Azabu-Juban may be changing superficially at street level, located as it is in a valley behind the plush residential/ commercial complex Roppongi Hills, but the best of what’s on offer there is still to be found behind closed doors — doors that can at first appear a bit daunting to open.
Take Aburiya Fudo, an izakaya-style shochu (distilled spirit) bar. Even after being taken there once, I still felt apprehensive opening the heavy metal-bound and studded wood on my second — solo — visit. They are a bit clunky. Yet the bar looks so stylish when glimpsed through the tinted glass window facing the street! It’s hardly the kind of place where you would want to appear clumsy, but is well worth the deep breath and the hefting of the door to get in.
The first-floor bar is a low glass counter that seats six on white linen-covered restaurant chairs. The walls and floor are dark wood. The glass shelves behind the bar are custom made and designed to display bottles of shochu, but rather than standing the bottles up, they are laid on their side. A junk-antique Chinese bench is propped up under the window, which is also half covered in rough bamboo slats that serve to further filter the view from the street. It is a simple understated mix of modern and traditional touches.
There is no “master,” as such, but Satoshi Hoshino, the manager, is friendly and diligent about helping you choose your shochu. Hoshino is also studying English, which may help you remove another possible barrier.
They feature somewhere around 100 different types at any time — all from Kyushu, and selected to offer a range of both dry and sweet potato, barley and rice based variations. Also on the menu are a handful of deadly (to this drinker, at least) awamori, a type of shochu characteristic of Okinawa but made with Thai rice. They also keep 40 or so bottles of sake in stock, including a few high-quality ginjoshu varieties.
There is no hint from the outside that Aburiya Fudo has a second level, but it does, accessed behind the glass shelves through a noren curtain and down a pebbled path, at the end of which you must take off your shoes before going upstairs. The upper level is styled like an izakaya, with several low carved lacquered wood tables topped with glass surrounded by low wooden stools topped with small cushions.
A couple of semi-private nooks are fitted into one corner. Each has a sunken area under the table for added legroom. Designed for groups, the lighting is a little brighter than downstairs, but it is still comfortable and stylish.
Throughout, Hoshino tunes the dial to a cable-radio jazz station that plays giants of the genre such as Mingus and Rollins, making Aburiya Fudo a soothing retreat — the perfect place to escape the mayhem of the street festival taking place this weekend.
Aburiya Fudo; 1-8-6 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku, Tokyo; tel. (03) 3568-6224. Open from 6 p.m.-3 a.m. Monday through Friday, till 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday and from 5 p.m.-11 p.m. on Sunday and holidays. Closed at New Year. Table charge 500 yen. Drinks from 600 yen (most around 800 yen). Snacks around 600 yen, other dishes around 1,000 yen.
Though Azabu-Juban’s many specialty restaurants and bars are “hidden” behind sliding doors with little (or no) sign marking their entrance, other more visible options are sprouting up.
Within a short walk from the Wendy’s burger restaurant at the main exit of Azabu-Juban station, which is the local equivalent of Shibuya’s Hachiko dog statue as a landmark meeting place, two new additions to the night scene will be instantly apparent.
Take the street to the left of Wendy’s and within a minute from the station you’ll find Juban Stand on the right, a long corridor-type stand-and-drink bar with a couple of giant kegs serving as tables for leaning on out front. With a glass of draft beer going for just 360 yen, it is crowded to overflowing most nights.
Walk a minute further along the same road and you’ll get to Lau Lau on the left, a Hawaiian, lanai-style cafe-cum-bar serving an eclectic range of pan-Asian food till late. The draft beer may be more expensive, but it is served in stylish fluted glasses, and you can sit and sip in comfort. Both bars are busy till late every night.
Juban Stand; 2-1-9 1F Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku, Tokyo; tel. (03) 5730-9777 Lau Lau; 2-14-2 1F Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku, Tokyo; tel. (03) 5730-9677; www.lau-lau.jp