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Tokyo to Yokohama on a 40-kilometer bar crawl
Stops include Shinagawa Station and a host of bartenders' favorites
My theory: If you want to find a great bar, you should ask a bartender.
And my method: Visit a bar, drink the house specialty, then ask the bartender to suggest the next destination.
I asked Masa Kon, bar manager for the Rigoletto chain, to pick a starting point. Kon introduced me to Tokyo’s cocktail scene several years ago by taking me on the most expensive bar crawl of my life.
This time he nominated Ishinohana in Shibuya.
Stuck-up it's not
Ishinohana happens to be one of my favorite bars. You get all the tea-ceremony precision of classic Japanese bartending but none of the uppityness that often comes with it.
Head bartender Shinobu Ishigaki and his team get hospitality just right, neither aloof nor overly familiar, treating new faces the same as old.
More importantly, the drinks are world class -- in one case quite literally, since Ishigaki’s Claudia cocktail won the Bacardi Martini world championship in 2005.
The Claudia is the drink you see at the top, flamboyantly garnished with a skewer of pineapple leaves, a radish, a cherry and the curling peel of a whole lime.
- More on CNNGo: Why Japanese bartenders are the world's best
If you saw the Tokyo edition of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” you’ll have seen the hard-boiled chef with his lips around this most girlie of cocktails.
He should have asked for the much more manly Polar Star instead, (aquavit, apple syrup, lemon juice). The deliciously sweet-tart drink won Ishigaki the Nippon Bartenders’ Association technique award in 2002.
Like any decent bar, Ishinohana likes to use fresh fruit and veg. Unlike most bars (or greengrocers), their repertoire stretches to dragon fruit, baby carrots and even hozuki, or “Chinese lanterns.”
I expected Ishigaki to send me to Ginza for my next drink. That’s where all the heavyweights work.
“Bar Monde in Shinagawa Station,” he said.
If JR replaced all its railways with stripper-operated commuter roller coasters, I still wouldn’t get excited about Shinagawa Station. Who would open a bar in that dreary hub?
When you see Monde, it all makes sense. It’s the train station equivalent of an airport bar. Heading to Kyoto? A cocktail at Monde is classier than a beer from the kiosk. Rush-hour ride home? A whisky is exactly what you need.
Monde opens at 11 a.m. and people really do drink cocktails that early, in line with the rule that it’s perfectly fine to drink at any hour as long as you’re traveling.
I asked for something short, sharp and seasonal and received a gin and fresh kyohou (those giant, juicy black grapes).
Actually, this is far, far better than an airport bar. You can’t get drinks like this in Narita.
Head bartender here is Yoshimi Kobayashi. With his shaved head, piercing eyes and throaty growl, he gives the impression that he could have you disappeared if the fancy took him. In truth, he’s an amiable, good-humored man, but even if he weren’t, I wouldn’t dare say so.
After picking my way through his spirits (the brandy shelf is rather good), I asked Kobayashi for another destination. He dispatched me to Yokohama.
Bar Casablanca, in the Kannai nightlife district, is run by Daiji Yamamoto, a graduate of the much lauded St. Sawai Orions bar in Ginza.
His is a very grown-up establishment, or to put it another way, you’ll feel more at home here if you can remember where you were when you heard that Elvis died.
Yamamoto is the author of “Cocktail Fresh Fruits Technique,” a book that teaches precisely what it (sort of) says in the title.
The bar’s menu is a chalkboard listing a dozen fruits and vegetables. Pick your produce and the barman will make a beverage of it.
- More on CNNGo: A holy trinity of Tokyo bars
If you want something refreshing, go for the vodka-based “ginger and lime.” If you’ve eaten dinner, try pumpkin (Tiffin, rum, cooked pumpkin, syrup, cream and grated cinnamon). It’s richer and heavier than most cream cocktails and makes a great dessert.
I asked Yamamoto to pick another bar. He chose Luther, also in Yokohama. It’s named after Mr. Vandross and is very dark indeed.
If you’re on a date with someone who doesn’t look good under lighting, pop in. The drinks are perfectly fine.
But when the Luther barman recommended some other Yokohama joint as my next stop, I pulled the plug. After all, how much Yokohama can a man take?
Ishinohana: 3-6-2 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, +81 (0) 3 5485 8405. Website.
Monde: 4/F Atre Shinagawa, 2-8-1 Konan, Minato-ku, +81 (0) 3 6717 0923. Website.
Bar Casablanca: 5-79 Aioi-cho, Yokohama, +81 (0) 45 681 5723. Website.
Luther: 3/F, 4/F Tokaiya Bldg, 2-10-18 Minami-sachi, Nishi-ku, Yokohama, +81 (0) 45 314 8993. Website.