In Japan, Drinks and Hospitality Mix


Photo by wickenden/Flickr CC

It's already intimidating enough to walk into one of Tokyo's temples of classic Japanese bartending. The bartenders at Japan's legendary barrooms are known for their ability to carve an ice ball whose brilliance rivals 500-carat diamonds and shake a cocktail so hard that it registers as a seismic event.

So when you do finally find these bars--the difficulty of which is both a function of language and the Tokyo system of address that lists addresses as neighborhood, block and plot--your nervousness is compounded by the forced intimacy. You're practically standing on top of the other guests and bartender at 20 to 30 seats.

When I walk through the door of the High Five Bar after poking around the fourth floor where it's located, and stand face-to-face with a dapper Hidetsugu Ueno--High Five's head bartender--I look as nervous as I did picking up my prom date in high school (sans the badly fitted tux and blue-tipped floral corsage). Thankfully, he greets us in English.

My cocktails are not Eastern variants, but simple, well-crafted drinks that bear the mark of a technician.

After I sit down, Ueno-san introduces himself and asks whether I like football or baseball (for the record I'm a Nationals and Redskins fan, so I like don't like either). It turns out he used to play both. In fact, he used to live in Spokane, Washington. The scene takes a turn from the cold alienation of Lost in Translation to the warm endearment of Cheers.

The bar itself is tiny but cozy, only accented by rare bottles and a large leg of ham that sits at the end of the bar. The window frames passing trains, which makes it seem more like a moving picture. We are handed a warm towel that the bartender first snaps to remove excess moisture. We are also handed snacks, one after the other, starting with a salmon mousse on a thin wafer and we begin nibbling voraciously.

There are no obscure rituals or restricted seating for outsiders. For an imbiber, fear of rejection takes on an entirely different meaning--I imagined ordering incorrectly and sitting there thirsty while happy Japanese topers shout, "kanpai," toasting each other. Ueno-san is neither stern nor discouraged by my pestering questions and naive assumptions. He makes each cocktail with precision and grace, starting with my all-time favorite, the dry martini, while sharing his stories of visiting pilgrims and his own travels abroad.

My cocktails are not Eastern variants, but simple, well-crafted drinks that bear the mark of a technician. Sometimes he even brings out a thermometer to check the temperature of a cocktail. His White Lady, a signature drink culled from the classics, is made without egg whites but has the glistening texture of a melting brook with tiny, broken shards of ice. I generally prefer cocktails without ice shards, but his defense is sound: cocktails with a base of white spirits need to stay cold for the duration of your enjoyment. Cocktails with brown spirits, such as a sidecar, he double strains. This is the kind of thoughtfulness that permeates both his cocktails and demeanor.

The classic Bamboo he serves us is made from two different kinds of sherry, including a touch of Oloroso, and with a ratio of three parts sherry to one part vermouth. His assistant bartender Daiki Kanetaka mixes the drink by pulling it in the style of a Spanish venenciador, pouring the drink at a wide distance between cups. This helps to aerate the drink and is also quite a show; consequently, early cocktails were mixed by a very similar method.

I watch as Ueno-san hand-squeezes a tomato and then proceeds to shake it with two large ice cubes in a plastic shaker to avoid chipping of the ice, which would add more dilution to the Bloody Mary. I have to admit that I'm captivated at this point, but there are still more bars to see and we bid our hosts goodnight.

The next step is a surprise that could only be described as the conclusion of a perfect service; Ueno-san leaves the bar and walks us several blocks to Tender Bar (which I'll write about next). I was astounded and reminded that the most profound gestures of hospitality are strikingly simple but are so rarely performed. The strangeness of Tokyo recedes and I'm confident that the reputation of the High Five Bar has as much to do with hospitality as it does drinks.

Bar High Five, 4F No.26 Polestar Building, 7-2-14 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3571-5815; open 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. (closed Sun.)