Japan Eats

Boozehound: Bar Albatross (Shinjuku)

If it weren’t for Tokyo’s ongoing economic troubles, Golden Gai – that shanty town wedged between Shinjuku’s Hanazono Shrine and Kabukicho – could well have been turned into condos or (worse!) a Mori-style shopping precinct. After all, it was repeatedly targeted by developers in the bubble years. Somehow this ramshackle collection of bars (about 175 at last count) survived the heady 80s and early 90s. Hanazono Hills was not to be.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about Golden Gai is that it manages to be both determinedly nostalgic whilst never lapsing into self-parody. Anyone who has visited Harajuku or Yokohama’s Chinatown will be familiar with Japan’s penchant for Disneyfication (take something unique, extract anything controversial and wait for the tour buses). Thanks to a new generation of bar owners, however, Golden Gai retains what made it interesting in the first place – individually-themed bars, cramped seating and the whiff of a sordid past.

Hidden on dimly-lit 5th street is a two and a half storey wooden building that enjoys all of these qualities. Bar Albatross resembles a dolls-house with its scaled down furniture and narrow wooden stairways. Burgundy walls are adorned with picture frames and a chandelier hangs from the upstairs ceiling. Make it all the way to the ‘attic’ space above the second floor and you’ll get a great view of the regulars chatting and drinking below.

The bar has a fairly extensive menu mostly priced around the 700 yen mark. There are beers, shochu and a wide variety of spirits on offer. On my last visit I stuck to the relatively unadventurous Moscow Mule, but you’d do well to sample some of the bar’s other cocktails.

The staff are friendly without being overbearing. If downstairs is full, latecomers are encouraged to go upstairs where there is a second bar with space at one long counter. It can be somewhat nerve-wracking watching tipsy guests wobbling up the rickety wooden stairs to the second floor, but most seemed oblivious to the threat of falling.

Given that the seating fee is a low 300 yen per person,  the bill works out to be inexpensive. And the sit-down charge includes a small otooshi – nimono or some similar nibble to balance all that alcohol.

With places like Bar Albatross, Golden Gai’s future has never looked brighter.

Bar Albatross is located in Golden Gai, Shinjuku. Go out of the East exit of Shinjuku Station and turn left. Cross Shinjuku-Dori and make your way to Yasukuni-Dori. Turn right and then left into the park beside Mr Donut. Go through the park and then continue past Champion. The bar is on the right side of 5th street, four narrow alleyways after the karaoke bar. Look for the sign above the door.

Address: Kabukicho, Golden-gai (5th street), Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Telephone: 03-3203-3699
Home Page http://www.alba-s.com
8:00pm-05:00am

Boozehound: Keel (Shibuya)

It’s Men-Only (except on Sundays), we’ll put that up front.

Keel is a nice combination of local and stylish. The owner hangs around dispensing wisdom and recommendations on shochu, which is what this bar is all about. (Umeshu – including a lovely yuzu-infused delight – and beer are the other options. The only other options.) Read more

Boozehound: Shimo-Igusa Ni-chome

I may be stealing Marcus Lovitt’s thunder by reviewing this little gem, which he recommended to me, but he’s busy with Japan Booze, Blind and all that food porn, so I got dibs on the aptly and simply-named Shimo-Igusa Ni-chome. Read more

Boozehound: Tara no Oka (Nakano)

While Tokyo’s urbanization works its way West and the chain shops of the suburbs work their way into the center of town, variety and smallness go the way of Tora-san films and doing research in libraries – things people over a certain age remember and talk about, but things that just aren’t really around much anymore.boozehoundarticlelogo copy

Thankfully, there are some pockets of interest left around the city and one of those is the area North of Nakano Station east of Nakano-dori and south of Waseda-dori, centered on the narrow, pedestrians-only Fureai Road.

Go one block East of Fureai Road (make a right, then a left if you’re walking from Nakano Station), and two blocks South of Waseda-dori, on a corner on your left-hand side, facing you, you’ll see a green door and an unassuming green shingle reading: Tara no Oka. The Hill of Tara. Read more

Boozehound: Beaujolais Nouveau 2009 hits shelves today!

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and what a nice coincidence that the young wines of Southern Europe have just arrived!

Released on the third Thursday of November every year, French distributors such as the inimitable Georges Deboeuf and Mommessin, Beaujolais Nouveau has been a marketing sensation around the world for a number of years now. Tastings, club parties, and high-priced dinners abound, and it wasn’t too long ago that customers would wait in line to sweep bottles of the fruity red wine off the shelves of their local retailer.

Beaujolais Nouveau on display in a Tokyo convenience store.

Beaujolais Nouveau on display in a Tokyo convenience store.

Such was certainly the case here in Japan, the land of ‘if it’s French, then we naturally understand and will pay through the nose for it‘. During the height of the craze, well over 12 million bottles of the stuff were purchased at an average price of around 2,000 yen (US$20, give or take). That was back in 2004 when the marketing machine had everyone enthused that Japan was among the first to taste these young wines due to a simple advantage afforded by geographical location.

But this is 2009. Less than five million bottles are slated for sale this year, and many of them will be sold in plastic PET bottles (cork or screwtop?). The price has also dropped considerably with supermarket group, Aeon, slashing prices to less than 1,000 yen (around US$10).

Read more

Boozehound: Booze drawer at Hotel New Otani

The New Otani's got your back.

The New Otani's got your back.

This is the booze drawer at Hotel New Otani in downtown Tokyo (walking distance from Nagatacho and Akasaka-mitsuke stations). They have the normal minibar tucked under the desk, but this was quite a surprise when I opened the drawer expecting a pad of paper and pen monogramed with the hotel’s seal.

Kudos for emergency preparedness on New Otani’s part, but no love for the steep price tags on these little gems.

I already had my own bottle of red wine and a few Japanese microbrews to  peruse, so I didn’t find it necessary to tuck into this little drawer of wonders, but  I was comforted by the fact that several nice drinks were patiently waiting in the desk should I require their services.

The hotel itself is massive and houses several excellent restaurants. The garden outside sports a decent-sized waterfall and paths through Hotel New Otani’s hilly and wooded property. The crowning jewel, perhaps, is the outdoor swimming pool that hosts pool parties most evenings of the week during the summer.