Japanese history. Since opening in 1928, the bar has been an institution for Ginza‘s literary and creative community and, in terms of looks, very little has changed down the years: as soon as you enter the moody space, you can practically feel the history ooze through the wood-panelled walls. Menu-wise, the offerings are very considered, with carefully selected whiskies and cocktails taking up prime real estate.
JBS is a cosy Shibuya bar that’s recently become a not-so-well-kept secret within the international community. Known formally as Jazz, Blues, Soul, JBS is as much a music museum as it is a bar. The vinyl-centric, whisky-soaked hangout is lined from floor to ceiling with thousands of records. Legend has it that owner Kobayashi-san owns roughly 11,000 records, most of which are on display right here. Overtly drunken behaviour won’t be tolerated here, but if you’re a passionate music fan who is respectful and polite, you’ll have an incredible experience.
Tokyo’s LGBTQ neighbourhood Shinjuku Nichome is a labyrinth of intimate, niche bars as well as more mainstream clubs. Nichome’s absolute centrepiece – though it may not look like it from the outside – is New Sazae. Located on top of a nondescript building in the centre of the area, this is one of the city’s most iconic and longest-serving discotheque-bars. The drinks are nothing to write home about, but it’s the atmosphere and killer disco setlist that draw people here weekend after weekend. It was originally opened in 1966 as an exclusively LGBTQ disco venue, but over the years it has welcomed a parade of patrons from all walks of life. Legend has it Freddie Mercury and Queen used to hang out here during their Japan visits. If it’s good enough for those guys…
This is an updated version of an article originally written by Christina Nhu.
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