Best for perfect cocktails and secret bars: Roppongi
It’s impossible to talk about Tokyo nightlife without mentioning Roppongi; though it’s reinvented itself as an artistic hub, in most people’s minds it’s still all hostess bars, aggressive touts and overpriced drinks. Stick to the main drag and that’s what you’ll get, but you’ll find some unexpectedly chic and clever spots in the side streets, especially towards Nishi-Azabu.
One which you’ll have to try harder than usual to find is Roku-Nana, a small “secret bar” in a nondescript residential building. You can either relax in the warm, low-lit bar or head up to the roof terrace for a gorgeous view of Roppongi Hills. We’d give you directions, but we promised not to tell…
There’s a similarly exclusive feel at Gen Yamamoto, though at least the address is made public there. The eponymous owner creates a daily-changing tasting menu of four or six cocktails, adjusting it to match customer preferences, the time, the weather, or just his own intuition. It’s an opportunity to see a master at work – and as there are only eight seats and no background music, you’ll be fully focused on watching him create these works of art.
Best for a microcosm of the city: Shinjuku
This buzzing skyscraper district has long been home to some of the city’s most famous nightlife spots, including the infamous Robot Restaurant. Whether you want to make like Bill Murray in the Park Hyatt’s 52nd-floor New York Bar, find your own tiny place in Golden Gai, or check out the city’s LGBT scene in Ni-chōme, Shinjuku is the place. It’s eclectic, overwhelming and occasionally bizarre – like Tokyo itself.
One of the highlights of Golden Gai is Blue Square, with its cheery staff, friendly clientele, and S&M-inspired decor. It’s foreigner-friendly, too, especially if you make an effort with Japanese – a kanpai! (cheers!) will go a long way with your new drinking buddies. If you’d rather go somewhere big enough to actually dance, try A-Un: a favourite on the LGBT scene, this lesbian-friendly bar has an excellent sound system and holds regular events. The events are often women-only, but check the schedule as men are also welcome most nights.
Best for new trends and talents: Shimokitazawa
If you want to see Japan’s best DJs, musicians, artists and even bartenders before they make it big, Shimokita is your best bet. It’s only a few stops from Shibuya and Shinjuku, but this low-rise, low-key district feels like a different city – one filled with teenage bands playing tiny venues, international music scenes finding a new audience (Japanese grime artist MC Pakin filmed the video for Anxiety here), and Shimokita old-timers spinning records in tiny, smoky bars.
Just wander around and you’ll see how multifaceted the nightlife here is. At Little Soul Café you can listen to funk and soul records selected by the owner from the 10,000+ which line the cosy room. A few minutes’ walk away is SHELTER, a fairly intimate, always packed, live-music venue which leans towards Japanese rock music. Keep walking south and you’ll come to THREE, a live house focused on up-and-coming acts – a great spot to discover something new.
If you want to experience Shimokita’s creative, friendly vibe, now’s the time to go: a redevelopment of the central area has been in the works for a while, which would introduce an arterial road and mean replacing most buildings around the station with high-rises. There’s been plenty of local protest, but if the plan goes through, it could change the character of Shimokita irrevocably.
Best for live music: Kōenji
A few stops west of Shinjuku is Kōenji, by day a sedate area with some great cafés, by night the heart of Tokyo’s punk, DIY and alternative scenes. There are several excellent live venues, the highest-profile being 20,000 Den-Atsu. You can judge for yourself whether they actually do have “the loudest system in the world”, as they claim – but there’s no question that it’s impressive enough for some very, very loud bands and their equally boisterous fans. If you’re not keen on their listings, have at look at who’s playing Koenji High, another popular live house, which (unusually for Japan) doesn’t allow smoking in the main area.
Before heading out to jump up and down with 200 other people to a Japanese punk band, you may want a moment of calm at Cocktail Shobō. This quiet spot is a joyous blend of bookshop and bar, where you can flick through old paperbacks while sipping a cocktail.