"Do you have some problems you'd like to fix? Beauty? Health? Skin condition? You got tired eyes or do you feel stressed?" asks Nanoko Hanamura, or as her friends call her, Nano-chan. After ten minutes in Yakusyu Bar, just about everyone qualifies as a friend. Like all of the best things in Tokyo, her place is all but impossible to find if you don't know where to look. Even with the aid of Google Maps and a Japanese friend, I spend ages wandering around the graffiti-splattered labyrinth of alleyways in Sangenjaya district before I spy a faint green glow outside its door. Once inside, I'm confronted with the sight of 40-odd jars of shochu infused with everything from elderflower to eel. My eyes involuntarily flick to the large vessel in the corner with the decapitated remains of a venomous variety of Okinawan snake. With a wink, Nano-chan adds, "Don't worry, all the poison is in the head. When you drink it, it's harmless. It's also good for men in the nighttime… if you know what I mean."
Since I'm not looking to boost my masculine virility, I stick to a soothing lemon balm potion mixed with tonic water. A banker sitting next to me gives the snake the side-eye and comments that his "nighttime" problems always seem to come after drinking.
"Did you ever think of taking the girl home first and then hitting the bars?" Nano-chan quips with a pronounced eyeball roll. The room cracks up and glasses clink. "Kampai! Hey, welcome to Japan!"
It's Wednesday night, but since each of these elixirs purportedly possesses medicinal properties, we figure an extra shot or two won't hurt. Known as yakushu, these house-made infusions have recently found favour with the younger generation, thanks to their claims to be able to cure your insomnia, clear your complexion, or boost your flagging energy levels. Yakusyu Bar is one of roughly a dozen such places around town touting their homemade hooch, which range from swank speakeasies to deeply weird watering holes. In the latter category, you'll find Bonji Bar, a gritty hookah den tucked away near Asakusa station, where spirits come infused with cannabis seeds, hallucinogenic mushrooms, scorpions, deer antlers or penises, pancake turtles, king cobras, and lamprey eels. Some of these are imported, while others, such as the peyote-infused tequila, are the owner's own unique creations. Though Japan boasts some of the world's most stringent drug laws, including the 1948 Cannabis Control Act, no one here seems too concerned. Much to the relief of some patrons and disappointment of others, a number of these, such as the coca leaf liqueur, are stripped of actual narcotics.
Equally trippy but somewhat more health-conscience is Gatosano, located on the second floor of a shop steps from the preening gothic lolitas and teeny-boppers on Harajuku's Takeshita Street. After 5 PM, this rainbow-hued health food eatery starts doling out shots of around 40 different types yakushu custom-blended to help partygoers power up or cool down gently. When I stop by during late afternoon, DJ Tanaka, the owner, is out and about, but the bartender is happy to make a few recommendations from an extensive menu divided by curative properties. For a night on the town, I might start with guava or stevia leaf if I want to burn off all the ramen I've been slurping, then down some guarana for a pre-rave pick-me-up, and then finally unwind with valerian, chamomile, or lavender. Perhaps the most helpful are the post-party shots with either turmeric or fennel, which can supposedly quell a hangover before it starts.
Tempting as the thought might be, I never have the chance to test their effectiveness. I've got to book it to Shinjuku meet one of Tokyo's most unorthodox mixologists. Since 2013, Hiroyasu Kayama has been offering bespoke libations, rare spirits, and whatever he feels like serving at Bar Ben Fiddich. At any given time, he stocks 30 to 40 varieties of yakushu, most made from botanicals grown on his family farm in Chichibu, Saitama.
Since this is Tokyo, a scant strip of tape with minuscule lettering by the elevator in a generic office block offers the only indication from the ground floor that the speakeasy even exists. The sun is still shining outside, but when I make my way up to the candlelit space on the ninth floor, it feels like the dead of night. Kayama stands behind the bar in a crisp cream-coloured suit with slicked-back hair. Behind him are shelves packed with countless bottles, some sealed with wax to protect the contents. I gesture to one of them and ask what's inside.
"Do you like absinthe?" Kayama asks, his eyes lighting up. Before I can answer, he pulls down several bottles of the green fairy and lays them out on the counter. "I'm an absinthe collector. This bottle is 1890. This bottle is 1910. This one is the most old, 1870. Very good taste because of long aging. Notes of chocolate. So… I guess you could say I like absinthe."
Just a whiff of the stuff is enough to make my head spin, though I'm too shy to ask for a taste. Luckily, for those who can't afford a sip of these ancient elixirs, Kayama makes his own. Anise, fennel, mint, angelica root, mint, lemon balm, hyssop, and the same wormwood that had this liquor on the FDA's blacklist until 2007 all go into his potent, 62-percent-alcohol potion. "My father is a farmer, so I often go back to my hometown to source cocktail ingredients. I grow, forage, and dry. I have a 20-litre alembic of this," he says, showing me the bottle.
It's not his only riff on a popular spirit. When I ask for something with Campari, he ignores the bottle by the shelf and instead proceeds to pull out 16 different jars. Without a word, he whips out a mortar and pestle and begins crushing precise ratios of herbs and spices. Though I recognise most of them, there's a container of desiccated insects that gives me pause.
"Campari used to be coloured with cochineal insects, just like lipstick," he says. He adds the crushed shells to the mix, gives it a vigorous shake, and, to my relief, double-strains the blood-red blend into my glass. "Think of it like a Starbucks strawberry Frappuccino."
It's bitter, balanced, and somehow exactly what I wanted—bugs and all—as is everything else Kayama conjures. Regulars don't bother asking for a menu here, since all of the recipes come from his imagination and rotate too frequently to ever be committed to the printed page. Over the course of the next few hours, I watch him whip up a lime-green riff on a Bloody Mary, a gin-based concoction with a garden's worth of herbs, a frothy cousin of a pisco sour topped passion fruit caramelised with a blowtorch and scooped up like crème brûlée.
"Special Japanese cocktail," Kayama answers, whenever I or anyone else at the bar asks what they're drinking. "No name."
For Kayama, the thrill of all this alchemy lies in the challenge rather than in any particular curative effects the drinks might possess.
"Even before I opened this bar, distilling was my hobby. These are my homemade spirits," he says, nodding to the wall behind him. "Before, these might have been used as medicine."
Whether or not they still qualify as such, he cannot say. For him, creating yakushu is equal parts art and science and obsession, a logical extension of mixology itself. As I stumble out into the dark to chase the final train, I don't feel younger, thinner, or hotter, but I know that what I've just consumed was damn good.