I can only show you the door. Fortunately I was the one to walk through it.
A lot of people, and the criticism is justified at times, complain that Ikebukuro isn’t a very classy place when it comes to dining and entertainment options. Especially when it is being positioned as another alternative to Akihabara, with electronics, manga and anime stores as well as related events with idol groups. Since it’s my Tokyo terminus, I’ve been determined to find some way to redeem Ikebukuro, searching for wheat among the chaff. It ain’t easy.
However there is at least one bright spot in the darkness (or should that be one mood lit spot among the neon trash). Located some distance from the station in the Minami Ikebukuro neighborhood, Bar Too has no signs and no menus, and seats around 10 people. It does however, carry a wide variety of drinks behind the bar, and more importantly, expert bartenders who have plenty of experience and are dedicated to their craft. A familiar theme in Japan, where people always take craftsmanship to the extreme.
You could reasonably order anything you wanted, I watched the bartenders carefully prepare shandy gaffs, gin and tonics, mojitos (hey, it has been unseasonably warm), spending what seems like slices of eternity stirring alcohol and ice. Newbie that I am, I was offered a gin sonic to start up, but noticing my trepidation and less than perfect Japanese, at least the bartender made it with Japanese gin.
Yes Japanese gin is the next big thing on the market, because it’s much easier to make than aged whisky. The whisky boom is certainly not over, it’s just that demand far outweighs supply, and so it has become extremely difficult to get certain batches of popular labels like Hakushu or Yamazaki, and the smaller labels like Ichiro’s of Chichibu also disappearing. So the big players have turned to making gin using Japanese ingredients like yuzu, sansho pepper and sakura. The three key brands on the market at the moment are Nikka Coffey Gin, Suntory Roku Gin, and Ki No Bi from the Kyoto Distillery, a new upstart brand.
I certainly am no gin expert. What I hear as the general consensus is Japanese gin is very smooth and fresh, but lacks the punch of the British brands. So if you’re a normal person you might think that “something’s lacking,” but if you like gin, you will definitely find something to appreciate in it.
And I can’t complain about the drink, because that gin sonic was the most delicately made drink I may have had in my life (I’m not rich enough to frequent resorts and five star hotels). Despite it being a standard cocktail. The warmup act of the evening experience (they wouldn’t let me make the rookie mistake of going with an absinthe based cocktail first).
Still, as good as that was, I wanted to be inspired. Yes, I could get a finely made mojito, but I could get an infinite variation on that from the cheapest bar to the best hotel. Hey, some of them might even clap the mint leaves in their hands to release the aromas when using as the final garnish too! (Or maybe not). I wasn’t too subtle about my desire but they took it in their stride. Consummate professionals. I scanned the bar and while I did notice the bottles of Ichiro’s in the corner, that would be wasted on a cocktail, so I inquired about the jugs with Japanese characters on it. One being “shiso”, or perilla, and the other being “sakura.”
Apparently they were liqueurs made from these ingredients. So I asked for something featuring the gin and the sakura liqueur, because it is the season. Here’s what I got.
No menu, so no name. Roku gin, sakura liqueur, lemon juice. Garnished with a sakura flower, which they just “happened to have” behind the counter. I expected nothing less. The perfect accompaniment for the season.