Tokyo's high-end, pilgrimage-worthy cocktail scene dates back to the Meiji era of the 1880s, when the Chrysanthemum kingdom opened up to the world. It sent out emissaries to absorb the best of foreign culture, which included everything from British tailoring to the then-novel phenomenon of American cocktails.
While stateside, martinis were largely put on ice between Prohibition and the craft-cocktail revival of the 1990s, the Japanese continued to cherish (and refine) the tradition. Today, the Nippon Bartending Association oversees the industry, with stringent rules like free-pouring ingredients without wasting a drop (jiggers are frowned upon) and higher staff-to-customer ratios to ensure premium hospitality.
Here are four of the best cocktail bars in Tokyo to explore right now, borrowing from century-old tradition.
Bar High Five
Slink into this train carriage-like basement bar in Ginza and snag one of the 10 stools overlooking the barkeeps. It's the best perch to chat with owner Hidetsugu Ueno, one of Japan's best-known bartenders. Wry and witty, he's married to an American, so speaks fluent English. Ask for a snifter of one of the 200+ scotches and whiskies filling the top two shelves behind the bar, or request a fresh-made, flawless White Lady. The classic (mixed with gin, Cointreau, and lemon juice) has become Ueno-san's signature drink. Bar High Five
Visit this bar to sample Tokyo’s peerless martini. Tucked away on the 10th floor of a Ginza side street building, the plain room is beige and boxy; the only decoration, some baseball knickknacks. There isn’t even any muzak piped in to fill the awkward silences. That’s deliberate, of course. The sole focus of this experience is namesake owner Takao Mori’s martinis (he even wrote a book entirely about them, titled Martini-ism). The 70-something-year-old bartender’s bone-dry gin version—made with Boodles, unless otherwise requested—is served in a hefty, etched coupe glass, with an extra jaunty olive on the side. Mori Bar
“Get Drunk Different,” says the English language sign at the foot of the stairs pointing up to Bar Tram in Ebisu. Here, find a nod to yakushu, or medicinal liquors, especially absinthe. Herby, purportedly healthy tinctures underpin the menu here, devised by owner Takuya Ito, an absinthe obsessive. No wonder the interior resembles a long-lost soundstage from Moulin Rouge! After two or three of absinthe-spiked Bohemian Negronis, you’ll be seeing your own Green Fairy. Bar Tram
Think of Hiroyasu Kayama as a chemistry teacher with a passion for cocktails and, judging by his magnificent quiff, a rockabilly-level fondness for hairspray. There’s no menu at his Scottish-themed bar in Shinjuku. Rather, guests pick a base spirit—gin, whisky, absinthe or amaro—and Kayama will custom-mix a drink to your liking, often using unusual tools, like a pestle and mortar. Ingredients include his homemade herbal tinctures and infusions. Last year, he added a second spot in the same building: the brandy-focused B&F. Bar Benfiddich