“Hai, hai. We are here, but uh…our boss is not here.”
“So…does that mean you’re open? Should we still come in?”
Six of my friends and I were in Tokyo on vacation when the earthquake hit. We had arrived the previous Saturday and enjoyed a full week of taking in everything we could before seismic waves threw a curve ball. While Tokyo was relatively unaffected—broken glass, closed shops, stopped trains—we woke up Saturday thinking: Now what?
Amidst the periodic aftershocks and emergency sirens with instructions in Japanese, the decision was unanimous. We needed a drink.
Star Bar in Tokyo’s high-end Ginza district was at the top of our wish list. Their bar master, Hisashi Kishi, is a legend. An International Bar Association World Champion by the age of 24, he’s hailed by cocktail aficionados as the best bartender in Japan. As Executive Director for the Nippon Bartenders’ Association, he writes their official handbook recipes. You can say he wrote the book on cocktails—literally.
And there we were at his doorstep. We had originally gone to the nearby Bar High Five, which also appears on many of the “World’s Best Bars” lists. Owner Hidetsugu Ueno actually got his start at Star Bar before going on to open his own place.
The scene there was heartbreaking. Ueno (the sweetest looking man in glasses and natty suspenders) was alone in the bar. The floor was covered in broken glass; the air filled with the overwhelming smell of alcohol.
“We’re so sorry. This is terrible. Are you ok?”
He is “depressed,” he says. He wished he could have made us a drink; we wished so too. He bowed a lot, told us Star Bar was still open, and said that we should “please, enjoy his country tonight.” We walked the 15 minutes or so to Star Bar, still contemplating the chances of him letting us help with the cleanup.
A bronze plaque on a granite pillar welcomes you before you descend the stairs to the basement level.
“Come linger about for awhile,
Gossamers of warmth kindle your heart,
Holding lasting memories of this night.
Celerity, sincerity, and with a smile…”
The bar is minuscule by American standards, but that’s the thing with most in Tokyo. It’s dark and cozy, decorated in rich leather, stained woods, and vintage wallpaper with a soundtrack to match. It’s traditional without being stuffy; old school without a soupçon of kitsch. It’s also completely empty.
Hesitating in the doorway, we’re greeted by three of the cutest, bow-tie clad Japanese men you can imagine. The one closest to the door explained to us, in rather good English, that the bar master is gone. A second or two of confusion passed while we gauged whether or not they still wanted us to come in before it’s clarified. Apprentice Yamasaki Tsuyoshi will make our drinks in “the boss’s” absence.
Tsuyoshi is quite accomplished in his own right. He worked for over three years before being allowed to even mix a drink. He mentions being especially interested in sherry. Looking online later, I realize that he’s actually a sherry world champion.
Our first round of drinks is semi-bartender’s choice. A few of us asked for specific cocktails, a few named a spirit they enjoy (gin or whiskey). He suggested to me a fresh strawberry cocktail made with rum and “very rare strawberries.” They can’t be bought at the grocery store he says, “only farm.” It’s delicious.
Just as we were ready to order our second round, from around the side of the tall banquette, arrives Kishi himself. Caught up in the moment of being in Tokyo, being in such a renowned bar, sipping one of the most expensive drinks I’ll probably ever have—my excitement was on par with seeing a Beatle. Our next rounds would be prepared by him—his selections, naturally.
As we sipped our second drinks, Kishi arrived tableside with a wooden cutting board and a block of ice. A private demonstration! Japanese bartenders in particular are obsessed with ice. The large slabs of ice they use are frozen slowly over the period of three or four days so they are crystal clear & highly dense. Kishi shined a flashlight through the block.
“No bubbles. Special ice water, very special ice.”
Holding a large knife fashioned out of the same carbon steel used in Japanese swords, he gently tapped the edge through the ice with a mallet.
“Slowly, slowly, slowly. No ice pick.”
He then carved a cube into the shape of a diamond, placed it in a rocks glass, poured vodka over the top, and passed it around the table for us to appreciate.
Ice class over, we enjoyed a round of sidecars, Kishi’s signature cocktail. He prepares it with a hard shake he actually invented: The Infinity Shake. The short figure-eight movements cool the liquid without smashing the ice and watering down the drink. (On a portable DVD player, he showed us video of him and his famous shake featured on a show called Einstein TV.) At that point, the night couldn’t have gotten better.
Every drink we had was superb; they were definitely the best I’ve ever had. A mint-julep arrived in a pewter tumbler and was a refreshing version of the Southern classic. A fresh-fruit cocktail made with sour kumquats was kicky and sweet. My gimlet was impossibly cold—an elegant blend of juniper notes and tart lime. Small snacks were brought to the table, including salted soy nuts and a lovely bite of raspberry cream cheese atop a delicate wafer.
Kishi really is the best of the best. His passion towards the art (and science) of mixology is apparent in the care that he gives to every drink component. His lifelong dedication is emblematic of the Japanese spirit that appreciates even the most elemental aspects of daily life. Simplest luxuries—from a single-stem flower in a vase to a folded cocktail napkin placed next to your glass for a discarded toothpick—are elevated. The commonplace is lifted enough to graze something divine.
And what made everything sweeter was the humility with which they shared their talents. There’s no swagger or bravado to be found. However, that doesn’t mean Star Bar is unaware of its excellence. Kishi’s face beamed as he showed us a magazine with his picture on the cover.
The final drink of the night was the Star Bar take on the Bloody Mary. Freshly juiced tomatoes—passed around the table and admired before being pulverized—Absolut Peppar, a dash of fresh pepper, and a salted rim are a far cry from the spicy brunch-table staple. This one tasted like Summer and awakened sentiments about the afternoon you last enjoyed something so simple and refreshing.
“You are very lucky, because of the earthquake, that you are here tonight. Usually, we are very, very busy. No seats.”
I winced a little inside at Tsuyoshi’s word choice, thinking about the Japanese to the north. A native English speaker would’ve phrased it differently, but I understood what he meant. The whole night felt parenthetical—magically separated from the outside world. We spent an entire evening in an empty bar with a legend who opened his home to us. All seven of us. On a Saturday.
When we walked up the stairs to leave, all three of the young bartenders follow us up to the street. Bow-ties, suspenders and smiles—it made me melt. They waved to us while we walked, at least for a block or two until we turned. I don’t remember if we were even supposed to take that left or just turned so they could walk back inside. I left feeling more in love with Tokyo than ever before. Lucky indeed.
Star Bar Ginza, B1F Sankosha Building, 1-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku,Tokyo; (03) 3535-8005
Bar High Five, 4F No.26 Polestar Building, 7-2-14 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3571-5815
Extend your hand. Donate to the earthquake & tsunami relief today. Or, download The Morning Bender’s Japan Echo EP. All of the proceeds will go to the Japan Society’s Earthquake Relief Fund.