An Insider’s Guide to Tokyo’s Best Bars

Courtesy The SG Bar

What you need to know for the best of Tokyo’s nightlife.

From rock-and-roll dives and swish cocktail emporiums to 500-bottle strong whisky libraries stashed away in nondescript office buildings, Tokyo’s bar scene has long set the global nightlife standard. The only problem? Aside from a handful of well-publicised hotel bars, the city’s dense maze of must-visit drinking dens can be quite intimidating to navigate, especially for inevitably overwhelmed and overstimulated Westerners.

To sort things out, we turned to two industry experts intimately familiar with Tokyo nightlife. Gardner Dunn lives in New York but has served as the Senior Japanese Whisky Ambassador for Suntory, Japan’s largest whisky producer, for the last ten years. As a part of his duties, Dunn’s spent a significant portion of his career combing through Tokyo’s robust bar scene. On the less potent side of things is Tokyo-based Hamilton Shields, manager and co-owner of Mikkeller Bar Tokyo, a world-famous craft beer bar nestled in the party-hardy Shibuya district. Here’s where these guys let loose in a metropolis that truly never sleeps.

The SG Club

Dunn describes this sleek Shibuya addition from multi-award-winning barkeep Shingo Gokan as a “cool new bar defining some of the new blood entering Tokyo with innovative cocktails and an NYC feel.” Indeed, Gokan’s innovation spans three floors, each offering its own designated bar, menu, and vibe. Whether you grab a seat at the laidback, Samurai-inspired Guzzle on the ground floor or opt for the basement’s sophisticated, dimly-lit Sip, expect cocktails teeming with fresh juices, unique garnishes (think: Kobe beef jerky, tropical flowers), and housemade tinctures. Savor, a members-only cigar lounge stocked with Cuban smokes, polished wood, and tufted leather, lurks on the second floor. 1-7-8 Jinnan, Shibuya

Bar High Five

At cocktail master Hidetsugu Ueno’s decade-old Ginza institution, the extensive spirits collection is as wide-ranging as it is deep. Bottles hail from all corners of the world, including fine aged rums, obscure liqueurs, and single malts, bourbons, and other top tier whiskies you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. Left in the trusted hands of Ueno’s equally distinguished staff, these elixirs combine to form precisely balanced originals like the Full Bloom, a fragrant blend of Japanese whisky or gin, cherry blossom liqueur, maraschino, and housemade roasted tea bitters best enjoyed from the comfort of High Five’s emerald green velvet banquette or perched along the long, low dark wood bar. Efflore Ginza 5 Bldg. BF, 5-4-15 Ginza, Chuo

Mash Tun

“A bit out of the way, but an amazing selection of whisky, Japanese and otherwise,” Shields says of this Meguro hideaway, its name an homage to the iconic Mash Tun bar in Aberlour, Scotland. 250+ bottles, including many rare, exclusive, and vintage expressions, crowd the rustic wood plank shelves, spilling over onto the thick bar top in rows three or four deep. A neverending lineup of Scottish tunes transports drinkers to straight to the Highlands and the space’s approachable, cellar-like design ensures everyone’s focus remains squarely on the drams at hand. 2-14-3 Kamiosaki, Shinagawa

Rock Fish

“The best highball in Japan is found in this small Ginza bar,” says Shields definitively. “And the old-school Japanese bar snacks are great, too.”

The highball, a refreshing, easy-drinking whisky and soda mashup often presented in a tall frosty tumbler, is a key player in Tokyo’s drinking scene, especially among the afterwork set. And there’s no better place to fuel up on these effervescent sippers than this discrete vintage-style refuge from revered barman Kazunari Maguchi. Instead of serving the cocktail over ice, Maguchi chills the glass, soda water, and whisky separately before combining and topping with a lemon twist. No ice means no dilution, so drinkers won’t miss out on the subtle floral and honeyed grapefruit notes that make Suntory Kakubin Maguchi’s highball go-to, even when it’s used to wash down salty throwback bites like peanuts and tinned fish. 2F 26 Polestar Building, 7-2-14 Ginza, Chuo

Wokini

Tokyo’s known all over the world for its amazing record bars and this Shibuya hole-in-the-wall is one of Dunn’s absolute favorites. “It’s open late night with cool bartenders playing only vinyl,” he says. “The owner speaks great English and is hilarious.” Decked out with graffiti-covered walls and thousands of LPs stuffed into floor-to-ceiling shelves, the beloved neighborhood dive pairs basic cocktails and inexpensive beers with a soundtrack that runs the gamut from hard rock to hip hop.  2-26-5 Dogenzaka, Shibuya

Small World

Stepping into this closet-sized record bar is like entering a private DJ booth filled with affable strangers and plenty of fresh locally-brewed craft beer. Despite the diminutive size, it’s actually a highly versatile space with twin turntables spinning endless handpicked vinyl, indie records for sale, and a coffee and tea setup for daytime browsing. Mikkeller Bar Tokyo’s Hamilton Shields counts the hidden Setagaya gem among his favorite craft outposts in the city, calling it “super local” and nodding to the staff’s willingness to take music requests. 5-30-6 Taishido, Setagaya

Bar Trench

Large square windows framed by glossy dark wood give passersby a peek into this cozy, book-lined cocktail den lauded for finely-crafted drinks and an elegant yet refined atmosphere that evokes the golden age of cocktails, complete with vested (and often mustachioed) barmen. “Tucked into an alleyway, this little Ebisu bar is run by bartender Rogerio Vaz, who is half-Japanese and half-Brazilian with a love for all things absinthe,” says Dunn. “An equally odd amalgam of influences, the menu is built on obscure classics as well as originals from Trench and influential American bars like San Francisco's Bourbon & Branch and New York's Milk & Honey.” 1F, 1-5-8 Ebisu-nishi, Shibuya

Mikkeller Tokyo

Shibuya’s infamously kitchy Love Hotel Hill might sound like a strange location for an industrial-chic craft beer bar from a Danish brewery with an international cult following but in Tokyo, it works. Inside, salarymen (and a few salarywomen) bend elbows with expats and tourists throughout the sleek two-story raw concrete and blonde wood space, enjoying brews handpicked by manager and co-owner Hamilton Shields. While the bar’s 20 taps pour a hefty amount of crowd-pleasers from its award-winning parent brewery, it’s the captivating selections from homegrown producers like the tiny, family-run Ise Kadoya in the coastal Mie Prefecture and Kanagawa’s Yorocco Beer that really shine. 2-19-11 Dogenzaka, Shibuya

Apollo Bar

Banker’s lamps cast a warm glow over vintage whisky bottles and sepia-toned photographs in gilded frames inside this distinguished whisky library. According to Dunn, the Ginza mainstay qualifies as a “next level bar,” and judging from the incredible selection of hard-to-find spirits crowded behind the pine, it’s clear to see why.

“The owner formerly worked at Suntory and decided he wanted to start his own bar, which is very rare,” Dunn explains, referencing the cultural tendency for Japanese workers to stick with one company for the bulk of their career. “He’s created a dark, unique cocktail bar with his own style spotlight.” Among other creations, Dunn is partial to Apollo’s gin and tonic, made with Suntory’s fragrant and citrusy Roku gin. B1F, 8-2-15, Ginza

Bar Benfiddich

While the farmhouse-like decor is warm and inviting—thick reclaimed wood beams, two-tone exposed brick, a large varnished oak slab serving as the eight-seat bartop—the real star of this Shinjuku gem’s show are the handmade tinctures, infusions, bitters, many produced using herbs, fruits, and other botanicals grown nearby by owner Hiroyasu Kayama. (Though Kayama’s bounty of antique spirits, some dating back a century or more, isn’t far behind.) Glass jars full of potions steeped with wormwood, senburi root, fennel, annise, and other flavorful additives find their way into bespoke creations informed by each customer’s individual preferences. It’s part mad scientist apothecary, part high brow cocktail parlor, and a fully exceptional experience. Yamatoya Bldg. 9F, 1-13-7 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku

Star Bar Ginza

Cocktail buffs the world over journey to this underground booze mecca to worship at the altar of owner and legendary bartender Hisashi Kishida, considered a pioneer of Japanese-style bartending. Inside, tufted leather banquettes, smooth dark wood, textured wallpaper, and vested bartenders mirror the Kishida’s artfully restrained, old-world approach to constructing classic cocktails. Hand-chiseled ice, frozen so clear they’re barely visible inside the glass, add to the debonair perfectionism. B1F, 1-5-13 Ginza, Chuo

Pigalle

Tokyo hopheads flock to this narrow beer bar and bottle shop not just for its vast Euro-centric selection but for its notoriously quirky design. Funky knick-knacks like shiny Christmas ornaments, hand drawn cartoons,  dried flowers, and mounted taxidermy cover the bright red walls and strategically-placed speakers blast psychedelic EDM music inside the tiny Pepto Bismol-hued bathroom (the sign on the door reads “Music Room in Pigalle Tokyo Toilet”). Six taps pour an interesting mix of Japanese and imported brews with an emphasis on coveted Belgian styles, a large fridge holds a bevy of canned and bottled releases to take away or drink onsite, and the jovial, beer-savvy bartenders are as welcoming as they are knowledgeable. 2-15-8 Taishido, Setagaya

Gem Yamamoto

Reservations are a must at this intimate eight-seat cocktail emporium where seasoned bartender Gem Yamamoto invites drinkers along on a seasonally-motivated progressive cocktail journey in the form of a curated tasting menu. In Japan, that’s a novel—yet growing—concept.

“[It was] the first cocktail flight bar in Tokyo,” Dunn says about the celebrated Azabu-Juban staple. “Gem is from Tokyo but spent four years in NYC where he honed his skills.”

Expect cheffy originals bursting with locally-sourced produce and upmarket spirits. And don’t forget to admire the bar itself, a stately L-shaped slab carved from a 500-year-old Mizunara oak tree. 1-6-4 Azabu-Juban, Minato

Beat Cafe

Shields gives props to this subterranean Shibuya hipster hub, declaring it a “smoky dive bar with great music and two of my favorite bartenders in Tokyo.” Scrawled graffiti competes for wall space with concert posters, band stickers, off-kilter art, and mounted taxidermy, set to a steady stream of 80s New Wave classics from the likes of the Smiths, the Cure, and Depeche Mode. Cold Sapporo and strong whisky keep the crowd buzzing while a DJ booth hung with a sign proclaiming “No Requests!” only adds to the down-and-dirty charm. B1F, 2-13-5 Dogenzaka, Shibuya

Grandfather's

Shields describes this 45-year-old Shibuya staple as a “cocktail bar with great music, from the Stones to yacht rock, in a cozy basement.” Cloaked from floor to ceiling in dark wood paneling, the underground record bar exudes  a dusty elegance, like a stately bar car aboard an old-fashioned steam engine. Crisp highballs made with Suntory Kakubin and a hunk of crystal clear ice are on order here, accompanied by hearty homestyle fare and whatever new LP has caught the owner’s trusted eye. B1F Flat Bldg, 1-24-7 Shibuya, Shibuya

Ebisu Yokocho

This converted Ebisu shopping mall has been home to a diverse cluster of pint-sized bars and restaurants since opening its doors in 2008. Enthusiastic imbibers from all over the city continue to fill the retro-style arcade’s many nooks, creating a cacophony of clinking mugs and slurping noodles that Shields likens to “street drinking inside.” Between the sake bars, shochu joints, and sizzling yakitori shops, it’s a one-stop-shop for an epic night of bar hopping. 

“Find a seat, grab a snack, and watch a bunch of young people hit on each other,” says Shields. “It’s great!” 1-7-4 Ebisu, Shibuya

Marugin

Standing bars have a long and storied place Japanese nightlife and that goes double for Tokyo, where hordes of salarymen, students, and everyone in between pack these chairless pubs each night for whisky highballs, tasty snacks, and post-workday comradery. This loud, smoky, and ever-lively Ginza corridor hangout that made waves and delighted crowds when it unveiled Tokyo’s first ever Suntory highball machine back in 2008, a bartop contraption that delivers perfectly frosty ready-made Kakubin highballs on tap. Served in a massive glass mug and often dressed up with fruity mixers like yuzu or ginger, the bubbly refreshers pair swimmingly with Marugin’s famously mouth-watering yakitori. 105 Ginza Corridor Street, 7-1 Ginza, Chuo