There are a plethora of pubs in Tokyo where you can enjoy good sake, but all too often we only read about those in the center of town. The truth, of course, is that there are plenty of great venues outside the Yamanote loop and beyond. Here are a few worth the short or midrange trip:
Tempura Arakawa is a five-minute walk from Higashi Jujo Station on the Keihin Tohoku Line. Located on the ground floor of an apartment building, it seems an unlikely place for a purveyor of fine tempura and sake, but that’s exactly what it is. A huge sake refrigerator reassuringly greets you upon entering. The interior is polished, slick and refined.
The main focus here is on Juyondai, but the owner is fairly keen on giving sake recommendations, so feel free to put yourself in his hands. You can learn a lot about sake at a place like this.
Odakyu Mansion 1F, 3-3-1 Higashi Jujo, Kita-ku, (03) 3912-1430. A map can be found at www.kappore.co.jp/sakabayashi/arakwa.html
Yotta is a tiny place very close to Asagaya Station, consisting of basically a counter-lined kitchen. With a core of standard selections and a wide range of regularly changing sake, there are usually about 60 to choose from. The selections of the month are listed on a large sign hanging from the ceiling, keeping you from having to grope through a big menu.
Although the menu is diverse, one of the specialties here is the genre known as chinmi, which might best translate as “curiously flavored dishes.” There are usually 20 of these small, often richly flavored sake snacks from the countryside all over Japan.
2-15-4 Asagaya Kita, Suginami-ku. (03) 3336-7650. Open Mon.-Sat., 6 p.m.-12 a.m.
Sake no Ikesu Hachioji is almost an hour out of Shinjuku, and it is likely rare that folks will deliberately head out of town that far just for an evening out. But if you live around Hachioji, Ikesu is very well worth a visit.
The outside is hard to miss, with its bright orange noren curtain and empty sake casks piled high. The dark, cluttered, old-farmhouse feel of the woody interior is immediately calming. The large, stern-looking proprietor, with his shaved head and booming voice, might seem intimidating, but he is actually quite kind and funny.
Wonderful sake from every nook and cranny of Japan works its way into Ikesu; the owner always seems to be finding something new and different. The food is made with great care and is highly satisfying (even if the menu is a bit hard to navigate). Be sure to try the nabe in winter.
3-10-6 Meijin-cho, Hachioji-shi, (0462) 42-1508. Open Mon.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.
Although from the outside, Yakitori Masa is an innocuous-looking yakitori shop on an side street in not-too-distant Nishi-Okigubo, it is actually a well-known sake haven. It’s pretty much always packed and overflowing with happy people who know their sake. The shop is narrow, consisting of one counter facing the kitchen, a series of long tables against the wall, and two or three tiny tables in the back. Lots of regulars here.
There are 120 sake. The easiest thing to do is to pick what you want from behind the glass case running the length of the shop. But if you take time to prod the menu and the proprietor, they have an entire basement full of special and hard-to-get sake. If you want to try something unique, this is the place.
A note of caution: Prices on most sake are not marked. Keep in mind that some of the more special selections have been known to cost an arm and a leg.
3-31-10 Nishi Ogikita, Suginami-ku, (03) 3395-9667. Open daily 5.30 p.m.-12 a.m., closed Wed. For a map and more information see yakitorimasa.hoops.ne.jp/Main1.html
This is a fascinating sake that is more easily available in Osaka than in Tokyo, but well-worth the search no matter where you are. Sometimes fruity, sometimes earthy, always balanced and well-rounded, Amanozake has countless facets that it reveals in rotation, with temperature playing an all-important role. Amanozake is a name to remember for true sake fans.