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Stir up memories in bars of yore

by Nicholas Coldicott

In hard times such as these you can always find solace in a drink; just make it one that reminds you of better days. Here are eight great Tokyo bars that ooze nostalgia. Some serve classic cocktails, some survived the war, and most of them seem to have served author Yukio Mishima.

Kamiya Bar (Since 1880)

In 1882, the year Japan got its first electric street lamp, the word for electricity (denki) was popular as a prefix for anything wishing to sound modern. So when Asakusa’s Mikawaya Meishuten bar created a new brandy-based drink, they named it Denki Bran (electric brandy). The name (and flavor) triggered a persistent myth that the liquid has been zapped with an electric current, but it’s really just a frisky blend of brandy, gin, wine, vermouth, curacao and herbs. Denki Bran became so popular that you’ll now find it at most good liquor stores and many bars across Japan. The best place to drink a Denki Bran, though, is still its birthplace, which was renamed Kamiya Bar in 1912 and moved to its current bright, rowdy location in 1921.

What to drink: A shot of Denki Bran and chaser of Asahi Super Dry

Who drank there: Osamu Dazai, Sakutaro Hagiwara

Credit crunch: ¥ (Recession-proof)

1-1-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku; (03) 3841-5400; www.kamiya-bar.com; open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. (closed Tues.)

Bordeaux (Since 1927)

The biggest timewarp in town. When Bordeaux opened at the start of the Showa Period, it was furnished with foreign antiques — including a flag from the Crusades. Nothing has changed since. An elderly staff member says proudly that they can’t alter anything without changing everything, since the building breaches so many contemporary planning and safety regulations. The drink menu lists “Scotland whiskies” and seems not to have heard of any cocktails invented since 1930.

Until recently, Bordeaux was an elite members-only bar, but the dwindling (dying) membership forced the door open to the hoi polloi. It’s still not quite open house: Women aren’t allowed to enter alone, and it’s wise to dress smartly. Inside, you’ll find a table charge, a service charge and a “charm charge,” which combine to ensure you’ll be suffering a personal financial crisis by the time you leave.

What to drink: A sidecar (brandy, Cointreau, lemon juice)

Who drank there: Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the combined fleet in World War II

Credit crunch: ¥¥¥¥¥ (Meltdown)

8-10-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku; (03) 3571 0381; open 6 p.m.-11 p.m. daily

Lupin (Since 1928)

One of Japan’s most storied bars, Lupin hands out pamphlets detailing its history (in English or Japanese), presumably to spare the bartenders from having to tell the same story every night.

To plagiarize in brief: “Opened 1928 . . . added bar counter in 1935 (still there) . . . war started, forced to drop Western-sounding name, became Pan-tei . . . survived the war, became Lupin again, but now banned from selling liquor . . . sold liquor anyway . . . became salon for writers, academics, artists and the sort . . . building razed in 1972 but interior hauled off and preserved . . . reopened — same location, same look in 1974 and still rolling on.” Lupin is a surprisingly affordable, always full, classic bar that heaves with history but doesn’t rely on it.

What to drink: A Moscow Mule, served in a traditional copper mug with a lemon quarter

Who drank there: Osamu Dazai, Ango Sakaguchi and many writers on their way to or from publisher Bungei Shunju, Lupin’s one-time neighbor

Credit crunch: ¥¥ (Market value)

5-5-11 Ginza, Chuo-ku; (03) 3571 0750; www.lupin.co.jp; open 5 p.m.-11:30 p.m. (closed Sun. & Mon.)

Donzoko (Since 1951)

“I’ve been here 11 years and nobody has ever guessed the secret ingredient,” said the bartender, referring to the signature Donzoko cocktail — a chuhai-like blend of shochu, soda, lemon juice and a classified spirit. “Is it brandy?” I asked. He paused, said he could neither confirm nor deny, but complimented my palate. I’d learned the recipe from a faded magazine article on the wall, but Donzoko customers probably don’t spend much time reading the decor. Mishima once described it as the place to go for a lively, fun night out, and just as the interior hasn’t changed since his day, so the atmosphere is still as dynamic as he described. Donzoko (meaning “rock bottom”) likes to tout its history, but the staff and patrons these days are young and bubbly.

What to drink: A Donzoko cocktail

Who drank there: Mishima, Yukio Aoshima, Akira Kurosawa

Credit crunch: ¥¥

3-10-2 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; (03) 3354-7749, www.donzoko.co.jp; open 6 p.m.-1 a.m. Mon.-Fri and 5 p.m.-midnight Sat. and Sun.

Bar Non-non (Since 1954)

Nostalgia is the only reason anyone visits the Hilltop Hotel these days. You can wander the frumpy corridors and call to mind the days when legendary writers chose this as their quarters. In the narrow nine-seater bar where drinks are unmemorable, regulars reminisce about the time cartoonist Ikki Kajiwara flew into a violent rage here or when baseball legend Sadaharu Oh once drew a map on a napkin.

What to drink: The Hilltop (triple-distilled Smirnoff, apple liqueur, lemon juice)

Who drank there: Shotaro Ikegami, Mishima, Oh

Credit crunch: ¥¥

Hilltop Hotel, 1-1 Kanda Surugadai, Chiyoda-ku; (03) 3291-2311; open 5 p.m.-1.30 a.m. Mon.-Sat. and 4 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Sun.

Kohaku (Since 1955)

Fumihiko Kimura trained as an engineer, but his mother had other plans for him. She’d opened a small bar in a back street of the Yushima entertainment district, and dispatched her son to Tokyo’s Palace Hotel to learn bartending. As Kimura tells it, when his mother summoned him back to help run Kohaku, he left the camaraderie of the hotel bar reluctantly. Nearly four decades later, Kimura is a fanatical bartender who has amassed over 600 bottles, some of which are older than his career. At Kohaku you can drink rare vermouths, calvados from antique casks, fine wines, and whiskies that would cost you your annual salary to open.

What to drink: A Hunter’s cocktail (an Old Parr 18 Years base, a dash of Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition to soften the edges and a remarkably rich eau-de-vie from a jar packed with cherries)

Who drank there: Mishima sipped G&Ts in the corner.

Credit crunch: ¥¥¥¥ (Financial squeeze)

3-44-1 Yushima, Bunkyo-ku; (03) 3831-3913; open 6 p.m.-midnight Mon.-Sat.

Old Imperial Bar (Since 1970)

Though the Imperial Hotel’s main bar underwent a renewal in 1970, there are still glimpses of the original Frank Lloyd Wright touches from the Taisho Era, including a fragment of a fading mural and a terra cotta panel behind the bar. Drinks are served in FLW-designed glasses, and the seats, though new, are replicas of the great man’s designs. As cigar smoke wafts through the bar, you can choose from a breathtaking menu of Scotches, most at giddy, bubble-era prices. There’s also a signature cocktail — the Mount Fuji — that was first served at the hotel in 1924.

What to drink: An Imperial ’70 (dry gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, angostura bitters) — a refreshing short cocktail created for the bar’s relaunch in 1970.

Who drank there: Ikegami

Credit crunch: ¥¥¥ (Slight currency risk)

Imperial Hotel 2F, 1-1-1 Uchisaiwaicho, Chiyoda-ku; (03) 3539-8088; open 11:30 a.m.-midnight daily

Rockfish (Since 2002)

Rockfish was never supposed to be a nostalgic bar. It opened six years ago as just another Ginza joint, but as word spread about bartender Kazunari Maguchi’s highballs (whisky, soda, twist of lemon), most people stopped ordering anything else. Maguchi estimates that 90 percent of drinks served at Rockfish these days are highballs. His secret: The glass, soda and whisky are all chilled, so there’s no need for ice, and he uses Suntory’s standard Kakubin which, he says, is the Japanese whisky and suits a highball perfectly. If you wish to try one, get there early: Rockfish opens at 3 p.m. and is usually packed by mid-evening.

What to drink: A highball

Who drank there: Shizuka Ijuin

Credit crunch: ¥

2F Polestar Bldg., 7-2-14 Ginza, Chuo-ku; (03) 5537-6900. Open: Mon.-Fri. 3 p.m.-1 a.m.; Sat. 3 p.m.-11 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.-10 p.m.