Thursday, July 8, 2010

Kampai!! Under and Above ground bars in Tokyo

What better way to end long days of shopping and sightseeing than with a trip to a bar, or Izakaya as the locals refer to. One that we frequented was conveniently located across the road from our Hotel - Monterey Ginza. Japanese Bar Gotts was the best izakaya in town. A tiny room about 2 floors below street level, we found ourselves with a friendly bartender (Tane) who tried to speak as much English as we did Japanese. In the few nights we were there we made friends with the locals and ended up drinking late into every night.
Going through bottles of sake like water, sinking glass after glass of brown sugar brandy and chugging down that much plum wine (of which only Tane knows how many bottles) it was simply the best fun ever. Add to the mix an affordable assortment of Japanese Bar Snacks (the salted edemame and sweat potato with sesame ice cream were standout faves) only japanese spirits and wines and you have yourself a good all round Japanese bar. There was no absolut or jager in sight, which was a great break from other touristy bars.

Tane is also quite good with carving ice and if you visit make sure to help him practice his English in the hope of being able to net himself a good Aussie girl when he comes to visit down under.
And now from Ginza, to Shibuya. What is a trip to Japan without a tiny bit of Karaoke? After climbing up about 4 flights of stairs as we have done so many times previously on our adventures around Tokyo - we find find this little bar. Generally speaking most of the bars in Tokyo are small and have a metre long bar table where patrons sit behind and knock back a few or 50 depending on how the night pans out. As it so happens this bar only had 2 patrons - Gianna and Demos.
We ordered some plum wine from the bartender and had a drink to kill some time before heading back to Ginza. The bartender proceeds to pull out this 5 litre juice plastic bottle from under the bar and pours a cloudy liquid into ice. The plastic jug had all these little green shrivelled plums (from all the alcohol content) bopping inside the bottle. Truly there is nothing more delicious than homemade plum wine - strong and sugary sweet, the perfect liquid courage for what was about to unfold..
The bartender couldn't speak English that well but somehow managed to coax us (mainly Gianna) into singing was indeed a spectacular version of Lady Gaga's Pokerface - and there is video evidence.
Tokyo has an affinity for Jazz bars with that classy american old world charm. Most bars littered around the streets of Shibuya, Ginza, Shinjuku, Omotesando seem to be very dimly lit, fitted with dark timber furniture, long elegant bar tables, bartenders looking sleek in black and white complete with suspenders and most importantly - jazz music.
Its like stepping back into a Japanese 60's esque parallel universe, and it works. The bars are old school and the drinks are traditional but you can chill out after a crazy day shopping and running around over a strong classic cocktail - so strong as it so happens in this case where we dont exactly know where this place was or what exactly we drank..
Locating the illusive Golden Gai area in Shinjuku was a bit of a task. Our best advice is to take the East Exit of Shinjuku Station, head towards the Hanzomon Shrine and Turn left when you see the red wooden posts that signify the entry to a shrine. Follow the path down through the dark lane littered with trees. You know you are there when you come across the 4 very narrow lanes of 2mx2m square rooms that make up the Golden Gai.
The ultimate cluster of bars for the Japanese, the Golden Gai is the area that locals go to have a drink and avoid all those pesky tourists that come and do noting but piss off the locals with their inconsiderate ways including not speaking Japanese (look at us, carrying on like we are locals). Baka Gaijin
These bars without doubt are some of the coolest bars most people would ever come across. All decorated in different ways with all manners of posters and trinkets. The majority of bars here all have cover charge and tourists will find that most are somewhat awkward for tourists to stop by and have a drink. The few that welcome tourists are usually the ones written about in travel guides.
One such bar we found was Le Jette. No English is spoken here, although the owner is fluent in french. This little tiny bar is apparently one frequented by photographers, journalists and even famous directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Francis Ford Coppola.
Decorated with hundreds of french film posters and rows of books upon books and knik knacks and all other crazy zany memorabilia. They serve the best apricot wine as well.
Unlike other Golden Gai bars, this one is quite welcoming to us Gaijin - Just as long as you are not claustrophobic. So yes, thats a run down of our favourite izakaya experiences. When in japan, just roll the dice and walk up or down that narrow stairwell - there will be sake waiting for you on the other side.

Just a word of advice though, maybe skip the reggae bars that litter the red light district of Rapponggi. The music is fun, the drinks are strong and cheap - may come across an oddly assorted group of colourful individuals who will ask you if you indeed want to pass the dutchie to the left hand side!!
Oh Tokyo - Domo Arigato. Kampai!


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