Tokyo's Ginza neighborhood is arguably its most glamorous. The main thoroughfares are dominated by high-end boutiques, global fashion brands, elaborate architecture and an almost palpable sense of wealth—and with good reason. Although it's now a far cry from the reclaimed marsh on which it was erected in the 1600s, Ginza was established as the silver mint of the Edo government.
Appropriate to this romantic tale of rags to riches, the area is also home to many upscale restaurants and classy cocktail bars. Ranging from affordable to ludicrously expensive, it's worth doing some research before a bar crawl here to ensure you don't accidentally stumble into one of Tokyo's most expensive drinking dens. Here are five hideouts spread across Ginza where you can appreciate Japan's vibrant cocktail scene without having to break the bank.
That said, there are a couple of important things to note. All of the bars on this list are accommodating to foreign patrons, unlike some bars in the city, so there's no need to worry on that front. However, you may not be allowed to enter in groups larger than three or four people, and most places will not accept reservations (although they may be able to hold seats for a short period of time). Also, some bars don't offer menus, and thus don't have prices conveniently listed. Expect to pay in the region of ¥1500-¥2000 per cocktail (US$15-$20). On top of that, some places have a cover charge of ¥500-¥1000 (US$5-10), which is standard in many of Tokyo's popular boozing districts, so budget accordingly!
We're coming right out of the gates with a personal favorite of yours truly. Bar Sherlock is a small, suave little cocktail bar hiding on the fifth floor of a nondescript building down an unremarkable side street. Named after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's titular detective, it exudes an aura of the Victorian era from which it gets its inspiration. With only a few tables, period-appropriate furniture, some wooden bar stools, ambient lighting and low-key piano music, Sherlock can be summed up with one word—class. There are no menus, which can be intimidating at first, but the bar staff are very helpful in accommodating patrons' preferences, and also offer recommendations and seasonal specials.
Ever since I saw "The Dude" drinking White Russians in the Coen brothers' '90s cult classic The Big Lebowski, I have been on the hunt for the perfect version of this creamy, coffee-infused cocktail—and Bar Sherlock didn't disappoint! My White Russian was light yet creamy, with a slight hint of sweetness followed by a nice, boozy bite. Although that particular drink might seem... elementary, it definitely proves Bar Sherlock has substance to match its style.
Bar High Five
Bar High Five is similar to Sherlock in that it's all about class and style, although this may not be apparent at first glance since it's located in the basement of an office building. This cocktail bar was featured in The Mind of a Chef (narrated by the late Anthony Bourdain), in which the owner, Hidetsugu Ueno, was referred to as the "Godfather of Cocktails." It's quite the title to live up to, but Bar High Five has the cred to back it up.
The bar is small with only a handful of seats, a few tables and a long polished wooden counter, behind which Ueno-san serves up a variety of his own creation of house cocktails. Many of these are his twist on popular classics, with base and flavor preferences as a key component in the drink's creation—so don't be afraid to tell him exactly what you like. Bar High Five may appear strict, with house rules that prohibit phone calls, flash photography, shouting and other disruptive behavior. But if you respect the simple ground rules, you will be treated with smiles, great service, excellent cocktails and (of course) a theatrical cocktail-mixing performance.
Bar Orchard is one of Ginza's most unique cocktail bars, specializing in (you guessed it) fruity cocktails. It exists on the nexus where modern mixology and a creative design philosophy meet. A theme of Ginza's cocktail scene appears to be that "a bar is only as good as its keepers," which is to say, fantastic. The talented and welcoming husband and wife team of Takuo and Sumire Miyanohara are as much a part of the atmosphere as the furniture or anything else inside Bar Orchard's simple, yet chic, interior. Their myriad cocktail options are served in visually striking displays—ranging from the kawaii (see above) to the elegant. Presentation is key but not the sole focus, as Bar Orchard's cocktails are enriched by the natural, fresh ingredients that make them look so distinct. The menu is a bowl of seasonal fruits and vegetables; simply pick your flavor and how strong you'd like it, and then let the bartenders do the rest. Oh, and prepare to be surprised!
Just a skip down the road from Bar Orchard you can find Gaslight Eve. It's one of Ginza's newest cocktail bars, a welcome mixture of modern and classic. As the name suggests, the interior of the bar is emblematic of the classic, Victorian-style décor by which quiet hideouts are so often inspired, and fits right in with the classy aesthetic of the neighborhood. Contrast to the ambiance, the bar's owner and main bartender Naomi Takahashi represents the modern, as she pioneers a movement toward increasing the number of women bartenders across the nation. Takahashi has earned no shortage of plaudits in recent years from customers and critics alike, including a victory at the 2012 All-Japan Bartender Technical Competition. Her "Wisteria" cocktail is a particularly popular option, and the drink that helped her pick up the award for best aperitif (pre-dinner drink) at the 2013 IBA World cocktail championships— she was the first woman to do so. If you want to indulge yourself in the skills of Takahashi, then a night at Gaslight Eve is a must!
Sporting the same name as one of Japan's most famous samurai is Bar Musashi, a simple water hole that lacks pretension of some other places in the area. As such, it regularly harbors patrons of all stripes and welcomes groups of all sizes. Its spacious interior is a little more rustic than the previous entries on this list, but that doesn't detract from the quality of the alcoholic offerings—they'll concoct any kind of cocktail you desire, and also have a large selection of Japanese sake, a collection of fine whiskey and even beer on tap (which is usually hard to come by in high-end cocktail bars across Tokyo). You also don't need to worry about venturing in here on an empty stomach, because Bar Musashi serves fantastic food, well beyond eclectic cocktail nibbles or standard bar snacks. So if you fancy a bar that feels homely, yet imbued with a touch of class, Bar Musashi should hit the spot.