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.
Vinyl collectors and music nerds will love this intimate bar, located in the hip Shimokitazawa neighbourhood. Little Soul is home to some 15,000 rare groove, soul and R&B LPs, and the owner is always more than happy to chat with patrons who share his passion for vinyl – if you ask nicely, he might even play something from the bar’s expansive collection. Little Soul does have a seating charge, and the drinks aren’t cheap, but the ambiance and the chance to listen to some rare records played on a top-notch sound system makes the extra costs worth it.
Mother serves seasonal drinks and is delightfully smoke-free | Courtesy of Mother
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.
Delve into in the world of otaku at Tokyo’s 8bit Cafe | Courtesy of 8 Bit
Even if you’re the most casual of gamers, it’d be a crime not to dabble in the world of Tokyo’s otaku (geek) bars, and 8bit Cafe is one of the best. Located on the fifth floor of a nondescript, admittedly run-down Shinjuku office building, this delightfully nerdy bar is a dedication to all things video games, arcade and Nintendo. Every inch of the space pays homage to the otaku world, from figurines and posters to fully operational gaming consoles, all fired up and ready to go. To complete the experience, the drinks list takes inspiration from the biggest names in the gaming world, with titles like ‘Dr. Mario’ (served in a beaker) and the punchy ‘Princess Peach’.
A popular fixture in Shinjuku’s rowdy Golden Gai since 1997, Albatross is certainly no hidden gem, but the bar’s unique layout and friendly atmosphere make it a worthy addition to any Tokyo bar-hopping itinerary. Albatross is spread over three levels – a rarity for a Golden Gai bar – but stays true to the neighbourhood’s notoriously narrow (and intimate) interiors. It does, however, feel much more luxurious than its neighbours thanks to the opulent crystal chandeliers and vintage artwork decorating the space. As is the protocol for most Golden Gai bars, Albatross charges a small seating fee and doesn’t take cards, so have cash on hand.
Grab a well-made mojito at the tiny tiki-themed 808 Lounge | Courtesy of 808 Lounge
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.
Japanese whisky has quite a reputation, and Shinjuku bar Zoetrope is the place to find out why. They have one of the most significant whisky collections in Japan, featuring 300 varieties, including rare and discontinued brands. The staff have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all whisky styles, from big players like Suntory to small micro-distilleries. Just ask them, and they’ll be able to match you with your perfect batch.
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…