So, guess what? I love Tokyo. Tell you something you don’t know?? Don’t worry, I plan to. We just got back from our fourth trip to Japan a week ago and I am still recovering from all the awesomeness. It’s a truly vibrant city, absolutely chock-a-block full of wonderful establishments to get varying degrees of drunk in. So here we go with the second volume in what I’m sure will be an ongoing saga of tipsiness in Tokyo (Part 1 is here). We did return to quite a few of the scenes of our old crimes, but I’ll feature only all the new places we discovered on this trip. Are you ready? Let’s go!
MYSTERY IZAKAYA #1
Every single neighbourhood in Tokyo is crawling with tiny little izakayas* where the beer and sake flow freely (and usually the staff don’t speak English). Here’s my advice to you. Learn a few phrases. Some that we found useful are “Nama biru, o kudasai” which translates as “Draft beer please”. Very handy indeed. Another that we used a lot was “Osusume” which translates as “Whatever you recommend”. This can be used to refer to a choice of sake, or an entire food menu. We’ve used it for both with unmitigated success. Don’t be fussy, just eat what they give you. It’s going to be amazing.
So, it was our first day in Tokyo. We’d found our Airbnb, dropped off our bags and headed out into the mean streets of Shibuya looking for some action. About two minutes later we found it when we walked by this little place. The plan was to grab a beer to hydrate, and some gyoza for energy before moving on – there’s such a plethora of restaurants and izakayas, there’s no point staying in one place too long, you’ve just gotta keep moving. Or at least that’s our motto. So while we were relishing our gyoza and beer we noticed that EVERY single other person in the place was eating this weird looking cabbage stew. We thought, fuck it and decided to get one each. Oh my god, what a perfect thing to eat on a freezing cold Tokyo winter night. Comforting, warming, delicious. It was packed with chewy noodles, fatty pork bits that just melted in your mouth, and seafood galore. It was a delight.
Because every good izakaya serves beer.
The first stop on our Gyoza Tour Of Tokyo
Noodle, pork and seafood hotpot with cabbage.
LAST:ORDER WINE BAR
There’s a whiskey bar in Minato called Bar Le Coq which we stumbled upon a couple of years ago and decided we had to go back to. When we arrived, we were disappointed to find that the street sign heralding its presence in an unassuming residential building was no longer there. Perhaps it had closed. Being the intrepid travellers that we are though, we decided to go upstairs and try anyway. We walked up the stairs and faced what appeared to be the front door of someone’s apartment. We looked at each other, and pushed the door open. And there it was, in all it’s glory. But different. Unfortunately, the old owner had died of a heart attack in the two years since we’d last been and it was no longer a whiskey bar, having morphed into a wine bar called Last:order. We ordered some whiskey as a tribute to the previous owner and looked around the empty bar, wondering how the place stayed afloat with absolutely no signage and no patrons, when suddenly the door flung open and a group of young movers & shakers took the place over (which wasn’t hard as it is a very small bar, probably smaller than your living room). Over the course of our drink (which was supplemented with some very tasty Pinot Noir, compliments of the owner) we learned that we were in the company of a famous Tokyo film director and actor, and their entourage. That’s how we do, folks!
Mmmm, Pinot Noir – oh, and a whiskey highball. And an incredible bar made of a single, twenty foot long, piece of wood.
南青山4-1-8 Minato-ku, Tokyo
+81 3 6438 9864
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ABOUT LIFE COFFEE BREWERS
Every good lush knows exactly where to get good, strong coffee for those morning-after paroxysms. I’d done my research and we tried a few different ones, but the best (and the closest to our Shibuya apartment) was About Life Coffee Brewers, a small little shop window on a street corner. The coffee was tasty, strong and consistent. And that’s about all you need to know.
Good coffee’s worth waiting for.
1-19-8 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku
+81 3 6809 0751
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Since we’re always on the lookout, our eyes peeled for drinking opportunities, we happened to notice that two doors down from About Life Coffee was a place called SAKESTAND. We were intrigued, so we decided to explore (mind you, this was after a little skiing mishap I’d had, so navigating the steep stairs of this establishment was a bit of an ordeal, but totally worth it in the interests of research). What first struck us is that the staircase is completely wallpapered in sake bottle labels. Very fucking cool. Upstairs revealed a cute (and yes, tiny) space that kind of resembled an espresso bar in Italy – standing room only, hence the name. We asked the lady behind the bar to recommend a sake for us (“osusume”) and she gave us a very fine selection indeed. Unfortunately we had to pack for our flight home that evening, so we couldn’t linger, which is a shame. But probably a good thing. But we’ll definitely come back next time. And so should you.
What it says on the label. Immediately to the left of this door is About Life Coffee.
Steep stairs. Sake labels.
Sake in a wine glass, coz we’re fancy like that.
〒150-0043 Tōkyō-to, Shibuya-ku, Dōgenzaka, 1 Chome−19−8, 2F
+81 3 6416 4200
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MYSTERY IZAKAYA #2
Here’s the thing about Tokyo. As of a few minutes ago there are 82,824 restaurants in the city. And that’s only counting the ones that are registered on Tripadvisor. Our favourite restaurant in Tokyo, No Name Teppanyaki isn’t even on there. Thank god or it might be overrun with tourists (we’ve never seen another gaijin eating in there and I hope we never do which is pretty awful of me, but that’s just what I’m like, and if you didn’t know me by now, well… that’s on you). Anyway, what I’m trying to tell you is that when you want to get drunk in Tokyo, just take a walk. There’s an izakaya calling your name, just around every corner. For instance, one afternoon after gorging ourselves on Nagi Golden Gai ramen, but before heading out for a late fancy sushi dinner we needed somewhere to go for an in-betweenie. We spotted this mystery izakaya half a block from our house, and we took the plunge. This place was a particular challenge as it had signs all the way down the staircase exclaiming “No English, Japanese only”. We slid open the door and a lady stared us down. In my very broken Japanese I asked if we could come in for some sake. She looked dubious. I looked her in the eye and said, “I understand Japanese” in Japanese, and she bought it!!! The farce didn’t last long (who the fuck did I think I was fooling), but she served us sake anyway and then told us to get the hell out. But it was nice while it lasted. My advice to you? Give it a go. Walk through that curtain, slide open the door and say “Konban wa”.
She filled our glasses to overfilling, but refused to refill them because we wouldn’t order anything to eat. I liked her. I liked her a lot.
If you travel to an amazing city like Tokyo just to get drunk, sorry buddy, but you’re doing it wrong. You need to balance all that drinking with some culture (especially the kind where you can grab a beer at the same time). This is something I refuse to compromise on, being the high-culture hound that I am (cough cough). And so, we went to see the Sumo. Firstly, this is some serious Japanese culture right here. I’m not going to go into the history of it, but there’s a LOT of history – check it out. Secondly, I am going to make a huge confession and admit that the last time we’d had reservations to see the Sumo, we missed it because we were so hungover from karaoke the night before (more on that later). And just to give you some perspective on that, you can enter the stadium anytime up until 3pm. So yeah, we were hungover. Anyway, this time we made SURE we got there on time – and we were so glad we did. We expected to maybe hang around for an hour, watch a match or two, tick the box and leave. But no, we were there for nearly three hours, drank a few beers each and had a rip roaring time. Check out the video below of one of the earlier bouts. AMAZING!! If you’re in Tokyo during Sumo season this is a MUST do – we’ll definitely be back. Word of warning, if you stump for those ringside seats be prepared to have a Sumo wrestler fall on, and probably crush, you.
This is the crowd at 3pm on a Thursday!!!! Completely booked out.
Check out the unbelievable athleticism. No, I’m not joking. These guys train like warriors. They’re agile, flexible and STRONG!!!
1 Chome-3-28 Yokoami, Sumida-ku, Tōkyō-to 130-0015
+81 3 3623 5111
Various tournaments throughout the year
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DAVID BOWIE IS
OK, so I’m posting two culture hits in a row. Whaaaaaaat?? Who am I anyway?? Trust me, I was drunk at both, so it’s fine. But seriously, when a friend (thanks Cath) gives you the heads up that this exhibition is going to be in town at the same time as you are, you book the goddamn tickets. And because I am rather self-actualised, we paid extra for the “come-whenever-you-want-and-not-at-a-specific-date-or-time” tickets. Worth every yen. Unfortunately, cameras were strictly forbidden in the exhibition itself, so I couldn’t take any pics of the exhibits, but let me just say that we spent three hours poring over his handwritten notes, mind-blowing costumes, video footage, interviews, music clips and much much more. The most I have ever spent in any museum or gallery is an hour – tops. We actually ate into valuable drinking time by staying that long, but it was just so mesmerising. I loved David Bowie before. Now, I feel like I know him, and love him even more. If you have the chance, go. Just go. It’s on in Tokyo until 9th April 2017.
It was light when we went in.
Dark when we came out.
Yes, he is.
Oh, you pretty thing.
Check website for details.
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This bar in Ebisu is on the same street as our favourite No Name Teppanyaki. It’s kind of an imposing place, inside and out, and it definitely divides people. Tripadvisor is peppered with reviews saying things like “worst experience in Tokyo”, “very unfriendly to foreigners”, “rude people, not worth the visit”, “rudest staff I’ve ever encountered” and, quite alarmingly, “the downside of Japan”. On the other hand, some of the reviews state “a must visit if you love early rock music”, “amazing listening bar” and “not for everyone, but I loved it”. Guess which camp I sit in! So, you walk in to this place and are abruptly told not to take photos. And then the bar staff kind of ignore you until you actively seek their attention. There’s no cocktail menu, per se, so that pisses people off too. And then, there’s the fact that the staff don’t speak much English. How inconsiderate!!! Seriously people, get over yourselves. The bar has great booze, amazing records spinning and a lively atmosphere. What the hell is not to like about that. We got the attention of our surly bar lady and with our broken Japanese ordered some whiskey cocktails, dealer’s choice. She whipped up some very tasty concoctions and left us to enjoy them while she changed records. She seemed to be in charge of the music, so of course I started wondering if she was Martha. After our second round of osusume cocktails (gin for me and tequila for David), I mustered up the Dutch courage to hobble together in Japanese the question, “Are you Martha?”. A huge smile crossed her formerly surly face and she ran to the back of the bar to flick through some albums. She came back and showed me the back of Tom Waits’ album, Closing Time and pointed to one of the songs, “Martha”. She smiled again as we put on our coats and left. See, it’s not that hard to make friends with people that others might consider rude. All you’ve gotta do is be silly, nice and just a little bit drunk.
Uh, I’ll do what I goddamn please. In the toilet anyway.
But not where people can see, and evict, me – in which case I’ll use a photo I found on Google Images. Two walls are completely covered, from floor to ceiling in records. Vinyl heaven!!!
The last song on Side 1 – Martha.
1 Chome-22-23 Ebisu, 渋谷区 Shibuya-ku, Tōkyō-to 150-0013, Japan
+81 3 3441 5055
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What is a yokocho, you ask. I must admit, I was also in the dark until our most recent trip enlightened me, as I am about to enlighten you. The literal translation is “an alleyway off to the side of a main street”. How that translates into real life is a collection of small eateries and drinkeries all collected in an enclosed alleyway. This is NOT fancy food. It’s rough, and it’s a little bit intimidating, but it’s also a lot of fun. We were in between eating gigs (again) and only had time to drop in for a quick sake. This little shop had a few big bottles peering at us seductively, so we stopped for a while. The only other customers were three burly Japanese men who good-naturedly (I think) made fun of us until we took off our coats and sat down. Once we were seated, I instantly felt at home and we osusume’d our way to this delicious sake (I told you that phrase came in handy). My suggestion to you, if you want to visit a yokocho – have a drink before you go, just to loosen up a bit, and then walk through and try a little something something from each of the shops. While they all serve something different, the one thing on the menu that they all offer is Japanese hospitality.
So you can aim where you’re drinking.
Really delicious sake in a really rough and tumble alleyway.
Some stalls are open from 1100, but most open at 1700 and stay open until very late
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BIG ECHO KARAOKE
What to say about karaoke in Tokyo. Bloody hell! Just… bloody hell. It’s fun. It’s dangerous. It’s addictive. It’s something we do every time we go to Tokyo, and something we will continue doing whenever we go back. We like the Big Echo chain, and in particular the one across the street from Ebisu Station. They have different size rooms depending on your group, and we always get the smallest but there’s still room for at least four people in there (maybe you’ll join us next time!). It ain’t fancy but it has everything you need. There’re booths, a table, a television and speakers, microphones, tambourines, a telephone and a drinks menu. There might be a food menu too, but I wouldn’t know coz we don’t come here to eat, bitches! We come here to sing, and we come here to drink. What we like to do is order bottles of dry sparkling sake and glasses of umeshu, a kind of sour, kind of sweet liqueur made from ume plums. And what we do is tell the staff to keep ’em coming!! Because everyone knows you can’t do karaoke unless you’re drunk! Time behaves differently in Big Echo. You walk in at 10pm, all bright eyed and bushy tailed and ready to party, and about forty five minutes later you’re stumbling out into the cold street and it’s 4.15am! This happens ALL the time. I tell you – it’s dangerous. This time we decided we had to do a David Bowie, George Michael and Prince tribute. Seven hours wasn’t enough, so we did another five hours a few days later. Dangerous.
Enter these doors if you dare.
Various locations throughout the city
Thank god for Afuri Ramen. In more ways than one. Firstly, it’s fucking amazing ramen – a lighter variety that’s made from chicken rather than pork stock, it’s also seasoned with yuzu, a tangy Japanese citrus that makes the soup dance in your mouth. Secondly, it closes at 5am which is the ONLY reason we ever left the Big Echo karaoke before the sun came up. I swear, if this place was open 24 hours a day, we’d still be doing karaoke. This ramen calms you down, but revitalises you at the same time. It’s a miracle cure for whatever might ail you, especially if you’ve gone a little overboard on the drinking. You MUST eat here if you are ever in Tokyo. And when you face down that vending machine all written in Japanese, just press the button with the handwritten sign that says #1 Classic. That’s all you need to know. You will thank me later.
What you need to perk you up at the end of a long night of drinking.
We stuck to the classic Tanrei (which was recommended), and never once felt we were missing anything.
Oh my god, the ramen.
1F, 117 Bld., 1-1-7 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
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LIBRARY LOUNGE THESE
So there was a LOT of beer and a LOT of sake drunk on this trip (did you happen to notice that?). Sometimes, you just get a hankering for a good ol’ cocktail, so we headed out to find Library Lounge These (with a minor accidental detour to a French/Japanese fusion izakaya for a glass of wine along the way). When we arrived, we were greeted warmly (a stark contrast to the welcome we received at the edgier Bar Martha) and shown to the bar before being presented with a bowl of fruit and asked to pick a couple each. David went with pomegranate and lemon, while I chose mint and lemongrass. Hey, we’re nothing if not adventurers. We watched the man behind the bar do his magic and then marvelled at the beautiful libations he presented us. And then we drank them, and we ordered some more. This is a really lovely place where you could spend some serious time having some seriously good cocktails.
Fruit, glorious fruit
Pomegranate & lemon
Lemongrass & mint
Pear & ginger
Tequila negroni – YUM!
〒106-0031 Tokyo, Minato, Nishiazabu, 2−15−12, カルテットビル 1F
+81 3 5466 7331
1900-0400 (-0200 on Sundays)
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* an izakaya is a place that serves sake but usually only with food – it’s not a bar, it’s not a restaurant, it’s an izakaya.