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'Drinking Japan: A Guide to Japan's Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments'

May 18, 2011 | 12:32 pm

JapanThere are many things to love about Japan, but its exceptional bars and drinking culture are among the things at the top of my list.

Anyone with the same yen (heh) for Tokyo-and-beyond bars should check out "Drinking Japan: A Guide to Japan's Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments." Written by Chris Bunting after a year and a half of research (i.e., drinking his way across Japan) and published by Tuttle in April, the book combines a guide to Japanese spirits with reviews of the bars devoted to them. Bunting (like many others) calls Japan "the best place to drink alcohol in the world," populated with tiny bars that are specialist temples for a particular drink of choice -- single-malt Scotch, bourbon, rum, beer, sake, Calvados, Korean rice wine, you name it.

The main chapters are divided by Japanese spirit -- sake, shochu, Okinawan awamori, beer, whiskeys -- and the bars that serve it. I headed directly for the whiskeys chapter, which delves into history, background on the seven single-malt distilleries in Japan, and descriptions of 17 whiskey bars, including the Mash Tun, Bar Caol Ila, Cask, Main Malt and Speyside Way (which serves handmade chocolate and house-smoked bacon with its pours). 

A chapter on "Other Great Bars" includes Kazuo Uyeda's Tokyo cocktail mecca Tender (home of the "hard shake") but also less-internationally-known Yakushu (home of yakushu, or "medicinal alcohol," sometimes containing lizards) and Pub Red Hill. "My favorite bar in Japan," Bunting says of the latter. Maybe not for its range of alcohol but because "Hisayo Miyakoshi's backstreet pub is filled to overflowing with another quality -- warmth .... There is a friendly welcome for everyone who successfully navigates Asahimachi's maze of alleyways. The interior is ethnic and the music, like the food, is eclectic. For a drinking snack, try the handmade smoked cheese or the pickles."  

A section on speaking "bar Japanese" is helpful. When in doubt, point and say, "Sore onegai shimasu." I'll have one of those.  

A few of my favorite Tokyo bars (not included in "Drinking Japan"):

Wodka Tonic: Yes, there is vodka. But also lots of Scotch. Keyakizaka Terrace 2F, 6-15-1, Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo. 

Bar Epilogue: Quiet, cool, subterranean. I once watched, enthralled, as the bartender cut a shoebox-size block of ice into smaller cubes with a sushi knife. Dressed and groomed meticulously, he rested the ice block on the open palm of one hand and used his other hand to tap away at it with the knife. It took several minutes, during which time he rarely even blinked. Ebisu East Building B1F, 1-6-3, Jin Ma, Shibuya-ku Ebisu, Tokyo.

Ori Hagashiya: I love this pristine Japanese sweets shop, where you can buy freshly steamed, red-bean-filled manju buns, goma-dofu (sesame tofu), hoji tea creme caramel, green tea blanc manger, sweet mochi wrapped in bamboo leaf.... In the back of the shop is a salon where tea is poured, but also house-infused shochu, such as yuzu shochu or chrysanthemum shochu. Le Bain 1F, 3-16-28, Nishiazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo.

Kinoko: This might be my favorite bar in Japan. Proprietor Kiyoko Inui is the ultimate hostess. As soon as you sit down in the tiny, five-seat Ginza bar, she's plying you with snacks and turning on the karaoke machine. You never know who's going to show up: publishing executives, geisha, former prime ministers .... Also, she keeps disposable toothbrushes and other toilette-related sundries in the bathroom, for all-nighters. Tohgo Building, 7-3-16, Ginza, Chuo-Ku, Tokyo.

 -- Betty Hallock

Photo: "Drinking Japan"

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