After a nice lunch at Suzhi Mizutani in Ginza the other day, I decided to stroll around the neighborhood. It had been a while since I had paid this part of town any mind. It wasn't long before I remembered an interesting place that I was curious to see if was still around. I could not remember the exact location, but knew it was on one of Ginza's pleasant side streets. I knew it would be easy to recognize though just by a quick glance from the corner down the street, since it is such a unique looking place. After peaking down the fourth street, I rediscovered one of Tokyo's most interesting drinking spots.
"Bordeaux" (called ボルドー in Japanese) is completely covered in crawling green vines. And there seems to be a rather healthy looking tree growing right close to it as well. On the left side of the building, the green has been thoughtfully trimmed away to reveal a stone archway with a simple, heavy wooden door and a large iron knocker. What lays beyond is one of Tokyo's older Western style drinking establishments, a relic from a different age, and a former hangout for one of Japan's most well-known 20th century individuals- Isoroku Yamamoto, the former Commander in Chief of the Japanese Imperial Navy. I had visited Bordeaux many years ago to celebrate a business occasion and although it was obviously not open at lunchtime on this day, I peered in the window and remembered back to my experience here. The building is a made of stone and the cool inside resembles a classic European wine café. Opened in the second year of the Showa Era (1927), Bordeaux was probably then, as now, meant as an homage certain type of Western cafés and a retreat from Ginza's classic Japanese establishments. There are still many whiskey and wine bars around that area, but I wonder how many of them share Bordeaux's lengthy history. Certainly none of them can claim a regular former patron as historically significant as Yamamoto. Fleet admiral of the Japanese Navy, Yamamoto is infamously known in the West as the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. But many (astute?) students of history recognize him as a more complex character and a reluctant military genius, who dramatically influenced the Japanese actions in the war, while at the same time being prescient to the inevitability of defeat. Having attended Harvard and the U.S. War College in the early days of his career, perhaps Yamamoto became fond of wine or whiskey and visited Bordeaux to take in a bit of his past. Perhaps he went to read foreign newspapers. Actually, there are some that characterized him as more of a tea-tottler than a drinking man. So his tipple may have been more toward Earl Gray than Early Times. No doubt though, that he was there to take in the suspension of Orientalism. One might surmise that then, as now, the wooden bar at the back stocked wine, brandy, cognac, and whiskey. And drinks have probably always been poured out by the bowtied bartender. The ornate mirrors, picture frames, and light fixtures, as well as the furniture are quite possibly still, the original items. Some of them, a Japanese blogger or two speculate, may be older than 100 years old. Someone also noted the glassware may be vintage as well. The evening I visited, my friend and I were escorted to the second floor, which overlooks the first. Strangely perhaps, the kimono wearing matron, who took our order, brought our drinks to us and calmly sat down between us, but just off to the side of our table. We weren't really sure if she was to tend our drinks or serve as conversationalist, so we rather awkwardly talked to each other while occasionally explaining things to the woman. Despite being a bit awkward, it was a charming sort of throwback experience. It was my friend who had told me about Yamamoto's connection to the place, so he very shortly asked the woman to confirm if this was indeed true. At this point I was sitting in a very ancient but comfortable chair with my back to the wall, facing out to the rest of the second floor and with a clear view of the bar and the entrance way."Yes," she said. It was true. Yamamoto used to patronize Bordeaux. In fact she said in ultra polite Japanese while looking at me, that was where he would sit. My friend cracked some kind of joke, which she didn't really laugh at, but we appreciated the detail. That was years ago. Last night, while reading up on both Bordeaux and Yamamoto himself, I learned that his opposition to a war with America and Europe, as well as the invasion of Manchuria had made Yamamoto an assassination target of war hawks under Tojo. Perhaps, as one Japanese blogger indirectly speculated, he had chosen that spot to keep an eye on things. Luckily for me, I survived any assassination attacks that night. Bordeaux. Perhaps no sake. No shochu. But plenty of history.