Tokyo has long had a special place in my heart, when I visited the first time I was a whisky fan who was exploring a city that had long been a fascination to me, now a decade later I returned with work and my experiences were a little different this time. Here is the GreatDrams whisky tourist’s guide to Japan.
Check out the GreatDrams Ultimate Bar Guide to Tokyo too
Japan is more westernised now, easy to navigate and easy to communicate. Only time I needed my Google Translate app was in Duty Free to explain the concept of a flight transfer. Last time I was here it felt like another world, now it feels like my world; easier to navigate and communicate than France was when last there a year ago.
But has this westernisation come at a cost? I’m not sure in truth, but there were obvious let downs for me; I had spent ages pre-trip relearning business customs, phrases for getting around and how to order various sushi and drinks, but none of that was needed. And only one bar, Bar Butler, hand carved the ice balls whereas last time I was in town every bar did.
Maybe I have a romantic view of my last trip here a full decade ago, tho unlikely as I remember it vividly as I was ill for much of it with a form of Guillaume-Barre disease that effectively paralysed all the muscles in my face, meaning I had to manually chew and drink all drinks including neat whisky through a straw (would not be able to do that in the West now, but straws and plastic bags are everywhere here) which set in six hours after I landed in Japan and lasted until ten days after I was home. It was scary but I was so convinced I’d never be back here, and I am not one to really dwell on stuff like that, that I travelled the whole city, saw it and experienced it all. Who knew; the face freeze might have spread elsewhere as Guillaume-Barre often does, but it normally starts from the legs up, so I had to get on with things whilst I could.
Hence why I don’t think there is a huge amount of romantic rose tinted glasses retrospection here… although last time I did get to meet a monkey and have a photo with him, though like most photos from that trip I look miserable despite having an absolute belter as my face muscles could not raise a smile… I must have been the moodiest-looking tourist ever.
What hasn’t changed is the how busy and the extreme individuality of nearly every citizen within a culture of extreme conformity.
One of the things I was most impressed with was the people; they are so approachable and gentle, even if they cannot speak English they do their best to work out what you are saying.
The best example of this was when I was bar-hunting I kept getting to the address on Google and then drawing a blank as the addresses are so random and there are so many floors to each building with very few properly sign-posted that it is so hard to work out how to get in there unless you know the area. With that in mind I had to ask a LOT of people for help with directions and two in particular were incredible. If they can’t direct you they will walk you where you need to go, as noted in my Ultimate Bar Guide to Tokyo, “there was one guy who walked five blocks in circles asking people until it was clear it was impossible to find the place, then there was the guy who walked back from where he was going to discover the bar was on the 8th floor of his apartment block and he never knew. Be prepared to clock the steps in trying to hunt them down”.
Japanese whisky was once the pride of each bar, now a selection of limited edition and single cask Scotches haves replaced that as they cater more for locals – which is understandable, but a challenge for tourists.
If you’re looking for bars, firstly check out my Ultimate Bar Guide to Tokyo, but here are the ones I would highly recommend:
Butler Ginza Branch
8 Chome-7-7 Ginza, Chūō, Tokyo 104-0061, Japan
Tokyo Whisky Library
〒107-0062 Tokyo, Minato, Minamiaoyama, ５丁目5−24 南青山サンタキアラ教会
〒160-0023 Tokyo, Shinjuku, Nishishinjuku, 1 Chome−13−7 大和家ビル
SK Bldg 4F, 1-3 Maruyamacho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Shinagawa Highball Bar
Exit Shinagawa Station using the East Exit and walk about 300 metres straight ahead of you, you cannot miss it
Hibiya Bar Whisy-S II
8F Noco Building 5-6-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku
No whisky tourist’s guide to Tokyo would be complete without a list of retailers you should try to visit if you’re looking for interesting whiskies, although there are no guarantees that there will be any gems, but you simply never know and ranges seem to change daily in some of them:
〒104-0028 Tokyo, Chūō, Yaesu, 2 Chome−1, 八重洲地下街中4号
1-2-16, Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Shinanoya World Wine and Foods – Shinjuku
Absolutely brilliant range of bottles – including limited edition Scotch and Irish whiskeys, as well as standard Japanese bottlings. 〒160-0021 Tokyo, 新宿区Kabukicho, 1 Chome−12−9 タテハナビル
A family-run liquor store about 300 metres down the road (east)
Just down the road from World and Liquor Mountain, I’m pretty sure it was a mom and pop store and was crazy cluttered, but at the back of the shop was a glass-fronted cabinet with a load of local bottles as well as some Scotch offerings and various interesting Japanese bottles too.
Isetan Department store
Great store, like the Harrods of Tokyo, and not only has it got a few great bottles there you can buy samples of many of the bottles they sell so you can try the stuff as well as buying it.
〒160-0022 3-14-1, Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Isetan Duty Free store near the Ginza Station
Address: 104-8212 4-6-16, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
The best part of this store is that, whilst their range is super-limited, you can buy the bottles and pick them up at the airport once you are past security to save on your luggage packing, given you will probably have other bottles to pack in as well!
Tokyo, and Japan a whole, is really easy to move around, make sure before you travel you get a JR Pass from jrpass.com, it will cost £206 with special delivery and arrives super-swiftly. This will be your gateway to Tokyo and the whole of Japan as, as long as you use any of the JR lines which take you all over the place.
Make sure you get a SkyRoam device, I hired one for around £115 plus £7 per day I was away and it was invaluable; it is effectively ‘internet in your pocket’ and actually felt like I was carrying ‘the internet’ each day. Good battery, allows you to connect five devices at once to it and mimics a local 4G network which you then connect to without paying more than your daily fee through SkyRoam. Marvellous. At times I got better connection than I do in my office! Buy here, and yes for this one I have an affiliate link as I was so impressed with it. Use coupon code GREATDRAMS to save 10% on your booking… win-win.
One thing to say up front; don’t expect many, if any distillery exclusives to add to your collection, Suntory do not seem to see the value in them and the distilleries I visited were too young to have mature spirit, although Asaka had bottles of their spirit that had been aged in various casks for up to six months available for around £28 – £40.
Travel on the Bullet Train from Shinagawa Station, which takes about 50 minutes – I would advise going to the ticket booking office and reserving a seat free of charge as these trains get really packed and you do not want to stand all that way.
Once you arrive at the Shizuoka Station, take a 35 minute taxi to Gaia Flow. Taxis will be outside the station to the left, and they are unlikely to know where you are going so show them the address and if you have a GPS device pre-load it so they can have a look.
Definitely call or email ahead of your visit as their visitor centre won’t be fully open until mid-way through 2019 but they are set up for brief tours if you so desire but it is courteous to let them know before you arrive so they can be free.
From where you are staying take the JR line to Tokyo Station, which is MASSIVE, and take the bullet train to Kohriyama Station which will take about 80 minutes if memory serves. Then get a taxi to the Asaka Distillery. Again get in touch before going to ensure they are available and able to show you around. They have a shop which take cash only, but where you can try numerous young versions of their spirit including one maturing in Mizunara wood. They usually have limited edition whiskies in for purchase too that are limited to around 300 bottles each.
Nearest station: Kobuchizawa, 1 hours 59 minutes from Shinjuku station in central Tokyo, then a 15 minute taxi to the distillery (or use the courtesy bus put on by the distillery at the weekend if it works with your itinerary). Simple.
Check out the GreatDrams Ultimate Bar Guide to Tokyo too
Japan is a phenomenal country with awesome people and an amazing amount of things to see and culture to experience so make sure you plan well and pay attention to train times as they are NEVER late.