Tokyo is home to no shortage of worthy hole-in-the-wall bars.
But Bar High Five – ranked the third best bar by Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2017 and 13th by World’s 50 Best Bars 2017 – is one of the few to garner international attention.
Helmed by Hidetsugu Ueno, who has appeared on American chef David Chang’s TV show “Mind of a Chef,” the 12-seat bar can be found in the glitzy Ginza district, in central Tokyo not far from the Tsukiji Market.
“The concept of Bar High Five is that it has no concept,” Ueno tells CNN Travel. “I don’t have a menu in my bar. Our cocktails are tailor-made, one by one. Maybe we use a flavor-based spirit, maybe something sour or refreshing, or maybe something classic. It depends on the day and the guest.”
Ueno might not have a menu, but he does have a few signatures.
A White Lady (gin, cointreau and lemon juice) has become Ueno’s calling card, along with a beloved Bellini (made with fresh Japanese peaches) and his 200-plus whisky collection.
While Ueno says he can’t emulate Bar High Five outside of Tokyo, due to quality control, the entrepreneur is behind the cocktails and decor at a few international outposts.
Last year, Ueno collaborated on stylish Bar De Luxe, in Hong Kong, and just opened the Locker Room in Bangkok this July.
Back in Tokyo, when travelers pull up a seat at Bar High Five, Ueno is quick to suggest his favorite restaurants and bars around town.
CNN Travel caught up with the master mixologist to learn about his favorite spots, from beer halls to sophisticated sushi experiences.
“I trained with Mr Kishi (Hisashi Kishi) at Star Bar for many years,” says Ueno. “It sounds a bit strange but since Mr Kishi is my master bartender, he introduces customers to me – and not the other way around. It never goes back the opposite way.
“But of course, I recommend Star Bar. The drinks are phenomenal and Mr Kishi is there to make them. The atmosphere is great and some of the bartenders speak a little bit English so you can communicate.
“They don’t carry a menu either, but his signature is the Sidecar. It’s very smooth and elegant.”
Star Bar, B1/F, 1-5-13 Ginza, Tokyo, Japan; +81 3 3535 8005
“I enjoy the simple things, like eating at little Japanese izakaya. I have a favorite but it’s really local.
“It’s called Marugin. They’re very nice and they have an English menu. This is a great place for small bites – grilled chicken with rice, or you can eat noodles if you want. They have everything.
“It’s a place where you order beer or a highball, you know, whisky with soda in a jug, and people drinking have a good time.”
Marugin, 7-1 Ginza, Tokyo, Japan; +81 3 3571 8989
“There is a beautiful beer hall in town as well. It’s called Lion. It was built in the 1930s and was the very first beer hall in Japan, on the street level in Ginza.
“It’s owned by Sapporo beer. They have their own Lion special and many different kinds of beers, like stout, lager, white ales, everything. They serve Japanese-ified German food too – my favorite is the famous thin-sliced roast beef, but it sells out quickly.”
Ginza Lion, 7-9-20 Ginza, Tokyo, Japan; +81 50 5788 0502
“For sushi, I have a secret place that’s my favorite. I don’t like to tell, but it’s called Kagura, in the Tsukiji fish market. It’s not like the famous places with long queues.
“It’s really old-school using the classic red vinegar, which is not so sour, but the rice gets a little bit of color on it.
“Then they use a torch on the raw fish. It gets crispy with a little salt and a little bit of citrus on it. It’s so nice. It’s very special – my hidden sushi restaurant.”
Kagura Sushi, 4-14-13 Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan; +81 3 3541 4180
“There are actually two Sushikos in Japan. One is a chain and one is very expensive. I like them both, actually.
“I go to the chain restaurant after work sometimes. It’s easy and they have a signature dish sake harasu, which means salmon belly in Japanese. People always go for this famous dish.”
Sushiko, 1/F, Aile D’ore Bldg, 6-5-8 Ginza, Tokyo, Japan; +81 3 5568 0505
“Then there’s the expensive Sushiko. This is a very, very traditional sushi restaurant. They don’t have a menu, and you don’t know how much it costs until the end….
“I went here once with my best friend from London. It was my first time there, and I was nervous, wondering if I was good enough to be there.
“We started with some sashimi, beer and sake. It was very, very expensive, but finally I became a man who could sit in this restaurant.
“At that moment, I felt like I ‘made it.’
“Of course, we had the chef’s menu, which cost maybe around $300 per person. It was a while ago, so hard to remember. If you only eat sushi, it’s doesn’t cost as much.”
Sushiko Honten, 6-3-8 Ginza, Tokyo, Japan; +81 3 3571 1968
“There is a bar I always introduce to international customers that’s just 20 steps from my bar. It’s called Mimi. It’s quite small, smaller than mine, with downstairs basement seating.
“The bartender (Fumiyasu Mimitsuka) won an IBA (International Bartender Association) World Cup Championship and he is a good guy.
“He lived in North America, so he speaks a little English. He’s like my little son – I mean, he’s over 40 years old but, you know what I mean.”
Bar Mimi, B2/F, Wakamatsu Bldg B2F, 6-6-19 Ginza, Tokyo, Japan; +81 3 6274 6629
“Sometimes I like to go to the Asakusa district. It’s about 20 minutes on the metro from Ginza. This bar called Kamiya Bar is near an old temple, called Sensō Temple.
“It’s called a ‘bar’ but not the kind you’re thinking of. It’s more of a social club, in the local style. It’s not formal at all. It’s more like a neighborhood gathering place.
“It’s so old – they have a signature spirit that’s a very strong liquor. I bring my friends and bartenders and they all love it. They have a mix of Japanese and Western food, and some drinking – usually you hang out on the ground floor and eat upstairs.”
Kamiya Bar, 1-1-1 Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan; +81 3 3841 5400
“I’m practically made of coffee,” says Ueno, pointing to his ice coffee. “There is one place near my bar that’s my favorite. It’s very classic.
“In Japan, there isn’t as much barista-type coffee. It’s more of a classic drip style and brewer culture.
“At Ranzu, there’s a long counter here and you just go to have a little sip of coffee.”
Ranzu,1/F, New Ginza Bldg, 7-3-13 Ginza, Tokyo, Japan; +81-3-3571-8266