Food & Drink | KANPAI CULTURE

A new year taste for Tokyo's best speciality sake bars

by Melinda Joe

Contributing Writer

With the start of a new year comes a new set of resolutions. An increasingly popular choice is Dry January, a campaign led by the British charity Alcohol Change UK, in which participants vow to abstain from drinking for 31 days. Millions of people around the world have been documenting their virtuous endeavours online with the hashtag #DryJanuary.

I am not among this abstemious group. Nor am I a proponent of lofty New Year’s resolutions in general. This year, I’ve made one that I will likely have little trouble keeping: I’ve decided to do more sake tasting — as opposed to sake drinking — in 2019. Thankfully, Tokyo has no shortage of sake specialty bars offering small-format glasses and tasting flights that allow you to sample different styles without necessarily overindulging.

Ao-Nisai (Tokyo Matsui Bldg. 1F, Nakano 3-35-7, Nakano-ku; aonisai.jp) near JR Nakano Station has everything you could want in a casual sake bar — friendly staff dressed in numbered jerseys, a buzzy vibe and a well-curated sake list with more than 20 premium brands (including a few choices of warmed sake). The brews come in pours that range in size from 54 milliliters (¥390) to 270-milliliter tumblers (¥1,480) for sharing. The food menu features tasty snacks such as mountain yam pickles marinated in tamari-jōyu (a kind of soy sauce made without wheat), stewed beef tendon topped with sliced onions, and juicy deep-fried meatballs.

On the backstreets of Shibuya, Chintara (Dogenzaka 2-19-3, Shibuya-ku; facebook.com/chintara.shibuya) makes the most of a tight space with a simple but stylish interior of light wood, tables for standing and a handful of seats around its counter. The drinks menu is extensive, but you can opt for three-sake flights for ¥1,000. The focus is on sake that pairs well with food, and the kitchen turns out nicely prepared and comforting dishes such as panko breadcrumb-encrusted Spanish mackerel, homemade pickles and fried shrimp cakes sandwiched between slices of lotus root.

The tasting corner inside the Ginza branch of specialty liquor retailer Kimijimaya (Konya Bldg. 1F, Ginza 1-2-1, Chuo-ku; kimijimaya.co.jp) offers three-part sake flights starting at an extremely reasonable ¥540, along with several varieties by the glass. Each month, the shop also features a short list of vintage wines by the glass. In January, for example, you can taste Monthelie-Les Duresses Premier Cru Comtes Lafon 2008 (¥1,500 for a 70-milliliter pour). While you’re there, you’ll want to browse the excellent selection of sake, shōchū and wines (including an expanded section of Japanese wines) for a bottle to take home.

Hidden on the fifth floor of a building near the Shibuya Mark City shopping center, Yata (ILA Dogenzaka Bldg. 5F, Dogenzaka 1-6-9, Shibuya-ku; junmaishu.net/sakebar/shibuya) serves only junmai-style brews (made without the addition of distilled alcohol) in a minimalist enclave with concrete walls softly lit by Edison bulbs. The fridge is stocked with more than 30 kinds of sake on any given day. For ¥2,000, the knowledgeable staff will guide you through an hour of tasting based on your preferences. In the cold winter months, don’t miss the chance to sample some warmed brews with the cheese plate.

By now, serious sake fans in Tokyo are familiar with Moto (Shinjuku 5-17-11, Shinjuku-ku) the intimate subterranean standing bar near Hanazono Shrine. But only happy-hour hoppers like me know you can order three-sake tasting sets until 6 p.m. The quality of the food, which is made to order in the impossibly tiny kitchen in the back, is remarkably high. The menu changes frequently, but classics include karaage fried chicken, smoked soft-boiled eggs and namero, a chunky mince of Spanish mackerel flavored with herbs and miso. The recently opened Know by Moto (Shinjuku 3-26-14, Shinjuku-ku; ameblo.jp/shinjuku-moto), located in the basement of Shinjuku’s Tsutaya Book Apartment and Lounge, offers the same great sake with the added bonus of seats and full lunch service until 5:30 p.m.

Kanpai to 2019!

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