Tokyo Bars & Nightlife
6 Chome-5-12 Ginza, Chuo City
Looking for Tokyo’s most elegant gin martini? That’s a Mori. Ten floors up from the busy sidewalks of Ginza, seventy-one-year-old martini master Takao Mori swizzles away in his namesake cocktail bar. Inside, the lighting is dim and the décor refined, but like the legend himself, Mori Bar has a playful side that smiles in the corners: baseball paraphernalia hangs on the walls, and clues to the bar’s history are tucked throughout. The obvious order is the Mori Martini. It’s the drink he can’t resist making himself, the drink that brings him out to the bar in his cream blazer. Watching Mori make a martini is somewhere between observing a master chef and a magician. He begins by building flavor at the most basic level, coating the ice with a precise drop of bitters, then follows with a masterful free pour (to say he’s discerning would be an understatement—the weight of the liquor is critical). The magical part is the sleight of hand that is Mori’s stir—graceful, efficient, and indicative of why he is legendary not only for his martini but also for educating many of Japan’s finest bartenders.
6 Chome−4−１2, Chuo City, Ginza
Tuxedo-jacketed bartenders have been mixing cocktails at this Ginza bar for close to three decades. While Little Smith is hardly the new kid on the block, the modernist space with its sloping ceilings and curved bar—designed by Takahiko Yanagisawa—feels thoroughly contemporary. There’s no menu. Instead, bartenders have a sixth sense about what you might like, and somehow, their concoctions always taste just right. A seat at the small bar hugging one of those custom drinks feels low-key and cozy, an oasis away from the jostling crowds outside. If you’re partial to the classics, they make a mean martini.
Star Bar is one of the best bars in Tokyo, which means it’s one of the best bars in the world. Owner and chief bartender Hisashi Kishi is the king of cocktails, a master of both classics (definitely get his sidecar) and modern concoctions. There’s no set menu, just a conversation between you and your bartender about what you like to drink and what fresh ingredients are available that day. Some of the best fruit-based drinks you’ll ever have—with ingredients like plum, yuzu, and pomegranate—will be found here, expertly prepared. Bartenders hand-cut ice for each drink: Sometimes they’ll use “ninja ice,” which is so clear, it will disappear inside the glass; other times they’ll make “brilliant ice,” which glitters like a gem. There’s a small cover charge, no reservations, and you can enter only if there’s room to sit. If the original Ginza location is too crowded, check out the new flagship location, scheduled to open this spring in Tokyo’s Midtown Hibiya.
2 Chome-25-11, Nishi-Azabu
Whiskey lovers, here’s your bar. There’s more than one location of this Tokyo favorite—go to the original one in Nishiazabu. There you’ll find a dark, carved-wood den with dedicated but friendly bartenders, delicious bar snacks, and—most importantly—a selection of more than 1,000 whiskeys. Most are from Scotland and Japan, but there are also rare, Japan-only bottles of bourbons and ryes, not to mention an enviable inventory of Irish whiskeys, all served in delicate glassware that is as impressive as what’s been poured inside it.
１-22-23 Ebisu, Shibuya
Listening bars are a thing in Japan. You go, you drink, you listen to a DJ spin vinyl, and you stay really quiet while all this happens. One of the best of the bunch is Bar Martha, which has not only amazing drinks but an amazing sound system—one the bar spent $300,000 on. Order a mojito here (make sure it’s with Havana Club rum) and sit back while the music plays. While you’re listening, enjoy the addictive nuts served in Mason jars and do some serious Tokyo people-watching.
3 Chome-10-34 Minami-Aoyama
One of the most famous bars in Japan, Radio has been under the watchful eye of bartender Koji Ozaki for more than four decades, and its tuxedoed staff pour some of the best classic cocktails you’ll find (try the gimlet). Unlike at many other bars in Tokyo, smoking is prohibited at Radio, as Ozaki believes that a cocktail needs to be smelled as well as tasted, and he doesn’t want a pack of Marlboros getting in the way of that. It’s a good idea to get a little gussied up for this place—drinking is taken seriously, and you’ll have a better time if your attire reflects that respect. Image courtesy of tabelog.com.
Bar High Five
104-0061 Tokyo, Chūō
This is a bartender’s bar. Spend an evening here and you’re likely to be seated next to another mixology professional, as High Five has a global reputation for excellence. Its founder, Hidetsugu Ueno, used to work at the Star Bar before striking out on his own. As at his former workplace, there’s no menu here: Drink selection will be based on a conversation between you and your bartender. It’s a small place, so keep your party to four or fewer, but plan on spending some time here; the second drink you get will be different—and likely even better—than the first.
1 Chome-13-10 Jinnan, Shibuya
Traditionally, great bars in Tokyo have been very liquor focused. Craftheads is every bit as amazing as the old guard bars, but its focus is beer. Here you’ll find a list of beers that may be the most comprehensive in the world, including specialty beers from the US that you can find only in Japan, not to mention rare brews like the always-sought-after Three Floyds Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout. The friendly staff is happy to guide you through tastings of different Japanese and American microbrews, and non-beer drinkers can enjoy a concise, yet expertly curated, bourbon list.
No trip to Tokyo is complete without indulging in a little kitsch and karaoke. Rainbow is as much a spot for veteran would-be superstars as it is for shy-to-sing novices. Many of the rooms have full band kits—drums, guitars, speakers—while others are cozy and private enough for guests coming to sing solo. It’s a stone’s throw from Shibuya station, so it’s easy to get to. The courage issues that alcohol can’t help, sugar might—hence the free ice cream at reception.
This is not a bar; it’s a neighborhood of bars. A few alleys intersect to create a district of drinking: hundreds of small bars, each separately owned and distinct from the others (one is leopard themed, one is themed on the band The Who, another is full of troll dolls—there’s really something for everyone). These are seriously small venues, some seating only or four or five people. At each, it’s quite likely the owner will come over to chat with you (or, in some cases, serenade you). Some of the bars are less welcoming to tourists, so check for signs that say, “OK English.” Expect to pay a cover charge of around $5 per person and make friends with whomever is sitting right next to you