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Why legendary Tokyo bar’s mixologist-owner doesn’t drink alcohol

Growing up, was it your goal to be a bar­tender?

“No. My major in university was business management. I should have studied more, since I have my own business now, but I didn’t, because I used to play American football in college, and I was more busy learning about form­ations than manage­ment skills. I never wanted to become a bartender, but I wanted my own coffee shop. I was a big coffee fan. I didn’t want an Italian-style coffee shop, more classic Japanese coffee brewing – siphon, hand-dripping.

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But Japanese people stay a few hours reading books and buy just a few hundred yen of coffee, so I thought it was too difficult to make a living. Then I thought, ‘I should serve alcohol in my coffee shop’. I worked as a coffee brewer for a couple of years after high school, so I knew how to brew coffee, but I didn’t know how to make cocktails, because I don’t drink alcohol.”

But now you do?

“No, I don’t drink at all. I’m super weak with alcohol. If I drink this much [he indi­cates a small amount] beer, it will give me a head­ache. I’ve never had any experience of going to bars. So I had to go to bartending school to learn to make alcoholic drinks, and I started working as a bartender after school. I realised that there’s no end to learning to make cocktails. Ten years ago, I would taste the cocktail to check the bal­ance. I would shake and stir and serve the cocktail, and ask, ‘How is the drink?’ because my perfect balance might not be yours. You might prefer something more sour, or sweeter, or more spirit-forward. I have to ask for each drink. I’m doing the same now, and 10 years later, I’ll still be doing the same.”

What made you decide to open your own bar?

“I was pretty happy working for my master bar­tender, Hisashi Kishi [of Star Bar Ginza]. I wasn’t going to leave, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to have to take care of me for the rest of his life. If I keep working for him, he has to take care of me. I was in my late 30s, and like it or not, it was about time to leave. I don’t have a business partner or investors. It doesn’t work in Japan, because Japanese bartenders don’t like to be told how to man the bar by non-bartenders.

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I’m the 100 per cent owner of the bar. I’m very comfortable – I don’t have to listen to anyone any more. If my bar is slow, it’s all my fault, all my respon­sibility. In five years, I will have paid back all my loans and I’m going to decrease the number of seats and make the chairs bigger and more comfortable, to make a more relaxed atmosphere.”

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H ow do you spend your time off?

“I’m a typical Japanese working bee. I don’t know how to spend my day off. I work. I don’t open the bar on Sundays and national holidays. Sunday, maybe I sleep or go for a massage, do e-mails, or I take my head bartender to supper. She is living alone, so I take her out.”

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Is the music at Bar High Five your own selection?

“When I started my own business, what kind of music I would play was one of the issues I had. As you can see by my hair, I’m pretty much all about rock ’n’ roll and the 1950s, but Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran and that sort of music in a bar – I don’t think so. My bar is not a dive bar, or a lively bar, so I wasn’t going to play rock ’n’ roll, but at the same time, I wasn’t going to play standard jazz, which most Japanese bars play. I was thinking about some­thing in between, which is swing jazz and big bands from the ’20s. It’s a bit more uptempo than standard jazz, which makes me sleepy; it’s a bit more fun.”

How did you come up with the “Ice Diamond”?

“It’s just eye candy. When you go to Japan and order whisky on the rocks, most times you get an ice ball. They believe that no edge is best for less dilution, but in five minutes, the ice ball becomes a mushroom, so it’s not true. It’s ice, it melts. Why does it have to be a ball, if it’s going to melt all the same? So when I was working at Star Bar, we thought, ice balls are boring, everybody does it. Mr Kishi was looking at an empty Old Fashioned glass. He was imagining a shape of ice, but he couldn’t make it. I just shaped what he was thinking.”

The Bar High Five pop-up at MO Bar at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental is open until October 31.