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Crawling back down Center Gai

Imbibing some of the best, the worst and the oddest beverages to be had in Shibuya

by Nicholas Coldicott

My Little Pony and Throbbing Gristle make strange bedfellows. No, not in that way. The plastic horse and a poster of the industrial noiseniks both decorate Shirokuma, a funny little bar on Shibuya’s Center Gai.

Give a kindergarten art class a room, some pocket money and a buffet of hallucinogens, and you’d get something like Shirokuma.

Hand-cut cardboard stars dangle from the ceiling; 8-bit Nintendos have been glued to the wall. Stuffed toys hang like victims of a lynching; a stuffed squirrel probably was lynched. Technics 1200s incongruously share a DJ booth with a collection of bootleg cassette tapes. The toilet is devoted to Fuss, a hand-sketched character that makes Hello Kitty seem photo-realistic.

You could recreate the look with a visit to a flea market, a rummage in your gran’s attic and a bump on the head.

“This is the New Aesthetic,” said Donald, my deep-thinking drinking companion and, until recently, the editor of this column. Donald sees profundity where others might not.

It’s not really the New Aesthetic. It’s just a couple of girls having fun with colors and scissors.

And drinks. At Shirokuma, it’s out with the whisky, vodka, gin and brandy bases, in with the Dita, amaretto, Malibu and Tiffin. I thought Tiffin was an understudy that never gets called, but here it is the star of the show.

“I’ll have a Jack and ginger,” said another former Times editor.

“Sorry, we don’t have Jack Daniel’s.”

“Whisky and ginger ale?”

“We don’t have whisky.”

I suggested some Tiffin. Whoever composed the menu either hasn’t been to any other bars or finds their uniformity perplexing. After a few nights here, I’m starting to agree. The drinks are as kooky as the setting: umeshu beer, apricot-jam beer, Denki Bran cola — but some are surprisingly good.

The umeshu beer is different each time you order it. Sometimes it’s a fruity beer, other times a beery umeshu. Sometimes it has an unripe plum in the glass, sometimes not. When it’s a fruity beer, without the plum, it’s great.

A honey-ginger beer is a Yebisu packed with root ginger and an imperceptible dash of honey. Sometimes it contains slices of ginger, sometimes not. Either way, it’s refreshing. In 18th-century England, ginger beer meant a beer with ginger. The revival starts here.

The apricot-jam beer works better on paper than in practice, and let’s be honest, it sounds terrible on paper.

The yuzu vodka tasted neither of citrus fruit nor vodka, and the Denki Bran cola — a blend of brandy, gin, wine, vermouth, curacao and herbs mixed with cola — was better than it sounds but weaker than it should have been. Perhaps the young, girly crowd enjoy light drinks.

This is part two of the Center Gai bar crawl that began in last month’s column. Part one was a journey of fine cocktails and rare single malts. The return trip is a little bumpier.

Across the street from Shirokuma is Standing Lounge O. Last year, an acquaintance took me to this basement bar. I haven’t been drinking with him since. From the outside it looks like an S&M club, and in a sense it is. Only a masochist would drink here.

“My drink tastes like diesel,” complained Will the photographer. He had ordered a Tom Cat, one of the bar’s many original cocktails. It combines overproof rum, cranberry, lemon and sugar into a liquid that indeed resembles some form of petroleum.

“It’s not as bad as mine,” said Donald the deep thinker. He was drinking a Maridor, which, according to the bartender, is a Matador with more tequila.

O’s bartenders understand what so few others do: Cocktails aren’t a finely balanced medley of ingredients, but rather a core of goodness diluted by superfluous mixers. If a Matador is good, a Maridor must be better.

“I think that’s possibly the worst drink I’ve had in Tokyo,” said the snapper, after tasting the Matador suplementario. I’ve had worse, but not for a while.

To be fair, the bar serves recession- cheap shochu and beer. But so do convenience stores, and they have a better atmosphere.

H ead instead to The Aldgate, a faux English pub with 19 beers on tap and Samuel Smiths by the bottle. A sign declares this the home of the world’s greatest rock collection. It’s a bold and mendacious claim, but the place does have a lot of records.

The Aldgate was a straight-up rock bar for its first six years, before restyling itself as a pub eight years ago. The transformation was meticulous; there’s Marmite on the menu and Princess Di on the mantelpiece. Menus are written in sterling, though you can’t pay in pounds and the prices are fictional.

The taps dispense everything from pilsners to IPAs to stouts, mainly craft brews selected by owner Hiroyuki Hanaka. For malt and hops in Shibuya, this is as good as it gets.

There’s something else about The Aldgate. It’s not a roaring, gregarious pub atmosphere, but the staff are chipper, earnest and eager to please. The music, menu and beers might be British, but the service is way off the mark.

A couple of blocks south is The Oil. It specializes in Jack Daniel’s, Guinness and rock music. It has fake retro ads and neon signs. The first time I entered, there were two old timers nodding their heads to prog rock. It’s the antithesis of everything I like.

But I loved it. The bar thrives on the charisma of the boss, Shu.

“You should be ashamed of such lousy Japanese” was his unorthodox greeting on my first visit, and I warmed to him immediately. Shu loves Jack Daniel’s. I don’t. We can agree to disagree.

From The Oil you could round off the night in Gas Panic, a basement pit that serves Negro Modelo and plays Rihanna loudly enough to make your bones vibrate. Or head back to Correos, where the crawl began, for a nightcap.