Food & Drink | BEST BAR NONE

Still best buzz in shitamachi

Any address that begins 1-1-1 is, by my reckoning, pretty impressive. It means that the building located there was the first one on the first block developed in the first district of that area. Kamiya Bar, a legendary bar and restaurant, secured the 1-1-1 address in Asakusa when it opened 125 years ago. It is located in Taito Ward, one of a handful of Tokyo’s northeastern wards that span either side of the Sumida River where Tokyo first took root as a city.

This old part of Tokyo is known as shitamachi (downtown). But, just as New Yorkers use the term, it began as a geographical reference which then developed social connotations with the passing of time. Shitamachi hugs the Sumida River delta — literally down in the valley — while Tokyo’s modern business districts and suburbs steadily climbed higher into the rolling hills that surround the city. Uptown, or Yamanote, in this case means elevated as opposed to north.

When Japan opened its doors to the West during the Meiji Era, Asakusa was an edgy entertainment district with a concentration of theaters and cabarets. While Ginza was home to more elite forms of traditional culture, Asakusa had a lively clientele who often reveled in new trends. In 1880, when it was called Mikahaya Meishuten, Kamiya Bar was the first place to exclusively serve foreign liquor. This gave it a rather sophisticated and worldly air.

And it was an instant success.

The denizens of Asakusa would drop by after a show to ruminate on the events of the evening with a nightcap. And they quickly developed a taste for the warming, brown-hued imported liquors of the day — so much so that Kamiya Bar’s founding owner, Denbee Kamiya, decided to develop his own blended brandy. He added gin, wine, curacao and herbs. And in keeping with the advertising buzz of the day, he named it Denki Burandi — now simply Denki Buran, but meaning the same: Electric Brandy. The alcohol content was knocked down from the 45 to 40 percent of the original blend to a friendly 30 percent for the version now served on the premises.

I dropped into my local haunt a few weeks ago and found one of my usually rowdy friends slumped over the bar and almost incapable of speech. He had tried Denki Buran for the first time the night before. So imbibers beware: It is easy to drink but it packs a powerful punch.

The original tachinomiya (literally, standing-drinking bar) was replaced by the Kamiya Building in 1921 and then, on the bar’s 100th anniversary in 1980, by the three-story building that now stands on the original site. The first floor houses the bar and restaurant and features an off-license window on the street selling bottles of Denki Buran. The second floor restaurant serves the same mix of standard Japanese and Western dishes available on the first floor — like hamburgers and steaks, but with a distinctly Japanese flair. On the third floor is a Japanese restaurant.

Though it is listed in many guidebooks, I’ve rarely seen foreigners at Kamiya Bar. It is better known and still extremely popular among Japanese locals. On weekends you usually have to wait in line to buy tickets for your first round of food and drinks (believe it or not, the gentleman selling the tickets is none other than Naoya Kamiya, the great-great-grandson of Denbee.) And then you have to jump into a seat when it becomes available. All tables are shared.

On my last visit, an elderly couple were all smiles and nods as they prepared to leave, with a collection of empty Denki Buran glasses indicating that they had already lived it up enough for one afternoon. They were replaced by a priest and a soba restaurant owner, who preferred to chug massive 1.1 liter dai-jokki mugs of beer (only on offer from July to September). At a nearby table, a group of young men were in full flight — well, some of them were. Two in the group were already slumped in their seats. “I’ve had eight shots of Denki Buran!” one of them excitedly announced to me.

Anyone can enjoy the ambience of Kamiya Bar. And for those in need of a crash course in contemporary Japanese culture, a field trip here is just the ticket.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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