June 7, 2011 / 12:57 PM / 7 years ago

The Spirited Traveler: Toasting in Tokyo

NEW YORK (Reuters) - - “Kampai!” is the Japanese equivalent of “Cheers!” If you’re traveling through Tokyo, with its vibrant array of sake, shochu, whisky and cocktail bars, this is one word you’ll get to know well.

<p>Bottles of malt whiskey are displayed at a whiskey merchandising event in Tokyo February 10, 2008. REUTERS/Issei Kato</p>

I’ve been enjoying a new book about this very topic, “Drinking Japan” by Chris Bunting, a Tokyo-based newspaper journalist; a portion of the book’s proceeds are donated to Japan Earthquake Relief.

“Post-war Japanese business culture was at least partly built on hard drinking,” Bunting says. “The cultural norm was for salarymen to spend endless long evenings out on the town with colleagues and clients.”

Although that norm has relaxed somewhat, Japan still enjoys a “complex and deeply rooted drinking culture.” However, in order to enjoy Tokyo’s watering holes, first you need to find them.

“The best bars are not always the ones that you can see into from the street,” Bunting warns.

Further, travelers should know that most bars in Japan have an entrance fee, often levied by giving a small dish of food that has not been ordered by the customer but is put on the bill.

While far from a comprehensive list, here are a few of Bunting’s Tokyo picks:

For sake: Akaoni 9 (Sangenjaya 2-15-3) is perhaps the best-known premium sake pub in Tokyo, offering more than 100 varieties of the rice-based spirit. Meanwhile, Shusaron (2F, Takanawa 4-10-18) is “quite simply the best place in the world to drink aged sake,” in large part due to the encyclopedic knowledge of landlord Nobuhiro Ueno.

For shochu: The Zen (2-18-1 Konan, Minato-ku) offers a relaxed atmosphere for drinking shochu (an eau-de-vie-like spirit distilled from sweet potatoes, rice or grains). Drinks are grouped by ingredient and color-coded: yellow dots signify drinks best served over ice, blue dots recommend serving with ice water, red for warm water and green for straight up).

For whisky: Japan is famed for its enthusiasm for Scotch and other whiskies. Japanese single malts are also finding international acclaim, with Yamazaki and Hibiki among the best-known brands. Ken’s Bar (Maruha Bldg. B1, 1-1-7 Kabukicho, Shinjuku) draws in homesick American business travelers, such as workers from Microsoft Japan’s office in Shinjuku, with good jazz and a great selection of Bourbon and other American whiskys.

For cocktails: Don’t expect to drink and dash: In Japan, and Tokyo in particular, the art of bartending involves much ritual, from wiping the label of a bottle to hand-carving a perfect sphere out of ice. Tender Bar (Nogakudo Building, 6-5-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku) is the pinnacle of this tea ceremony cocktail aesthetic, under the watchful eye of the legendary Kazuo Uyeda.

(Kara Newman is the author of “Spice & Ice: 60 tongue-tingling cocktails,” available. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Editing by Peter Myers

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