2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

How Many Rounds Does It Take to Feel at Home?

How Many Rounds Does It Take to Feel at Home?

Denki Bran in Asakusa

Kamiya Bar should have closed its doors long ago. It’s an anachronism. A Meiji-era bar in Asakusa, just around the corner from Sensou-ji temple and spitting distance from San-ya, Japan’s answer to Skid Row. Yet, there it sits in still frame as rickshaws rush past, blurring slow shutters.

The bottles that line the shelves are filled with Denki Bran, “Electric Brandy,” a blend of brandy, gin, herbs, and what-have-you. The name was meant to sound futuristic, and likely did in 1882, a time when electricity was still a novelty. Denki was the “cyber” of its day.

Denki Bran’s recipe is a secret and it has a mystique enhanced by the reputations (and drinking habits) of eccentric writers who rented rooms above the bar. Muses are often 80 proof. Films and songs have sung the praises of Denki Bran and it is forever associated with the Japanese intelligentsia of the past. Think absinthe, sans the paranoia and public backlash.

That retro-futuristic vibe has allowed an otherwise unremarkable bar founded in 1880 to continue serving boozy bachelors and occasional foreigners (like myself) to this day. And it is on this day, a cold, rainy afternoon, that I decide to enter Kamiya Bar and try some Denki Bran.

Inside, a table of white-haired Japanese men are repeating themselves at high volume. A fully gin-blossomed man sits in the corner with empty flute glasses lined up in front of him. It’s a geriatric atmosphere, like much of Japan these days. Gone are the young bohemian writer-types of the past. Japan’s slow decline has seeped into the cracks of this place, but the mood is light.

I buy a ticket for the stiffer edition of Denki Bran, 40 percent, to shake off the poor weather I’ve brought inside with me. My gin-blossomed friend is looking at me as I take a seat to his left. He senses an opening, but I avoid his attempts at eye contact. I plan to drink alone.

The Denki Bran tastes like what it is, a brandy based aperitif. It’s floral and pleasant, not unlike an Italian amaro, and it warms on its way down. I immediately feel better and get the urge to order another. I wonder if that’s how my friend and his nose got their start here. He coughs loudly as if to confirm my thought and takes another sip

The first Denki Bran makes its way to my head and I rise to order another. I’ve lived in Tokyo for seven years, more or less, and never felt more simultaneously at home and separate from a place. That emotion is being distilled under the artificial light and elderly company. Life in Tokyo is a pleasant purgatory, comfort and convenience served with polite detachment and dissociation.

Kamiya Bar feels like a microcosm: Western and Japanese and neither all at once. It has an uncanny normalcy that is both comforting and unnerving. It should feel weirder than it does. Less familiar. The waiters are overdressed. Bowties and black vests. The gin blossomed man has inexplicably donned a red beret when I return to my seat and I think the second Denki Bran might yet lead to a third. I wonder how many rounds it would take to feel at home here.

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