Tokyo Nocturnes

In the wee hours of the morning, down back alleys and behind hidden doors, JOSHUA COOPER RAMO uncovers a city just beginning to come alive.

There is a moment late in the Japanese tea ceremony when the leaves are crushed into the hot springwater and green matcha foam edges up against the lip of a ceramic bowl, making the bubbly liquid look more like soup than tea. The tea master lifts the bowl and turns to the first guest; if he does his job well, time seems suspended for an instant before he passes the bowl along. This very pause—when you hear the pop of wet coals in the fire, feel the chafe of the tatami matting underfoot, smell the fresh-cut grass of the tea—is the secret aim of the ceremony. In the end, it's not about the tea. It's an attempt to answer the question of how art and life intertwine, the Japanese ideal that true beauty comes only when you're so completely absorbed by your senses, you lose the ability to watch time, yourself, or others.

In this same spirit, Tokyo becomes one long exhale from just before midnight until sunrise. It becomes a place where time stands still, the passing of hours experienced only as a succession of sensations: the taste of farm-brewed Japanese whiskey, the feel of soft leather seats, the sound of gently tuned Nippon jazz. There is a way in which some of the world's most memorable photographs capture these moments when life is suspended between past and future, like the instant a tossed ball is moving neither up nor down. You can live out the Tokyo night floating in this same strange place, one that is less a break between two days than it is its own special land, evident in the unique Japanese way of tracking the nighttime hours—25:00, 26:00, 27:00 standing in for 1 a.m. onward.

It's easy to mistake the Tokyo night for a fast sprint, a blur of neon and noise and colliding cultures. But if you venture down the back alleys, behind doors marked only by paper lanterns and chalk symbols or secret slots allowing you entrance with the slip of a hand, you will find another city altogether. In this busy metropolis of 12 million, while most of Tokyo sleeps, a separate world exists, one devoted entirely to the perfection of your senses. Here you'll discover bars specializing in Bordeaux wines paired with fresh Australian cheeses, clubs satisfying crowds with trumpet and jazz combos, restaurants opening round midnight and just beginning to fill up at 2 a.m.

Kazuo Naito receives a box of fresh truffles every week when they're in season. Shipped express from northern Italy, each truffle is packed like a small jewel. In the early evening Naito picks through the box and discards all but the most perfect—a selection that benefits from his 20-year obsession with everything Italian. Throughout the night he serves his customers simple yet sumptuous homemade pasta with shaved truffles. The menu includes other delights—vegetables from Kyoto, venison from the outer islands—but you need not bother. The broad-faced Naito works over a truffle the way you might imagine a 13th-century swordmaker working over his steel, with stern patience. He smiles only out of courtesy, as if the business of preparing and serving a flawless Italian meal at one in the morning is a sacred art. For the guests who pack his subdued restaurant, Vino della Pace, he steadily rolls up his sleeves and shaves out a few ounces of perfection onto their plates. As jazzy tunes play on the stereo and Naito pours you a Barolo from his private collection, you experience one of those time-stopping, sensation-filled tea-ceremony moments.

Tokyo nights are teeming with hosts like Naito, and the challenge is to choreograph a sensual dance through their world. It's a composition that leads easily from the last songs played in jazz clubs such as the Blue Note to the first shouts heard at the tuna auction in the Tsukiji fish market at dawn, the final stop of your nocturnal tour for that sushi breakfast.

Wherever you dine, the perfect night begins with a late dinner orchestrated by a teishu, or house master. This is the person who serves as the conductor of your experience, from what you taste to what you hear. Naito's private cellar, for example, and his delicate skill for combining local ingredients with Italian tradition give him a formidable arsenal. You can get the same experience at Tama, a restaurant in Gaienmae where hypermodern Japanese fare is presented in an environment of absolute tranquillity—polished stainless-steel counters, soft lights, and more smooth jazz. Better still is Matsugen. At this noodle shop, one of the city's best, fresh-made strands of soba are served cold in summer, hot in winter alongside carefully chosen raw vegetables and charcoal-roasted skewered chicken. On certain summer nights, the restaurant features a tomato bar: a selection of nearly a dozen fresh tomatoes sliced and served naked—except for their own clean taste—in palm-size bowls with a scoop of ice to keep them cool. Winter brings grilled vegetables that taste equally of the hot coals they've just escaped and the fields they were picked from earlier in the day.

After dinner, it's drinks at one of the small quiet bars that, as a rule, hold fewer than ten people and are rarely full. At Kuroi Tsuki, or Black Moon, in front of the Tokyu department store in Shibuya, the bartender shapes a perfect fist-size cube of ice to place in your glass of Scotchrocks. As he slides the drink across the bar, the carved square reflects the halogen bulbs overhead and lights up the Scotch like a glass on fire. The economics of these haunts are part of their mysterious charm—though the drinks, which can run up to $40, do offer a hint of how they survive.

At Café Bleu's old subterranean digs in swank Nishi-Azabu, you almost surely would have been one of only three or four customers. The bar's winter special—a perfectly turned-out glass of hot milk mixed with the liquor of your choice, served with freshly made cheesecake—produced a place that was nearly impossible to leave. You'd settle into the banquettes next to rosewood walls and blue velvet curtains thinking it was a pit stop, only to find yourself still there at 5 a.m., your night quietly dissolved in a haze of warm sweet drinks. Yet the landscape of Tokyo's nightlife is ever-changing, and the more lively walk-up bars in Shibuya and Roppongi have endured with their propensity for relaxing and restoring you at the same time. In Minato-ku is the artisanal bakery D'une rareté, which during the day prepares and serves every roll as if it were a small piece of Japanese ceramic. Once the sun sets, the shop turns into a bar and the day's bread is offered with glass after glass of full-bodied red wine and Parma ham shaved off a shank right on the bar.

If this were New York, London, or Beijing, you would be done by now. It's 3 a.m. and you've already pushed yourself beyond the borders of places inhabited by anyone who has a choice about going home or falling in love. But in Tokyo, whole segments of the night are just starting to open up. In Daikanyama, you catch the last set at Tableaux Lounge, a book-lined bar with a fireplace and jazz talent working the keyboard until 4 a.m. In Roppongi, the band at Mistral Bleu quits playing around four and the entertainment changes to what appears to be amateur karaoke—until you realize that some of the people who have wandered in to pick their way through a few standards are among the city's finest vocalists. And then, a little after 28:00 on the Tokyo night clock, you come upon that last stop before daylight, a place like Nado Wado. Buried in an alley in the disco-ball neighborhood of Roppongi, past the crowds wandering between megaclubs such as Alife and Vanilla, Nado Wado is organic Japanese charm. Stuffed into a tiny basement, it looks as if it has been a part of the landscape for several hundred years. Decorated with rough-hewn wooden tables and well-worn seat cushions covered with indigo-blue fabrics from northern Japan, it has a simple menu of local classics and unusual sakes that smooth out your night. With a group of friends, you share a giant bowl of noodles and a plate of fresh sashimi, allowing the hot and cold combination to bounce around your mouth doing a little jig. Beauty is an inescapable narcotic at Nado Wado. Time dissolves. When you climb the stairs to leave, up and into the sunlight, you find that you're not so much a part of the new day as you are floating above it. Amid all the rushing salarymen, 8 a.m. still feels like 32 o'clock.


Address Book

Blue Note Tokyo Raika Bldg., B1, 6-3-16 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/5485-0088; www.bluenote.co.jp
D'Une Rareté 6-13-9 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/5464-2604; www.dune-rarete.com
Kuroi Tsuki (Black Moon) 33-10 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3476-5497
Matsugen Hagiwara Bldg., 1F, 1-3-1 Hiro-o, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3444-8666
Mistral Bleu Roi Bldg., 5-5-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku; 81-3/3423-0082
Nado Wado Jasmack Bldg., B1, 7-13-10 Roppongi, Minato-ku; 81-3/3403-4499
Ristorante Vino della Pace 4-2-6 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; 81-3/3797-4448
Tableaux Lounge Sunroser Daikanyama Bldg., B1, 11-6 Sarugaku-cho, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/5489-2202; www.lounge.tableaux.jp
Tama C. I. Plaza, 2F, 2-3-1 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/5772-3933; www.bigriver.co.jp