Tochigi prefecture’s capital, Utsunomiya, is an oasis of drinks with a classical cocktail bar culture rivaling nearly anywhere in Tokyo. After five nights on the ground–visiting 22 bars–tonight nomunication.jp is ready to take you on a whirlwind tour of one of Japan’s best yet oft-overlooked cocktail scenes.
Utsunomiya typically whizzes by for tourists headed to nearby Nikko. But if you’re into cocktails or spirits, you owe it to yourself to spend time in the city. Gyoza may be Utsunomiya’s claim to fame for many. For drinks fans in the know, however, the city has always been about great bars.
What makes Utsunomiya special?
Tokyo has plenty of great bars. Why go to Utsunomiya?
While going to several different places on a night out in Tokyo is common, bar hopping between cocktail bars isn’t. One reason is the cost: with many places requiring cover charges of 1000-2000 yen, then with drinks priced between 1000 and 2000 yen, going to various bars hits the wallet hard. Generally, Tokyoites will go to a single cocktail bar on a night out, if they go to any cocktail bars at all.
In Utsunomiya, however, cover charges tend to be 500 yen or less, and most cocktails are around 700-1000 yen. It may not sound like much, but the savings add up if you want to visit a lot of places. This and the tight-knit nature of Utsunomiya’s bar scene has created a bar-hopping culture where having just a drink or two, then moving elsewhere, isn’t just accepted. It’s encouraged! Bars in Tokyo often have regulars keeping the same seats warm night after night. In Utsunomiya, you’re already a regular everywhere.
Then there’s geography. Ginza and Shinjuku, for example, aren’t exactly close. But most of the bars of the Utsunomiya Cocktail Club are clustered in an area that’s less than a kilometer end-to-end. If you’ve found one bar, you’ve essentially found them all. There’s no waiting for taxis or public transport. There’s only one traffic light. Some open at dusk; others are open until dawn. Bring your liver.
The city was spurred into cocktailing largely through the efforts of Toru Otsuka, who launched Paipu no Kemuri in 1974. In 1977 he took the national title, and in 1979 he won a silver medal at the global competition. Otsuka-san pushed his staff to hone their own techniques. At the time, that was Takei-san, Ogawa-san, and Yamanoi-san. These three went on to win national titles in their own right, eventually opening their own bars.
This isn’t exactly ancient history, either. As of this writing, Ogawa-san and Yamanoi-san are still behind the wood. They have also trained the next generation of bartenders. Speak to the bartender at virtually any Utsunomiya Cocktail Club bar, and they are likely somehow connected to that original Paipu no Kemuri group.
From 1987 to 1990, the city’s bartenders took home the top prize at Japan’s national cocktail competition for an unprecedented four consecutive years. Those four went on to win silver medals and 1st or 2nd place in technicals at global competitions. The former head of the Utsunomiya Cocktail Club, Sasaki-san, has said it was harder to win the Tochigi regional final than the national title in those days.
Once a bartender wins a national title, the understanding is that they won’t enter the competition the following year. This was to encourage the younger generations to improve their skills so they themselves could win.
The Utsunomiya Cocktail Club was launched in 1999 as a joint effort of Utsunomiya’s bars. The goal is to call the attention of general consumers to that cocktail culture.
Utsunomiya isn’t hard to get to from Tokyo. The Tohoku Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station takes only an hour. You can also take the Tobu line from Tobu Asakusa for a more leisurely ride.
Rather than JR Utsunomiya, most of the member bars of the Utsunomiya Cocktail Club are clustered in the nightlife area around Tobu Utsunomiya. So that’s where my hotel is too.
After a quick shower and bite to eat–you don’t want nights like this on an empty stomach–it’s time to venture out. Let’s get some drinks in Utsunomiya.
Dining Bar Sukatto
Dining Bar Sukatto
Since Sukatto opened in 1966, it has served generations of bargoers with over 400 kinds of whisky and a huge variety of cocktails. As far as Utsunomiya bars go, there's also plenty of seating -- 56 seats!
When your first drink is a perfectly poured Half & Half, you know you've come to a genuine pub. But in a very un-pub-like twist, the cocktail menu is plentiful, and technique lives up to the Utsunomiya reputation.
In 1987, the senior Yamanoi-san won the national title for bartender technique in Japan. His son runs this bar, found on the 2nd floor of the same building. It seems great cocktails and hospitality run in the family.
The open, pub-like atmosphere of Aoki-san's bar is welcoming to any customer, old or new, of any level of experience. Arrive at 6PM and ask about the all-you-can-drink option. No doubt you'll make new friends.
This institution of a bar was the first of the Paipu no Kemuri series, and it's been in operation for over 50 years. If you're lucky and Ogawa-san is behind the bar, he'll be happy to take you through the history of the city's cocktail scene -- he's been a major part of it the whole time.
Just down the street from Tochigi's prefectural government building is Park Avenue, a cozy bar offering up a great selection of whisky and cocktails. Fukuda-san also won the Tumugi Cocktail Contest within Utsunomiya.
The deep counter, Oya stone accents, and comparatively small backbar at Hiro:z will be appreciated by minimalists. The house specialty Kamikaze, though, is absolutely not a minimalist riff. Hiro:z is also the current "home" of the Utsunomiya Cocktail Club.
With only 10 seats, this small bar means it fills up fast. The cocktails are stellar, and also keep an eye out for old bottles of whisky. Owner Aiba-san went independent here after a stint at Ginza's famed Bar Hoshi.
I have no way to verify, but Bar khan allegedly goes through more Wild Turkey than any bar in Japan. The cocktails are also awesome! JAV fans may recognize the actress on the signed(!) poster on the wall.
This slightly upscale entry flying the Paipu no Kemuri banner features not one, but two bar counters to enjoy. Because it's located in the snack/hostess club area of Utsunomiya, don't be surprised if you learn what the word "douhan" means.
With two floors plus bar, table, and sofa seating options, Cave is closer to a lounge than a bar. As such, it's a tad pricier. For more indulgence, take a look at their selection of cigars. Otsuka-san is the former chair of the Utsunomiya Cocktail Club and his "El Martillito" won the first ever Padrón Cocktail Competition in Japan, pairing cocktails with cigars.
If it's raining, Beck is a great place to pop into. It's within Utsunomiya's shopping arcade! The cocktails are affordable yet well presented, and the staff are hospitable. Great place for a quick drink or three before or after dinner.
When Utsunomiya was first recommended to me by a bartender in Tokyo, he specifically mentioned two names: Paipu no Kemuri and Chamonix. It's easy to see why. Masuda-san remembered my name, and my drink of choice, despite it being several years since I've seen him. No further explanation is needed. Just go.
When you walk into this standard bearer of the "Paipu no Kemuri" brand, you can almost hear the Ghosts of Cocktail Past urging you to take in the amazing yet reasonable cocktails. This is where Utsunomiya's current bar culture was born. It's also a member of the eightstar Group, of which Ginza's Bar Hoshi is also a member. A must-visit bar on any trip to Utsunomiya.
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