Kumamoto has a lot of bars compared to most cities on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu (with the exception of the much bigger Fukuoka). Here are a few of the best, all conveniently located around the city’s two central malls.
The first thing most visitors will notice about Kumamoto’s bars is how small they are. Most spaces here are intimate joints, tucked away in malls. Sip a Japanese whiskey or a fancy cocktail at these top venues.
Located on Sannen-zaka Dori (‘dori’ means street) near Shimotori mall, this is a Japanese bar like those that sprang up in the ’70s and ’80s, with dark oak-wood tables and benches that were made by highly skilled craftsmen without the use of any nails. Marvel at this ancient East Asian technique or just try Dragon Horse’s large range of cocktails and good-quality Scottish whisky costing between ¥1,000 and ¥1,200 (£7 and £8.40), in this quiet, intimate setting.
Noriykui, the young owner of Glocal Bar Vibes wanted to create a space where his customers could enjoy local Japanese shochu culture in an “international environment”. He makes a special effort to welcome visitors and speaks English, which is rare in Kumamoto. He says, “I want to change the image of shochu. It has more than 500 years of history in Japan and we drink it more than Sake. But it’s still an unknown culture for visitors.” The vibe here is relaxed and fun, with a social club feel. Noriyuki often asks visitors to introduce themselves on a microphone, and encourages people to talk and get to know each other, which makes this a very distinctive bar, quite the opposite of the private atmosphere of most bars. Drinks are priced at ¥850 to ¥900 (£6 to £6.30) per glass of shochu and they come with Noriyuki’s enthusiastic commentary. This bar is located in the Arita Building on Club Dori, a street near Shimotori mall.
Located in the basement of Wako building, Ichino Ichi Dori, two blocks from Shimotori mall, this is a quieter shochu bar is more suitable for those who want to taste a variety of of shochu in a less sociable atmosphere than at Glocal Vibe Bar. Here you can sample four or five different types of shochu in traditional choku cups, which are only about an inch across, poured from a gara pot. The owner, Hoshihara, even has a special pot where the decorative flower design changes from purple to red when heated up and served as jiki-kan (heated shochu). Drinks here cost ¥1,000 (£7) for five small tasters, while a regular cup of your favourite shochu will put you back an additional ¥700 (£5) per glass. Try the special Kumamoto shochu, called Hana-giin, which is powerful but smooth. As is common with many bars in Kumamoto, there is an entrance cost of ¥500 (£3.50).
Jeff’s World Bar has been so popular with visitors for the past 20 years, that it’s practically a Kumamoto institution. The founder, Jeff, is no longer actively involved with the bar, but it continues to be a hub for Japanese locals and travellers to connect. Originally just one room, the bar has expanded into two and now hosts parties on special occasions like Christmas and Halloween. It’s also one of the few bars in Kumamoto that becomes full to the rafters, with weekends usually standing-room-only at the various music events. The music here is hip-hop and modern RnB, which is typical of Kumamoto. Located on the second floor of the Kumamoto building on Sannen-zaka Dori, there is no entrance charge and drinks are reasonably priced.
Located in the basement of the Shanse Shinagawa building on Ginnan Kita Dori, two streets away from Shimotori mall, Detour was opened in 2019 by a few expats who were previously associated with Jeff’s bar. It has already started to develop a following and one of the managers there, Graeme, says: “We have staff from Australia, France, Algeria, Canada, China, the US, Russia and Japan. We have Free Wi-Fi (rare in Kumamoto), as well as our homemade fruit infusions, which sell out faster than we can replace them. We also have fresh mojitos, ice-cream cocktails and flaming shots. We are always experimenting in our free time to expand the menu.” Detour has no entrance charge, and drinks are reasonably priced.
Located on the ground floor of Kaminora, a narrow street running parallel to Kamitori mall, this is an izakaya-style place, which means it serves drinks and food. One of the most beautiful izakayas in the city, Yokobachi has a lovely garden area and old-fashioned wooden inside area, with tatami mats. It’s always busy so expect to wait 15 minutes to be seated unless you have a reservation. Surprisingly for such a lovely looking place, it’s quite reasonably priced. At Yokobachi, you can order a bottle of shochu and ask them to keep the leftovers for up to 3 months. Next time you are in, just ask for the bottle with your name on it.
An upmarket bar with stylish interiors, Afro Blue often hosts jazz singers, local musicians and international bands. The owner Naoko says, “I decided to come back to Kumamoto from Tokyo because I wanted to spread my love of music here.” Go to Afro Blue if you are willing to pay for fine wine and whisky. This bar is located on the second floor of the K-Line building on Ginnan Minami Dori, two streets from Shimotori mall.