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Friday, April 23, 2010

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Extra umami: Sake Bar Yoramu owner Yoram Ofer explains how some sake can do with a little bit of maturing. MICHAEL LAMBE, WWW.DEEPKYOTO.COM


A drinking guide to the ancient capital

Kyoto is renowned for its historic temples and shrines, but let's not forget its great drinking establishments

Special to The Japan Times

Last year I wrote a guide to Kyoto about which Amazon.com reviewer Andreas Strebinger gushed: "This is, from my perspective and for my purposes, the worst travel guide I ever bought."

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By the book: Hyatt Regency Kyoto's Touzan bar designed by Takashi Sugimoto of design group Superpotato. COURTESY OF HYATT REGENCY KYOTO

Strebinger charged that I gave equal consideration to World Heritage landmarks and "each petty bar and cafe in the city." He conceded that "if you are in Kyoto to go to bars and restaurants, this guide is your choice," but I suspect he meant it as a criticism.

It would be gauche to rebut the review on Amazon.com, so I'll do so here instead. I intend to make the case that, though the temples and whatnot are very impressive, it's worth going to Kyoto just for the drinks.


Iyashikei is a rice brew, but it tastes like fino sherry. Omiji kijoshu is a rice brew, but it tastes like oloroso sherry. Ineburimaru is a rice brew, but it tastes like stout. If you thought sake was supposed to be fragile and floral, you need to visit Sake Bar Yoramu

"An aged wine still tastes like it's from the same category, but that's not true of sake," says owner Yoram Ofer. But then nobody ever aged a wine like he ages sake. Ofer leaves namazake, the unpasteurized stuff they tell you to refrigerate, sitting on his doorstep for years. "If you keep it one summer out of the fridge, nobody will know you did it," he says. "It'll be the same sake but with more umami. Some go wrong, but then you just close it and put it back for another year." The results can be wild, but an evening here makes every other kind of alcohol seem horribly limited. It's sake, folks, but not as you know it.


The bar with the biggest reputation in Kyoto is K6. It's where other bartenders go to drink. It has several hundred Scotches, good food, plenty of space and lousy hospitality. On my first visit, the bartender barely acknowledged me until he learned of my job, when he suddenly became most attentive to me and blanked his other guest. He mixed a weak sidecar, then a good Manhattan, but lied about the ingredients.

Better bets for malt lovers are Cordon Noir and K'Ya, both run by young, friendly bartenders with colossal collections of rare Scotches.

At Cordon Noir, Makoto Ono mixes a deliciously smoky Laphroaig with kyobancha tea over crushed ice; at K'Ya, Junichi Kurono uses the same Islay beast to make his Gaelic espresso, which he serves with homemade Laphroaig- scented chocolates.


Ghost's display shelf is mouthwatering: Hibiki 17 Years Old, vintage calvados, Chartreuse VEP, El Tesoro tequila, Carpano Antica Formula vermouth . . . if this were a bar it would be an outstanding one. But Ghost is a cake shop. All that booze goes to flavor the food, and the first thought of any self-respecting liquor lover on seeing a chocolate mousse cake loaded with Talisker 18 Years Old and Springbank 10 Years Old ought to be "good God, what a waste," but after tasting these creations, I'm beginning to think it would be a waste to drink the stuff.

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Sweet spirits: Michiko Katano's cake creations at Ghost are flavored with premium spirits worthy of a top-class bar. NICHOLAS COLDICOTT PHOTO

The extraordinary booze lineup comes courtesy of owner Minoru Nishida, who also happens to own the bar K6. But it's Michiko Katano that designs recipes to suit the drinks, and she clearly understands what she's working with. A huge slug of rich and fruity Talisker 18 flavors a chocolate and morello cherry cake, and Pernod perks up a strawberry and vanilla creation.

Katano says the K6 connection grants her access to premium spirits, so she tries to avoid the kind of rums and brandies that most patisseries employ. "We also want to introduce the drinks to customers who aren't so familiar with alcohol, and it's fun to talk about drinks with the customers," she says. It's enough to make you like K6.


Bar Rocking Chair is ostensibly another K6 spinoff, though it's run by a bartender who learned his chops in Ginza's venerable Gaslight bar. Though some were tipping him to be a big name on Ginza's scene, Kenji Tsubokura headed to the small pond of Kyoto and joined K6. Last year he finally opened his own bar, and I'd been hearing about it from bartenders in Tokyo and Kyoto alike. In February, Tsubokura won the Kansai heat of the national bartending competition, giving the trophy a rare glimpse of Kyoto (it's much more at home in Osaka).

Shortly after, I took Japan Times food critic Robbie Swinnerton to Rocking Chair and we found out what all the fuss is about.

We plowed through Tsubokura's vintage Scotches, premium rums and cocktail repertoire. He makes the finest Robert Burns cocktail I've tried, using a blend of Antica Formula and Dolin vermouths. The former is too bitter, he says, and the latter too herbal, but mix them together and you get the Goldilocks vermouth, which he stirs with Clynelish 14 Years Old and a spoonful of Benedictine. But Tsubokura's real passion is port, and he offers a standalone menu of rubies, tawnies, colheitas, whites, LBVs and vintages.


As the Hyatt Regency Kyoto was preparing to open in 2006, several boxes full of old books arrived on the doorstep. General Manager Ken Yokoyama says he was perplexed that someone had dumped such tat on his luxury doorstep. The tomes turned out to be from Takashi Sugimoto of design group Superpotato, who used them, spines turned inward, to create a textured wall for Touzan . His inspired design touches make the Hyatt Regency's Touzan one of the city's sexiest bars. Touzan is also where I learned about the Blinker, a moreish balance of sweet, sour and spice that's the best use I've found for grenadine:

40 ml rye whiskey

20 ml grapefruit juice

10 ml grenadine

Shake with ice and pour into a cocktail glass.

Meanwhile, Mr. Strebinger, if you're reading:

Kinkakuji: should a Zen temple have all that gold?

Kiyomizudera: very big. Nice balcony.

Kokedera: ¥3,000 to get in! Lots of moss.

Ryoanji: Zen garden. Make of it what you will.

Sanjusangendo: statues galore. Better than Madame Tussauds.

Tenryuji: dragon roof, lovely garden, Zen lunch.

Sake Bar Yoramu: Nijo Dori Higashinotouin Higashi-iru Minamigawa, Nakagyo-ku; (075) 213-1512

K6: 2F Valls Building, Nijo Dori Kiyamachi Higashi-iru, Nakagyo-ku; (075) 255-5009

Cordon Noir: 3F Matsushimaya Bldg., 121 Ishiyacho, Kiyamachi Dori Sanjo Sagaru Nakagyo-ku; (075) 212 3288

K'Ya: 103 Yaoya-cho, Rokkaku Dori Gokomachi Nishi-iru, Nakagyo-ku; (075) 241 0489

Ghost: 667-1 Kueninmae-cho, Teramachi Nishigawa, Nakagyo-ku; (075) 222 8266

Bar Rocking Chair: 434-2 Tachibanacho, Gokomachi Dori Bukkoji Sagaru, Shimogyo-ku; (075) 496-8679

Touzan Bar: Hyatt Regency Kyoto, 644-2 Sanjusangendo-mawari, Higashiyama-ku; (075) 541 1234

Hotel Mume: 261 Umemoto-cho, Shinmonzen Dori, Higashiyama-ku; (075) 525-8787

Nicholas Coldicott is the writer of the Time Out Kyoto Shortlist and stayed in Kyoto as a guest of the Hotel Mume and Hyatt Regency Kyoto.

Click to enlarge Kyodo drinking spots \

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