2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

One Thing I Remember for Certain Is That I Ate More Bugs

One Thing I Remember for Certain Is That I Ate More Bugs

Whiskey in Tokyo

The microbars in Tokyo’s Golden Gai, Piss Alley and Nonbei Yokocho are on the beaten path. The pubs in these labyrinthine streets can squeeze in a handful of patrons at a time and the odds of the owner speaking English are never favorable.

My friend Clint and I waded through the sea of humanity in Shibuya, fruitlessly searching for a quiet pachinko parlor. As we bobbed through the crowds, an unassuming door beneath a little green awning beckoned us closer. After a short deliberation, we entered.

We ascended the vertigo-inducing stairs to a cramped, wood-paneled room. There was a counter with six seats and a booth that could comfortably accommodate four people of Japanese stature. A small TV adorned a corner near the ceiling and high shelves lined with dusty, half-drunk bottles of hooch ringed the entire space.

The room was deserted and had a dusty, lived-in feel. Its emptiness gave way to a feeling that we were somehow trespassing. I was about to suggest that we leave when an ancient sounding voice excitedly greeted us in Japanese.

The fragile figure of an elderly woman seemed to materialize from the walls. Her diminutive stature and threadbare kimono provided the type of camouflage necessary for hiding in plain sight in a room no larger than 100 square feet.

She quickly ushered us to seats at the bar while happily chirping at us and fussing to make us comfortable. To leave without indulging her hospitality felt unforgivably rude and thus our fate was decided.

Once she found her way back behind the bar, our hostess gathered a selection of crystal glassware for us to choose from. Talking all the while, she heaved a mammoth hunk of ice into a large bowl, grabbed an unopened bottle of Suntory whisky and popped the top off of a tiny bottle of sparkling water.

We readily accepted our task. Whisky flowed, kanpais were spoken, and we watched a baseball game on television.

Time passed, regulars trickled in, and the contents of our bottle vanished. As we all got acquainted, we learned more about our surroundings. The okami (owner) was 87 years old and had been running the bar for 50 years. The bottles that lined the walls belonged to regulars who came and went as they pleased. Many of the bottles were draped with photographs in plastic sleeves and wooden ornaments bearing mysterious kanji that supposedly bring the drinker good tidings.

Unbidden, snacks arrived. Our first course was a molehill of salted edamame pods followed closely (and inexplicably) by small cups of goopy potato salad that refused to cooperate with our chopsticks. The star of the makeshift meal was an outsized bowl of miso toasted locusts.

As I rinsed the grit of a dozen insects from my mouth with an immodest gulp of Suntory, our hostess laughed and said “oishii, oishii.” Delicious, indeed.

It’s right about here that my memory begins to fade. My phone contains photographic evidence of our continued revelry. Polaroids were taken and we took pictures of the pictures.

Here are a few things I know for certain:

-The SoftBank Hawks defeated the Hiroshima Carp.
-I poured the last of our bottle into Clint’s tumbler.
-I ate more bugs.

Predictably, Suntory got the best of us. The last dregs of whisky lolled around the bottoms of our glasses and it was time to settle up. Okami-san sketched out a diagram indicating that we’d swilled 9,000 Yen (about $80) worth of whisky. A pittance for the opportunity to enjoy an evening with a storied barkeep and handful of accommodating Tokyoites.

Descending the stairs in our state was perilous. As we lurched onto the noisy streets of Shibuya, the reality of Tokyo hit me full force. Out of 100 million doorways, we’d chosen wisely. How many more diamonds were squirreled away in the rough of this megalopolis? How many more could I ever hope to come by honestly and without the assistance of a guidebook cheatsheet?

Up Next

Born From Beasts of the Outside World

Featured City Guides