How to Drink in Tokyo Without Looking Like an Idiot
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How to Drink in Tokyo Without Looking Like an Idiot

My days of doing sake bombs at American strip mall sushi restaurants had not accurately prepared me to drink like a local in Tokyo, where a highball is just a whiskey soda and striking up small talk with strangers is discouraged.

A collective gasp rang out in the nine-seat bar, a pretty telling sign that I had done something wrong. As I placed down my now-empty shot glass, I noticed that the bartender's was still full of sake, his mouth agape in shock. In a panic, I asked, "Are you not supposed to shoot it?"

No, you American idiot, you are not supposed to shoot sake.

It seemed that my days doing sake bombs at American strip mall sushi restaurants had not accurately prepared me to drink like a local in Tokyo. I had no idea that the Japanese beverage was not intended to be downed in one fell swoop, despite being served in a shot-like vessel.

Sake, for sipping.

Sake for sipping. All photos by the author.gaijin

Visiting Japan gracefully is a daunting task for a , or foreigner. One will unwittingly commit a faux pas or two (or three or 14). Fortunately, foreigners tend to get a "gaijin pass" and are forgiven for their etiquette errors.

As my face singed with embarrassment, the bartender uncharacteristically poured me a second complimentary shot drink. This time I sipped the sake slowly. It became obvious that if I wanted to learn how to drink like a local, I'd need help from a local.

I turned to Frank Cisneros for help. A gaijin like me, Frank was the first foreigner to receive a resident permit from the Japanese government to bartend at one of Tokyo's most prestigious hotels. Before moving to Japan last year, Frank had made a name for himself in New York bartending at places like Prime Meats, Dram, and Gin Palace.


The streets of Shinjuku.

I got lost on the subway from Shimokitazawa to meet Frank in Golden Gai, a tangle of infamous old drinking spots that survived the city's demolition-happy 80s. The storied neighborhood is technically part of skyscraper-dense Shinjuku, but feels worlds away given its antiquated, mostly two-story buildings and narrow alleyways.

There's an Alice in Wonderland air about many of the bars in Golden Gai. Impossibly steep stairs transport customers into cavernous, often themed bars that rarely hold more than ten seats. Frank and I started the night at Albatross, a foreigner-friendly bar dripping in red velvet, chandeliers, deer busts, and disco balls.

Golden Gai's Albatross Bar

Golden Gai's Albatross Bar.just

Frank ordered a highball, which means something different in Japan than it does in America.

"Highballs' in Japan are whiskey and soda. A rum and Coke is not a highball, a whiskey ginger is not a highball. Just whiskey and soda," he told me, "and the preparation is highly ceremonial. You might stir a particular whiskey with a particular soda six times but this other whiskey maybe nine times. And the guests are watching you closely and get deeply disturbed if you disrupt the ritual."

I'd heard rumors that the Yakuza owned bars in Golden Gai. When I asked Frank about this, he shot me an urgently stern look.

"Don't say that word out loud, especially here," he said.

With the Yakuza very much still active, it made sense (in hindsight) not to bring up the mob in an area known to be frequented by the mob. I added this tip to my ever-growing list of "things to avoid doing in Tokyo."

Allegedly, many Golden Gai haunts are owned by Yakuza

Allegedly, many Golden Gai haunts are owned by Yakuza.motenashi,

Frank pivoted from Yakuza to tipping culture, explaining that if you try to leave something extra for a Japanese bartender or a taxi driver, they'll likely chase you down with your change or feel insulted. Yet the absence of tipping doesn't take away from the service. People in the industry still go above and beyond to give great service in the spirit of or hospitality.

"As an industry professional, I was really inspired by this and strived to match their level of hospitality. You're going above and beyond to deliver excellent service and you're making a tiny wage and there's no tip coming your way," Frank said.


"To me it heightened my dedication to my craft. I wasn't being a 'hospitalitarian' for the payout at the end, I was doing it because it was the right thing to do and it became deeply rewarding in its own right."

Cocktails crafted with care, tips discouraged.

Cocktails crafted with care and tips are discouraged. Frank Cisneros pours something sweet for a customer.

After investigating more Golden Gai bars, we ended up at Bar Bergerac perched on stools next to its owner, a charismatic actor who insisted we join him in karaoke.

There were four of us in the closet-like space: Frank, me, the owner, and his bartender. I'm not necessarily a shy person, but I found the idea of singing in front of these strangers semi-sober highly uncomfortable. Frank explained that to decline would be an insult, so I accepted the microphone and sang a pitchy rendition of a Beach Boys song.

The sun was rising as we exited Bar Bergerac. With no last call and no windows, Golden Gai bars make it very easy to get lost in a good time. On our walk to the subway, drunk businessmen slept soundly on the sidewalks.

A few days later, I met Frank at his work in ritzy Nihombashi. My ears popped as the five-star hotel's elevator ascended to the 37th floor. Unlike the haunts of Golden Gai, this high-ceilinged bar twinkled luxuriously with pristine marble and glass. The staff wore immaculate uniforms and the drink menu featured $16,000 cognac.

Frank mixed up a creamy mocktail for a Shinto priest as I pored over the cocktail list. I asked him for the bar's most popular order and braced myself for a stiff whiskey drink. Instead, Frank whipped up a sugary mixture of Midori, blue curaçao, and vodka. Frank explained that his clientele, mostly Japanese, leaned toward sweet cocktails.


"Gin and tonics are wildly popular and of course mojitos. Japan is where we were 15 years ago in terms of the mojito obsession," Frank said.

Frank's most requested cocktail, complete with Blue Curacao

Frank's most requested cocktail, complete with blue curaçao.Cheers

Frank went back to cocktailling while I watched Tokyo's elite drink around me. Compared to the other countries I'd visited in Asia, Japan seemed to have far fewer English speakers, or at least fewer people who were interested in speaking English to foreigners. When I had gone out alone, I would sheepishly sip my Sapporos and only sometimes find someone to talk to. I was happy to learn that my isolation wasn't personal.

"The Japanese are famously shy people," Frank said. "It's generally frowned upon to strike up a conversation with a stranger at a bar, or to talk to the bartender at any great length. Of course there are exceptions to this, but generally it's not like or your local hookup bar."

He added: "The brash, brave world of meeting strangers and sleeping with them is very much a Western thing and essentially nonexistent in Japan."

Tokyo's Best

When Frank was off work, we made our way to meet friends in Kanda at 65 Public House for a nightcap. We ate kabbechobbi, a warm cabbage and anchovy dish that went perfectly with our beers. One drink led to another and suddenly winding things down turned into ramping things up. We walked out into the rainy Kanda streets to a karaoke bar that reminded me of a Chuck E. Cheese. It was bright and sterile, decorated with cartoon animals. There were laminated menus and fountain drinks.

We approached the counter and placed our order for a private room, umeshu, wine, and a few highballs. In our dark room, the four of us belted out Taylor Swift and Ben E. King. It was light out when we exited the karaoke bar. We trudged back to the bar for yet another nightcap—or at this point, maybe it's a morning cap.

As a painful hangover settled in on the subway home, I accepted that I would never really know how to drink like a local. Thank god for that gaijin pass.