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A bar crawl up Center Gai

by Nicholas Coldicott

Shibuya, I once wrote, is the heart of Young Japan, and the street named Center Gai is its throbbing artery. Some people pay handsomely for cliches like that.

In truth, Shibuya is the nation’s digestive system, mashing its myriad flavors into a creation that’s odorous and crude but, if we’re honest, something we glance at proudly once in a while. And so Center Gai is not the artery but the colon: a long, thin tract funneling slop from the cecum (Shibuya Station) to the rectum (Outback Steakhouse). The good stuff has already been sucked away, and the colon ends up lined with crap.

The analogy holds true for the street’s shops, restaurants and cultural diversions, but curiously not for its bars. Good eats are rare, but great drinks are plentiful, and here’s an itinerary to prove it.

Center Gai is perfect for bar crawling, as long as you tackle it clockwise. It begins with some chic establishments for an aperitif, gets a little boisterous at the far end, and returns via beer and rock music. And just when you can no longer form a coherent thought, there’s Gas Panic.

The first few blocks are home to izakaya and a saucy bar or two, but the first bar proper is Correos, on the eighth floor of Takayama Land Dai 15 Building, just left of McDonald’s.

A Japan Times reader told me about Correos. People often recommend bars when I tell them my job. The more hyperbolic the endorsement, the worse the place usually turns out to be. If a bar is the greatest in the city/country/world and makes the best mojito/martini/G & T I’ll ever taste, it’s probably rubbish.

The reader said Correos was nice.

It is. You can tell a lot about a bar by asking the staff for a recommendation. The worst places will serve an improbable porridge of ingredients. The midrange joints will pluck a name from nowhere, and it will often be a mojito. Nothing against mojitos, but they can’t be everyone’s favorite drink. The best bartenders take the time to figure out your taste, and their suggestions are usually simple and classic. Correos’s Junichi Aramaki proposed a gimlet, one of my favorites.

There was a bowl of fresh fruit on the bar. Always a good sign. From time to time the scent of mint or watermelon wandered up my nose.

Correos belongs to Hiroshi Oizumi, whose career began in 1956 at the New Otani’s Bar Capri. With his pedigree, he has every right to run a prissy, formal bar, but Correos isn’t like that. It has Ginza’s drink culture, but Shibuya’s easygoing demeanor.

“Nice friendly bunch, had a giggle,” wrote the photographer by e-mail after his shoot at Correos. “They tell me they often have to roll Oizumi-san home about midnight. I believe them. He was trying to force booze down me before I’d taken any shots.”

I asked for a pisco sour. Most bars can’t make pisco sours because they don’t stock pisco because nobody ever, ever orders pisco. Correos stocks two brands. The difference, said head bartender Toshitsugu Fukushima, is that one tastes like pisco and the other doesn’t. I chose the one that did. I recommend a pisco sour as a bar-crawl warm-up; it contains egg white, which will slow the absorption of alcohol.

One floor above Correos is the 3-year-old Bar Moonshiner. You’ll enjoy this bar if you like:

* Elegant, modern bar counters.
*Scotch (They have around 150 styles).
*Women (They had half a dozen, including one behind the bar).

The customers and staff were all drinking lager, but whisky dominates the shelves. Especially Ardbegs and Springbanks. The Ardbegs are there to look nice, said bartender Yuko Samejima, but the Springbanks are the owner’s passion. I tried a 39-year-old Springbank — an incredibly complex, herbal drink.

Then I spotted Antica Formula, my favorite sweet vermouth.

“Can I have a cocktail using that?” I asked.

“It’s a very fine vermouth, so it would be a waste to mix it,” said Samejima. She served it on the rocks with a twist of orange. A great aperitif.

After Moonshiner, hold your nose through the rats and McGarbage until you reach Mon. This is the old timer of the Center Gai bar scene. It’s been here since 1948. There are three bars, each run by a different sibling. A sign says that the master bartender works on the second floor. If he does, he should ask to transfer, because that’s the least cozy of the three.

“One thousand yen charge!” yelled someone as I entered, so I left. I don’t mind the charge, but screaming about money rarely signals the start of a beautiful relationship. The first floor is nicer, but the basement is the most fun. Run by the youngest brother, it’s named Whales of August after the Bette Davis/Lillian Gish movie that proved unusually popular in Japan. The menu offers 88 original cocktails, including Silence of the Lambs, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Slumdog Millionaire. They like movies at Whales of August.

You can also request drinks based on movies not listed on the menu.

“As long as I’ve seen the film, I can make the cocktail,” said . . . I’d tell you his name, but he wouldn’t tell me. Mon forbids its bartenders from revealing that information. “It makes it more comfortable for the guests,” said whatshisname. No it doesn’t. It makes it hostile and weird.

Whatshisname said the most popular drink was a Star Wars. So I asked for an Empire Strikes Back, which was Passoa, sambuca, lemon and soda, and roughly the same shade of purple as the Roger Kastel movie poster.

I ordered a Reservoir Dogs, and Mr. Anonymous carefully layered rose liqueur, milk, Kahlua, Drambuie, blue curacao and brandy. Messrs. Pink, White, Brown, etc., geddit?

Whatshisname gave me a straw and suggested I insert it at various depths of the drink to enjoy the different flavors. That’s fun very briefly. When I stirred the drink into a Mr. Greeny Brown, I recalled that no successful cocktail has ever been created from five types of booze with milk.

You can get nice drinks, too. A Silence of the Lambs is really a White Lady, for example. But the fun is in Alan Smithee’s passion for films and the effort that he puts into his screen-to-glass adaptations.

Just up the street from Mon is standing bar Tasu Ichi. Noisy. ¥300 beers. Skip it if you like.

And that takes you to the end of Center Gai. I’ll talk you back down the other side in the next column.