While working on the sequel to my book (so what if the first one isn’t published yet, fight me), I realized an important part of the first chapter takes place in The Oak Door Bar, a classy lounge in the five-star Grand Hyatt Tokyo. I figured there was no better time than now to discuss Japanese-style cocktail bars.
On a superficial level, a Japanese-style cocktail bar might not look Japanese at all. The polished wood bars, dim lighting, leather seating, jazz music, and offering of liquor and cigars might look distinctly western, and some of the small businesses in tucked-away corners may even evoke ideas of the prohibition-era speakeasy. However, the practices within cocktail bars are what make them distinctly Japanese. We’re going to learn some fantastic Japanese terms today, because they all apply to Japanese cocktail bars.
This term literally means “food of Japan”, but it’s also important to remember that the term “wa” (referring to Japan itself) also represents harmony. There is a certain mindset that views foreign influences as ‘fancy’ at best, ‘corrupting’ at worse. This hearkening back to what is intrinsically Japanese, is somewhat akin to “feeling at home” or “remembering the good old days”.
The ‘washoku’ practice in bars, tends to refer to the bartender using indigenous ingredients. This goes far beyond simply serving sake and shochu; after all, we’re dealing with cocktails here. Ginger from Kochi, or pears from Hokkaido, would be the kinds of ingredients mixed into the drinks in a proper Japanese cocktail bar.
So, maybe you sit down with a hankering for a gin and tonic. Instead, your bartender sets a mix of rum, vermouth, pineapple juice, and caramel syrup in front of you. The maraschino cherry on top might be a nice touch, but it wasn’t what you would’ve ordered for yourself. Surprise, you’re now dealing with “omakase”, the concept of letting the bartender decide for you. It translates as “respectfully leaving another to decide what is best”.
This is a very not western concept, but bare with me. A Japanese cocktail bartender is an expert in his field. Think of him like a surgeon. When you go to a surgeon, you don’t tell him that you need your appendix out and where to cut. Instead, the surgeon tells you what’s wrong with you and how it will be dealt with. To put it bluntly, you are an amateur in the world of cocktails, and your bartender is the expert. You should differ to the expert.
This sounds strange, I know. You might wind up with a drink you don’t want. This isn’t always awful, because most Japanese cocktails are quite small (unless you’re in a bar that caters specifically to foreigners), though they can still be quite expensive. On the other hand, your bartender is practiced at feeling out their patrons and figuring out what they need. You might wind up exposed to something you never would’ve ordered for yourself, and enjoy an entirely new experience!
So what exactly gives your bartender the ‘authority’ to make these kinds of decisions on your behalf? Well, that leads us to…
Much like ‘washoku’, this is a term you’ll find applied outside of bars as well. But, like ‘omakase’, it is a very Japanese concept that we can’t easily translate. It basically means “to be sensitive to minor things”, but rather than simply being “picky”, it carries a connotation of great focus. Think of a martial artist or a dancer performing the same steps and movements over and over until they have reached a level of precision that allows for no variation or wasted movement; this is kodawari.
In the bar, “kodawari” may mean stirring a drink a specific number of times, or the precise order in which things are mixed. Many Japanese bars don’t have ice makers due to space constraints, which has lead to Japanese cocktail bars carving their own pieces of ice from blocks for specific purposes. One drink may call for a perfectly smooth orb of ice without any jagged edges. Another drink may call for a ‘brilliant cut’ piece of ice, resembling a large diamond. The intense attention to detail, and unwillingness to cut corners, is a key in the Japanese cocktail bar scene.
“The problem with Japanese bartending is also its greatest asset: an over-attention to detail. Stir a Manhattan made with Ballantine’s exactly 82 times. We fetishize that sort of precision in the West.” – Toby Cecchini, owner of the Long Island Bar in Brooklyn
The last term on our list can be traced back to a tea master from the 16th century, stating that one should respect their host as though the meeting could only occur once in a lifetime. From a certain point of view, every meeting between two people can only happen once in a lifetime; we change and are effected by our surroundings each day, so even if you say good night to someone before you go to bed, and good morning to them first thing when you wake up, something will have changed in between those two times.
“I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning,” said Alice a little timidly; “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
To translate it simply, “ichi-go ichi-e” means “for this time only”, or “one chance in a lifetime”. Take time to relax in the cocktail bar, savor the drink that the bartender has chosen for you, and bask in the quiet realization that you will never experience this precise moment again. Enjoy it for what it is.
Akihiro, Yue, and the friends they’re visiting probably aren’t going to think about all of these things while sitting in the Oak Door Bar. They’ll be appreciative of the drinks, and enjoy the experience, but they aren’t ‘the type’ that these bars are designed for. None of them will sit around smoking cigars and sipping twelve-year-old single-malt Japanese whisky. But, as a writer, it’s nice to know the sort of atmosphere they’ll be surrounded by.
Come back tomorrow for the next article in the series, as we talk about Hostess Clubs!