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Finding Tokyo’s top theme bars

by Nicholas Coldicott

Sure, “best theme bar” is faint praise, but here are four Tokyo joints that are more fun than the Hard Rock Cafe. They were selected through the following criteria:

1) The theme must reflect the owner’s passion.

2) No maid or dog cafes.

3) There must not be a Disney movie about the theme.

4) The sex districts probably have the most inventive themes, but my mother might read this article.

Here’s what was left.

Sumire no Tenmado

The walls are black, the staff wear black, the art is black, and your drink will be black if you order the ankoku Sumire le poison (pitch-black Sumire poison), a cocktail that looks like squid ink but tastes like Coke and lemon. Sumire no Tenmado (Sumire’s attic window) is a bar devoted to gothloli (Gothic Lolita) — that uniquely Japanese mix of Rococo and the macabre.

Sachi and Yuka are the princesses of darkness who run this 14-seat establishment, serving cocktails with names such as young Gretel’s suffering (vodka and cocoa) and tragic marionette (whisky Cointreau), whose bitterness, claims the menu, is provided by tears. Sumire no Tenmado is one of the newer establishments on Golden Gai, Shinjuku’s time-worn drinking district. The area has a well-deserved reputation for dishing out tepid welcomes to unfamiliar faces, and there is no reason to suspect that this dark box with blood-red velvet drapes and ghoulish paraphernalia will be any more inviting. But gothlolis are only eerie on the outside, and Sumire no Tenmado is hospitable and fun, if not exactly jolly.

2F 1-1-7 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku; (03) 3209-1204; www.kokusyokusumire.net. Open: Mon.-Fri., 4:30 p.m.-11:30 p.m.; Sat., Sun., 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.

Vowz

There’s a monk in full robes, sitting at an altar chanting. A few yards away, another monk is pouring a Scotch for a customer. Yotsuya San-chome’s Vowz is one of three loosely related Vowz bars in Japan (the others are in Osaka and Tokyo’s Nakano), each of which was established by Jodo sect Buddhist monks to stir interest in their religion.

If nothing else, Vowz suggests that if you’re going to be a Buddhist, you should be a Jodo Buddhist. Bartending monk Yoshinobu Fujioka says that it is “pretty much OK” for his sect to do most of the things that you might think Buddhist monks don’t do. Such as drink. Or run a bar. Or eat beef jerky. Or buy wines with reptiles pickling inside.

For less liberal believers, the menu offers hanya, a rice wine that, says Fujioka, is the one form of alcohol that even their pious brethren can drink. There are also numerous idols to worship, and enthusiastic bartenders happy to discuss the faith. Vowz is a true place of prayer, a seat of learning and a pretty good spot for a beverage.

2F 6 Arakicho, Shinjuku-ku; (03) 3353 1032. Open: Mon.-Sat., 7 p.m.-1 a.m.

Nakame Takkyu Lounges

Me: “Is this a secret bar?”

Bartender: “Yes.”

Me: “But you have a Web site and business cards.”

Bartender: “Ah, that’s true.”

The Nakame Takkyu (table tennis) Lounge is the secret bar that everyone knows about. It’s hidden in an apartment block, has minimal signage, keeps its door locked, and staff peep at guests who ring the doorbell for entry. But it’s probably the best-known bar in Naka-Meguro, an area soaked in alcohol. Table tennis, it turns out, is a great sport for a lounge bar. It’s good when sober, great when drunk, and there’s an aggressive satisfaction that’s missing from darts or pool.

The sister Nakame Takkyu Lounge+b. in upscale Aoyama is less of a legend, but only because it’s just four months old. The Takkyu Lounge formula for success (comfy apartment plus Ping Pong minus limelight) is followed so faithfully that this looks certain to become a much-loved hangout by April 2009, when management have already decided it will close.

If the new version has a weakness, it’s a vast, brightly lit kitchen that emphasizes the establishment’s apartmentiness, but is far larger than necessary for the simple menu, and too brightly lit for a lounge bar. The Aoyama branch trumps the original, however, with a more spacious floor plan and an infinitely more inviting bar counter. I don’t care that semi-secret table tennis isn’t really a theme; this is one of the best new bars in Tokyo.

201 2-17-1 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; (03) 3401-7979; www.mfs11.com

2F 1-3-13 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku; (03) 5722-2860; www.mfs11.com.

Open: 7pm-2am Mon.-Sat.

Radio King

In the basement of Seirinkan, the city’s best pizza restaurant, is an anonymous wooden door with a handle that turns anticlockwise to give the illusion of being locked. Behind the door is Radio King, a cozy bar modeled on a prohibition-era speakeasy. Furnished in the style of an old Chicago jazz club, Radio King serves beer bottles in brown paper bags and cocktails concealed in teacups.

There are thematic glitches: Sinatra was only 5 years old when prohibition began, but he gets a cocktail named after him, as does the movie “Some Like it Hot,” which hit screens 26 years after alcohol was decriminalized in the U.S. And there is no conceivable reason for any bar to have a ceramic Snoopy collection.

What elevates Radio King to arguably Tokyo’s greatest theme bar is the quality of the drinks. The cocktails work, and, despite the silly names, are mostly variations on the classics. The Some Like it Hot is really a Manhattan, and the standout Krupa King, named for the owner’s jazz hero, Gene Krupa, is a champagne-based treat.

Radio King opens at the owner’s whim, but if you find the door genuinely locked, go upstairs and try the superlative pizza.

B1F 2-6-4 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku; (03) 3714-5169. Open: irregularly