At a Tokyo Bar, Glamour Has Its Price


Photo by David Nakamura

Let me get right to the disappointing part about my recent evening at the Tokyo Park Hyatt's New York Bar, the lounge made famous in the movie Lost in Translation:

I didn't stumble upon a sultry Scarlett Johansson drowning her loneliness in a cocktail. Nor, for that matter, did I meet any other beautiful, married woman looking for a spiritual connection she wasn't getting from her husband. (Note to my wife: Not that I was seeking one; it just would have made for a better story.)

In lieu of Scarlett, what you fall in love with, after a glass or two of Suntory whiskey, is the view from the bar's plate-glass windows: all of Tokyo, dense and vast, stretched out before you on your perch 52 floors up; thousands of red airplane warning lights twinkling atop the buildings. Inside, the lounge was lit by an orange glow, as an American jazz band worked through its set. I could see how one might strike up a quiet, illicit romance under different circumstances.

Andrew tasted another Suntory brand, Hakashu, a single malt aged 12 years, and blanched. "If I were Scottish, I would be appalled," he said, before switching to a Kingsbury.

Except that the place was packed last Saturday night, when my friend, Andrew Oros, and I decided to bite the bullet on what we knew would be a costly evening and pay the $20 apiece cover charge for a seat. A mix of Japanese and gaijin couples filled the leather seats, with here and there a few singles who might have been guests at the Park Hyatt, located in the office tower section of the lively Shinjuku neighborhood. A Russian man on a business trip sat down next to us and explained he was staying at another hotel but came over to check out the view. He ordered a non-alcoholic cocktail and a cheese plate.

The New York Bar has become a tourist trap since its appearance in Sophia Coppola's 2003 hit. It tries to live up to expectations by enacting a strict dress code. Andrew, a U.S. college professor of East Asian security and politics, had spent the day writing in shorts and sandals and was asked, when we showed up at the bar on a whim, to change into slacks and lace-ups provided by the hotel. (Oddly, they didn't seem to mind that he was wearing a gray Tokyo University t-shirt.)

We had already eaten at a nearby izakaya, one of Japan's ubiquitous neighborhood pubs that serve a selection of bar food: yakitori, croquettes, an eggplant salad mix. At the New York Bar, it was all about the cocktails. Though they serve a variety, including Scotch such as Johnnie Walker, I agreed to try one of Suntory's upscale brands: Hibiki, a blended whiskey aged 17 years. It was the brand Bill Murray's character acts as pitch-man for in the movie.

To me, though, the Hibiki was a bit sharp--too much "intensity," as the movie might put it. I opted instead for a Suntory Yamazaki, a single malt aged 18 years and very smooth.

Andrew tasted another Suntory brand, Hakashu, a single malt aged 12 years, and blanched. "If I were Scottish, I would be appalled," he said, before switching to a Kingsbury.

In all, we had three drinks apiece. Last call is 11:30 p.m., and as the jazz band wound down, so did we, asking for the check. That turned out to be the second most disappointing thing about my trip to the Park Hyatt: the tab came to 20,000 yen--about $200. Call it "Lost in Calculation": I barely had enough money for the $20 cab ride home.

I woke up the next morning with a throbbing headache and a sense that I had been unwittingly seduced after all.