Describe your childhood. “My parents are ceramic artists. They don’t just make plates but also wall art. I grew up on a mountainside in Nara, Japan, where they have a studio. They didn’t expect me to go into ceramics; they said I should do what I like. But the environment I grew up in forced me to think about art, creativity. I like drawing and thought about going to art school. I applied, but didn’t pass the exam. These days, when I think about new drinks, I like to draw them.
“At 18, I decided to go to culinary school because I like cooking. I went to the only culinary school in Nara. Then I went to work in a restaurant but quit soon after because it was much harder work than I expected; cooking for myself was not the same as cooking in a restaurant, and there is a hierarchy in the kitchen I found hard to accept. After that I did construction work for two years.”
How did you get into bartending? “A former schoolmate had a bar and every day after work I worked there part time. That’s where I fell in love with cocktails – both drinking and making them. Then I heard about a famous bartender in Nara and I went to take a look. The bar is classic looking, the staff dress well, wearing neckties, and their hair is nicely styled. The cocktails were so good that I quit my construction job, bought nice clothes, dyed my hair – it was blond – back to black and politely approached the boss with a bow and asked if I could get a job at the bar.”
Where do you get inspiration for your cocktails? “I never learned from cocktail books – I get ideas from cookbooks and art books. I try to be curious about different things. Every day I think about making the liquid version of a dish. I imagine what it would taste like and what the drink would look like, how to turn something solid into liquid. One of my creations was an egg-shaped cocktail, which refers to how human life originated from Africa, imagining footsteps on the desert. When I think about creating drinks, it’s like cooking, where I think about the flavour, texture, taste, balance.”
Tell us about winning the World Class Bartender of the Year in 2015. “Before the competition, I practised three hours before work and three hours after, and on my day off for 12 hours. I feel as an Asian I should practise a lot! I wasn’t there to win. My objective was to do everything 100 per cent and that was satisfying. My mind was blank when they announced I won. I was more concerned about having to speak English than winning! In Japanese cocktail competitions, you have to be so quiet – not even make a sound when you put down a glass on the counter, or spoon in a glass. But with the World Class competition, you have to be very creative, and have to explain what you are doing and the idea behind your cocktail. I wanted to conquer my weakness of talking.”
What’s the story behind your Lamp Bar, in Nara? “At first I thought of doing a whisky bar, and using the word ‘whisky’ in it. But then I also like antiques and lamps. And then I found some really nice lamps and decided to name the bar after those. I opened it five years ago and then moved locations two years ago. The first one had 12 seats, the second 30 seats. It’s classic-looking, but I put art on the walls to have stories. When I create cocktails, they each have a story, reflecting the bar interior. Inside there are lots of suitcases and trunks that cover one whole wall. If you pull one of them, it opens into a secret room that’s like a speakeasy. Inside is a counter covered in Italian leather that ages, like liquor does.”
What’s the difference between bartending in Japan and internationally? “People outside of Japan expect Japanese things to be minimalist. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. When you continue doing things in a minimalist way, like typical Japanese, you don’t evolve or change.”
What do you like to drink? “Gin and tonic, margaritas … everything!”