Insiders guide: 10 Tokyo bars that only the locals know about

The Iron Fairies, Tokyo, Japan.
The Iron Fairies, Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Supplied

Going out in Tokyo, day or night, is a non-stop sensory assault. What's your poison? Robots, bondage, Alcatraz,  Dracula, the office? There are themed bars for all of them. There are bars that squish in three people and bars where you'll be rocking karaoke with hundreds of new friends.

Then there are the bars that only the locals know about. We stayed with Airbnb in a cool Tokyo neighbourhood, and got their insider's tips on where to go to drink like a local.

The Iron Fairies

The striking basement bar at The Iron Fairies has been designed by Australian artist Ash Sutton.
The striking basement bar at The Iron Fairies has been designed by Australian artist Ash Sutton.  Photo: Supplied

If you're entering the crowded Ginza bar scene you have to make an impact – and new kid on the block The Iron Fairies is doing it with fairy dust bottles, iron fairies, hanging keys and locks and floating butterflies – but somehow not in a kitsch way. The basement bar has been designed by artist and blacksmith (and Aussie) Ash Sutton, who is also behind Bangkok's Maggie Choo's, Mr Jones' Orphanage, and Bangkok Betty. There's no signage but once you're enveloped inside, staff are friendly, music is groovy and cocktails interesting and delicious (even when they include octopus).  

5-9-5 Ginza, Chuo district, 03-6274-6416

Terra Australis

The Iron Fairies is one of Tokyo's standout bars.
The Iron Fairies is one of Tokyo's standout bars.  Photo: Supplied

Tokyo even has its own take on 'Modern Australian'. The city's long been host to restaurants like Salt (Luke Mangan), bills (Bill Granger) and 2 Rooms (Matthew Crabbe), but this new entrant has a more locals-only feel.  Located slightly off the beaten track in up-and-coming Kita-Sando, and with an unassuming entrance on a quiet street in the untouristy but groovy neighbourhood of Sendagaya (better known for fashion factories than cool bars), it's still on the down low. The third floor bar is above the intimate restaurant (where Food is by ex-Salt  chef Koji Fukuda) and there's a cool rooftop terrace on top. 

3-29-2 Sendagaya, Shibuya district, 03-6455-4828

Gen Yamamoto

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In the Azabu Juban district, this is the Noma of cocktail bars, and probably the best known of this list. More hushed sipping gallery than bar, Yamamoto holds court and takes the fine art of perfect cocktail making very seriously. He uses seasonal fresh indigenous produce and the most premium liquors – including (the night we were there) a very rare whisky. We shared the eight-seat-only bar (which is super-cool, and carved out of one giant Japanese oak) with five smiling, smart-phone-busy locals. Countless guests were turned away - without us being made to feel we were overstaying our welcome. Don't expect snacks, noise, budget prices, or explanations; you're here for an authentic, sublimely skilful cocktail sipping experience.

1-6-4 Minato-ku, Azabu Juban district, 03-6434-0652

Bar Cacoi

Od-school beef sandwiches at Anjin Lounge Bar, Tokyo, Japan.
Od-school beef sandwiches at Anjin Lounge Bar, Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Lisa Murray

Another teeny place that fills up fast, with only about eight or ten seats. Our connected Airbnb host Mayumi suggests you dine at a local restaurant in the 'hood beforehand (such as the small, delicious Ishidaya). That way, you can ask them to ring ahead and see if there is any room here. If you are lucky enough to snag a perch, you won't be disappointed. There's no sign outside the bar, and no menu to select a drink – but plenty of ingredients with which to make the perfect drink. Cocktails are mixed by an expert barman, who is working by candlelight behind a curtain of bottles lining the bar, as jazz plays quietly in the background. 

3-14-8 Ginza, Chuo district, 03-6228-4793

Uomaru Honten

Gen Yamamoto in Tokyo is dedicated to the fine art of perfect cocktail,
Gen Yamamoto in Tokyo is dedicated to the fine art of perfect cocktail, Photo: Supplied

No visit to Tokyo is complete without a beer and a meal at one of the city's many casual eateries known as izakayas. Uomaru Honten is a good start. Nestled under the railway tracks in the downtown area called Sanchoku Inshokugai, not far from Ginza's glitzy shopping district, this seafood restaurant is packed most nights. But the waiting is part of the experience: friendly staff provide you with a drink, some over-sized oysters and what look like giant barbecued edamame to tide you over. Once inside, it's loud and squashy, but lots of fun, with diners perched on crates covered in leather cushions. This old shack, held together by corrugated iron and lit by dangling naked bulbs, is a favourite with the after-work crowd as it stays open late and serves up drinking food. 

2-1-11 Yurakucho, Chiyoda district, 03-5510-1278

Bar Martha and Bar Track

Gen Yamamoto is "the Noma of cocktail bars".
Gen Yamamoto is "the Noma of cocktail bars". Photo: Lisa Murray

There are a lot of hipster music bars in Tokyo but these two stand out. Off the beaten track in the Ebisu area - which fittingly was developed on the site of a former brewery – you will feel like you're drinking in a local's living room (a local with a very cool vinyl collection). Martha is the slightly better known original with a more serious-muso vibe; Bar Track is friendlier. Both offer cool old-school tunes, excellent cocktails and lots of whisky.  There are rules – no photos! one drink per person! no sandals! – but they're all part of the authentic experience. There may be a cover charge; there are also loads of free snacks. Their other (also groovy) sister bars are Bar Nica and Bar Smoke are in the red light district.

Bar Martha, 1-22-23 Ebisu, Shibuya, 03-3441-5055

Bar Track, 3-24-9 Higashi, Shibuya, 03-5466-8871

Bar Tram and Bar Trench

Trench (counter drinking) and Tram (the original, with seats) are a couple of blocks apart in the Ebisu area and both specialise in absinthe. Run by absinthe aficionados Takuya Itoh and Rogerio Igarashi Vaz, they have a phenomenal global selection of the drop and a drinking experience complete with absinthe fountains, spoons and other paraphernalia. But if the green fairy isn't your thing there are other options. It's moody in look, but not experience, with slick service and a comfy vibe.

Bar Trench: 1-5-8 Ebisu-nishi Shibuya, 03-3780-5291

Bar Tram: 1-7-13 Ebisu-nishi  Shibuya, 03-3780-5291

Anjin Lounge Bar

You'll be tempted to linger for hours, if not days in the Daikanyama T-site Tsutaya bookstore (if you can call three buildings filled with books, mags and music a store). But ignore it and head upstairs to the Anjin lounge bar. Kick back in plush leather couches and see how the Tokyo cool set lives. Waiters and waitresses in flowing black silk skirts and tuxedo shirts hand around the iPad menu that includes western fare such as an old-school beef sandwich which comes with a teacup full of soup and a pristine salad. Different sized bottles of Taittinger Champagne line the bar (a mixture of dark wood and book spines), along with expensive bottles of Japanese whisky. Jazz versions of old Beatles hits play in the background and a 1940s edition of Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls is on display. 

17-5 Sarugakucho, Shibuya district, 03-3770-2525

The writers stayed with Airbnb.